Manchester United are set to spend an eye-watering amount on Harry Maguire as they look to finalise their squad for the new season. Perhaps not the most inspired or imaginative signing for the record-breaking fee, Maguire will be able to slot straight in next to Victor Lindelöf at the heart of the defence. United lack leaders, will no longer have to rely on Phil Jones or Chris Smalling, and Ole Gunnar Solskjær has been backed by the board in his pursuit of the Leicester City defender. It’s positive, if all rather last minute and expensive.
United still have time for other incomings — potentially a swap deal involving Romelu Lukaku who appears primed to leave — but there’s a sense that United have gone all-in on Maguire at the expense of the rest of the squad. Why have a coherent, long-term strategy when you can slap down the best part of £100m on a familiar name to paper over the cracks? In fairness, United’s central defence is an oft-criticised area. And it’s churlish to dismiss Maguire’s worth largely on the basis that he’s English.
However, Ole Gunnar Solskjær will still have to get the best out of the current Manchester United squad. The club have somewhat snookered themselves with players on massive wages, incoherently bought in previous transfer windows going back years and managers. But some will have to go, not least in defence where United now have seven centre-backs.
New signings are no guarantee they’ll lift the club and United are capable of shattering the confidence of practically anyone they employ. Solskjær’s focus, therefore, will remain on getting the most out of an inherited pack.
David de Gea had one of his more difficult stints last season since settling into years of dependable, often outrageous, consistency once over a shaky start to his United career. The consistently chaotic defence in front of him for so many of those seasons might well have suited him; De Gea’s most comfortable stopping shots after all. De Gea, along with Maguire dominating, could give himself and his defence a break by commanding the area more and not just his goal line — especially at Old Trafford.
United are fortunate to have Sergio Romero to call upon as and when required, one of the best backup goalkeepers going. Ferguson went through a period of rotating De Gea in the earlier stages of the Spaniard’s career, and Romero is capable of more than just appearances in the cup if needed.
Partnering Lindelöf will be, reassuringly, Harry Maguire. Lindelöf is happy to play either side of the central spots so can accommodate Maguire who’ll want to take his place on the left.
It won’t happen now, but United could’ve done worse than have Lindelöf and Axel Tuanzebe as first choices, and spending the Maguire money on a midfielder and a right-winger instead. But that would require much more forethought and planning. Admittedly, it does feel good not to fret over which of Jones or Smalling is going to ruin your weekend. Tuanzebe may now go on loan.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka potentially solves another long-standing issue at right-back, providing the 21-year-old can cement his place without too much competition. Diogo Dalot appears to have moved further forward fancying himself as a right-winger or has gone off the boil entirely. Ashley Young hopefully won’t be called upon as regularly in any case.
On the other side, the rotund enigma that is Luke Shaw needs to fulfil his potential rather than, say, United cutting their losses and replacing him with the likes of Kieran Tierney. A bit too forward-thinking for United, sadly. When you’re envious of Arsenal’s recruitment strategy, you know times have changed.
Eric Bailly is out for months, quelle surprise. Being unable to listen to offers for the lunatic is even worse than Bailly being risked to play. Smalling’s absence in a couple of preseason games may point to him being sold over Jones, but Smalling is arguably the more reliable of the two — and there’s several years of evidence to go on.
Much depends here on the system Solskjær uses. But it’s remarkable that the majority of hope and progress in central midfield falls on the shoulders of Scott McTominay and not Paul Pogba. It seems a bit late in the day for Pogba to be leaving United this summer, unless United have already spent the Pogba money on Maguire. So perhaps Solskjær’s toughest task will be managing the popular wantaway Frenchman. McTominay will knuckle down regardless and is one of few whose head doesn’t drop when things get less than ideal. United are fortunate to have the Scot pushing on while they still attempt to rebuild the midfield.
Fred may surprise a few people having already been written off as a flop. Either way, it will be a make-or-break season for the Brazilian who will need either United playing three across midfield or Pogba making room for him to get games under his belt. Andreas Pereira will want more minutes after preseason but will need to justify his place in a mediocre queue if we’re to see much of him outside of the cups.
More happily, Daniel James is an astute signing — young, hungry and absolutely rapid. Exactly what United need down the left wing where James is most comfortable. In contrary to that proffered above on Tuanzebe, James is still young and raw — naturally with finishing and, at times, decision making — so may benefit from being eased in than heavily relied upon. Tahith Chong also looks most comfortable from the left but, unless Anthony Martial is earmarked up front, chances will be slim for the academy graduate.
Jesse Lingard has regressed, sadly, as the England international has been a more than useful squad player for United until recently. Nemanja Matić, however, should be used sparingly if Solskjær has progressive ideas foremost — so expect to see Matić start against Chelsea next weekend. Juan Mata still offers craft and calmness when required, but the less so the better.
Angel Gomes, meanwhile, can play in any of these positions. While that may be a hindrance when trying to nail down a spot, Gomes would be a more exciting prospect than some of his more tried and tested teammates if an opportunity arises.
Yeesh. Let’s start with Romelu Lukaku. Seems like a sound guy, will doubtless get plenty of goals again elsewhere especially in Italy. Shame it hasn’t worked out brilliantly at United. We’ll always have Paris. Time to move on. Over to you, Woodward.
I’d write Alexis Sánchez off in a heartbeat purely based on the thought of not having to wince at him attempting to simply play football. It’s incredibly depressing, never mind frustrating, to see Sánchez try to get it together. It would make more sense if Sánchez actually was wearing clown shoes standing out so badly in an already competitive field. And that’s before wages and the impact on the wage structure. Maybe, as a club, United enjoyed Robin van Persie a little too hard and this is recompense. Whatever, Sánchez isn’t going anywhere so hopefully he falls madly in love with someone over the summer, they get another dog, and that lifts the clouds. Then United sell him in January.
Marcus Rashford. Possibly now the most divisive player amongst fans, probably because United need him to lead the line and score lots of goals more than ever. United look short up front, especially without Lukaku, so help is going to be needed from either a replacement, Martial, or Mason Greenwood. Greenwood, United’s hottest youngster, is being talked up by everyone including Rashford. There will be chances for Greenwood even if Woodward manages to replace Lukaku. Solskjær’s primary concern, though, will be getting the best out of Rashford and establishing him as United’s leading striker.
Europe this season is an opportunity to blood youngsters rather than dwell on playing Thursday/Sunday — winning the Europa League wasn’t enough for José Mourinho or Maurizio Sarri, so why not. Besides, Paris showed that without their biggest star in Pogba United can still enjoy themselves.
Motivation for many United players in recent seasons, high off their own profiles, is at its peak at the start of the campaign. Beating Chelsea is a must. Lose to Chelsea and United are already fragile again heading to Wolves away before it’s even September. September there’s Leicester and Arsenal. October sees Liverpool. By Boxing Day Woodward may have seen enough, sat in the dugout ahead of Maguire steering the ship against Steve Bruce’s Newcastle United.
There’s nothing quite like new season optimism. Solskjær and his team need to hit the ground running to stand any chance together, otherwise they may even fall short of being the new Arsenal. No pressure.