In completing the signing of Nemanja Matic from fellow Premier League rivals Chelsea, Jose Mourinho has captured a potential bargain.
With long range shooting capabilities and an ability to play deep, Matic boasts the type of versatility the Red Devils need, as the club prepares to embark on its latest quest to win a fourteenth Premier League title. The towering trophy that is its embodiment has now been absent from the Old Trafford trophy room for three years. Such a long absence would have been unthinkable in that halcyon period of the late 1990s to early 2000s, during which United became the first English to team to complete a cup treble. Much of the success experienced by United during that era is, of course, attributed to the now-legendary ‘Class of 92’, with Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham providing a ‘midfield engine’ that had no equal in the Premier League.
Possessing the same ‘midfield engine’ will again be a crucial element if Mourinho is to ever come anywhere near his predecessor’s monstrous haul of 38 trophies in 27 years. Sadly Mourinho’s midfield is presently in dire need of fine tuning, with a Europa League trophy win over inferior opposition merely papering over the proverbial cracks. Most notably, last summer’s marquee signing Paul Pogba has thus far failed to justify the price tag that brought him to Old Trafford. Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the latter of whom also arrived in the summer of 2016, have also failed to live up to the hype that surrounded their respective transfers. 2016/17 proved to be a frustrating season of inconsistency for both players, but they were by no means the worst of an underachieving group.
The weakest links
Two midfield players – Marouane Fellaini and Anthony Martial – are in dire danger of being forced through the Old Trafford exit door. For his part, Martial arrived from Monaco as a striker in his pomp, but he has been played out of position more recently. While that is a possible mitigating circumstance for the Frenchman, his willingness to fight for the Manchester United shirt has not been as evident as it was when he first exploded onto the scene and became the darling of Fantasy Football players across the country. A revised setup may save his future, but it very much remains in the balance.
Marouane Fellaini, made newly ugly by a ball to the general derision of the Twittersphere, remains a figure of curiosity. He stood a colossus throughout his final (2012/13) season at Everton, using his height as a lethal weapon on the end of set pieces, and showing a great ability to control the ball and settle play when Everton’s opposition was aggressing. Upon arrival at Old Trafford, and a quickfire reunion with new Manchester United manager David Moyes, his form went into a steep decline. Unable to fit into Louis van Gaal’s regime, and now apparently threatened by the arrival of Matic, the Belgian must admit that his days in the famous red, white and black are numbered unless. That is, of course, unless he rediscovers the form that once made him a fan favourite at Goodison Park.
Though Manchster United are second favourites (at 10/3) to win the title on Sun Bets football betting odds page, signing more midfielders will not necessarily improve the Red Devils ailing Premier League fortunes. A change in the playing system can often prove just as crucial as a £100m signing, and one possible option for Mourinho would be to deploy Martial alongside recent £75m acquisition Romelu Lukaku. Naturally, Pogba and Matic would then play alongside one another in the centre of the park, and if Mourinho dares to make such a bold switch, United will at least boast a physically strong core.
While this has the potential to work effectively, there is a catch. Both Martial and Lukaku only truly thrive when the ball is delivered as they face goal. Therefore, Mourinho would need to ensure the arrival of additional wingers – ones that possess the greatest accuracy money can buy. Failure to secure such talents under this new strategy would see United slip to an all-time low in the Premier League era. In light of United’s failure to lure Croatian sensation Ivan Perisic from Inter Milan, perennial ‘nuclear option’ Gareth Bale has been touted as a potential target.
Out with the old, in with the nuclear
Bale was an agent of destruction in Real Madrid’s UEFA Super Cup win over United, and while signing the Welsh wing wizard would undoubtedly end Mourinho’s summer spending, his capabilities need no introduction. Bale would be a support striker as much as a winger, and in successfully overlapping with the likes of Martial, the opposition’s right flank would surely be rendered helpless. Another winger, of nearly the same ability, would be needed if United were to be sufficiently balanced in 2017/18. Regardless of how Mourinho chooses to proceed, his next move will be a huge gamble. Yet, in football, the future belongs to the brave and the headstrong. Sir Alex Ferguson, after whom an Old Trafford stand is now named, is a living and breathing testament to that philosophy.
Tamhas Woods is a BJTC-accredited sports journalist with a Masters in Journalism from Staffordshire University.