There is, if you're the paranoid type, something worryingly familiar about the way this transfer window is going. Bids for Sergio Ramos, bids for Bastian Schweinsteiger, bids for Thomas Müller ... are Manchester United once again chasing big exciting names from big established clubs? And will they spend time and energy doing so, only to find that everybody involved is simply delighted to have signed a new contract, would never have dreamt of leaving, is looking forward to many more years with their favourite club?
Well, possibly. But though Ramos, Schweinsteiger and Muller all play in different parts of the pitch, they all share something that United are lacking. All are mighty fine players and all would improve United, but above and beyond that all share something that all great teams have and that United are missing. Swagger might be the right word, or arrogance. Justified and obvious cockiness, perhaps. Excellence, plus the knowledge of excellence, plus the external manifestation of known excellence.
A season or so ago, Graeme Souness described Arsenal, correctly and delightfully, as "a team of sons-in-law". Or possibly "son-in-laws"; the correct grammar is, of course, whatever Graeme Souness says it is. Either way, it's hard not to worry that over the last season or so, something very similar has happened to Manchester United. Out Alex Ferguson; out went Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra; out went the team's swagger. And who came in?
Daley Blind. A nice lad. Ander Herrera. A nice lad. Juan Mata. The archetypal nice lad, all well-trimmed beard and sensitive indie music and thoughtful blogging. Perhaps a fully-fit Radamel Falcao might have had something about him, but the shambling parody that United saw could barely run, let alone strut. Marcos Rojo could have the right stuff, but needs to nail down a place in the team first. And Angel di Maria ... well, it's a shame.
There should, if all was right in the world, be two sources of this performative self-belief in the United squad. Not Marouane Fellaini; as can be seen by his last act of the season, he's a buffoon, even if he's occasionally a useful buffoon. Nor at the back; the exile of Rafael has left United with the most milquetoast clutch of defenders in living memory. But up front, surely Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie should, all being well, bring the requisite intoxicating intangible. After all, one is on the way to becoming United's record scorer, while the other basically won the 2012/13 Premier League single-footedly.
Should. Sadly, the trauma of Alex Ferguson's departure and the relentless march of time has seen Van Persie retreat back into himself. The news that United have been trying to sell Van Persie for the last six months might not true, but wouldn't be a surprise: swagger needs, above all, reliability, otherwise it's just bluster. Which brings us to Wayne Rooney, who is significantly less droppable than Van Persie but is, consequently, vastly more concerning.
It's become almost a cliche to lament Rooney's failure to become the player he could have been, but it's possible we're at the beginning of the end for the player he ended up as, wherever on the pitch that player finds himself deployed. The first touch comes and goes, the mobility is draining away, the finishing is starting to creak, and even the petulance feels flimsy and tired. Even when played as a striker — almost certainly the least worst option — he doesn't exude the cockiness that he did a few years ago, that Van Persie did a few years ago, that Ronaldo did, that Ruud van Nistelrooy did, that Eric Cantona did ...
Perhaps it's all an illusion. Like team spirit, perhaps swagger is only visible in the aftermath of victory. But it's hard not to look at this United squad and wonder just where the strut and swagger are going to come from. Not arrogant, just better, as the banner goes. At the moment, with the obvious and honourable exception of Louis van Gaal himself aside, United can't even manage arrogant.
Back to the transfer market, then. Whether Van Gaal and Ed Woodward are deliberately targeting arrogance is a mystery, but if it's a coincidence, then it's a happy one. Ramos has it; it comes from his defensive brilliance and imperious bearing. Schweinsteiger has it; he strides around midfields like he owns them. Müller has it; it comes from the almost insulting ease with which he drifts around the game, finding space, poking home goals. A skinny little oddity making strapping defenders and octopoid goalkeepers look like fools.
All are risks, obviously, and if any one of them lands in English football with a splat, then their aura won't last long. And maybe United have already helped themselves: Memphis Depay has a certain pleasing something about him. But ultimately, while it might be worrying to see United trailing their cape at some of the few players that have no real reason to want to join, it's equally exciting to think about getting some real, proper, self-projected superiority back into the team. Both arrogant and better. That's the dream. As Confucius once said, you can't make an omelette without a couple of arseholes.