One gloomy October night in 2019, I stopped arguing with my noisy neighbour about the finer points of Halloween etiquette and what exactly constituted ‘loud’, long enough to glance at my TV screen, my attentions snagged by something majestic. Tottenham Hotspur were being torn apart in the Champions League, and that was always more entertaining than a good row. Wielding the knife and doing the slashing that night was a rampant attacking midfielder named Serge Gnabry.
Gnabry, I muttered to myself in a daze. Gnabry. Surely not the same one who had washed out of Arsenal and, Jesus, even West Bromwich Albion?
Yes, it was the very same. Now here he was under the lights of the Champions League, putting on a show. A masterclass. It was a horror show come early for Tottenham. He made the Spurs defenders look like a bunch of drunken schoolboys. It was one of the most virtuoso solo performances I’d seen for a while. I haven’t seen too as many as good since. Leaving my neighbours with the rudest of gestures, I went back inside, turned the music up, and watched Serge Gnabry run riot, scoring four goals in a 7-2 rout.
Arsenal and, dare I say it, Liverpool, are said to be close to bringing him back to England this summer, luring him away from Munich. Manchester United should hijack the deal and make an attempt to bring him to Old Trafford. Imagine him, now, in a Manchester United shirt, turning on the juice. Putting Gnabry out on the right would allow Jadon Sancho to own his preferred position on the left. Then we would have two roaring, snarling dive bombers bursting forward in attack, coming down either side. It would be like the old days of Beckham and Giggs or, even further back, Kanchelskis and Giggs, devastation down either flank.
On a recent episode of Q&A with MUTV, Sancho was asked which side he preferred to play on, left or right. shrewdly, he neglected to say, simply saying he didn’t care where he played, as long as he played. While that is commendable and certainly the spirit United need right now, Sancho does seem to prefer playing out on the left. Over 5,265 minutes playing for Dortmund on the right, Jadon bagged 24 goals. Compare that with the 20 goals he scored from the left during just 3099 minutes. That means that it took him, on average, 566 minutes per extra goal when switched to the right side, or, more succinctly, over six more games per goal. If given a permanent position on the left, Sancho could flourish and compliment Gnabry, whose pace and power, allied with his ability to hold up possession where needed, would give opposing defenders a number of headaches. At just 26, Gnabry is also well equipped to deal with the physicality of the Premier League. Adding him to the squad would allow promising younger players such as Anthony Elanga and Shola Shoretire valuable time to develop while learning from the two players ahead of them.
The other player United could, more realistically, sign, is Chelsea midfielder N’golo Kante. As everyone knows, United are about as strong in the middle of the park as melting ice cream. While some doubts are already being cast on Kante’s injury record, not least from his own manager, Thomas Tuchel, he would be an almost stratospheric upgrade from either Scott McTominay or Fred. Manchester United legend Roy Keane has recently expressed doubts about signing Kante, citing his consistency and recent spate of injuries.
While it is true that he may not quite be the indominable colossus he was when Leicester won their improbable title seven years ago, if United could keep him fit, he still has more than enough in the tank to boss games and control the midfield area. As Tuchel recently enthused about him;
“He is our Mo Salah, he is our [Virgil] van Dijk, he is our [Kevin] De Bruyne. He is our Neymar, he is our Kylian Mbappe; he is the guy who makes the difference.”
High praise indeed, yet any football fan worth his salt knows it to be true. Sure, he labours in the shadows, doing the dirty work fair weather fans might fail to notice. Yet, when he isn’t there to clear up, the resulting mess is immediately noticeable. Leicester never really replaced him, and nor did Chelsea during his injury ravaged season last year. When he is fully fit and focused, N’golo Kante undoubtedly belongs in that exalted company. The Frenchman is just that good. Turning 32 at the end of next season, his best years may be behind him. But if United can get one good year out of him, one good year might just be enough.
Sure, Declan Rice and Kalvin Philips may remain the gold standard in obtainable midfielders this summer but, should they prove out of reach, Kante and Gnabry represent a significant upgrade on what we have now. Think about it, a midfield consisting of Sancho, Gnabry and Kante. On its day, that would be a midfield scary enough to give any Premier League opponents nightmares.
It may be a holding pattern rather than a long-term solution, but it would eliminate the water carriers and should be good enough to elevate the Red Devils back into contention for at least the Champions League places. Who knows, maybe even bag some silverware that doesn’t come from a hotel dining room. Everyone knows we need to toughen up through the middle of the park. Hopefully these two players would add both muscle and creativity, helping United to kick on, improve, and get back to where they truly belong.