If you have a midfielder, you’d be best advised to keep him under lock and key for the next six weeks. Manchester United has a taste for blood, and no midfielder is safe.
While most of us were either out boozing or finally watching those documentaries in our Netflix queue, United went out and signed two of the best midfielders on the market – former Bayern Munich linchpin Bastian Schweinsteiger and Southampton’s previously Arsenal or Tottenham-bound distributor, Morgan Schneiderlin. Only a few years removed from Sir Alex Ferguson playing strikers, defenders, wingers, and literally one of the coaching staff in midfield, United is finally properly addressing what was a glaring weakness.
After being dicked around by Cesc Fàbregas two summers ago, and then forced into a last-minute desperation dash for Marouane Fellaini, United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward has seemingly learned his lesson. The deals for Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin were done in time for both to join the squad for its preseason tour of the United States. Both players will have ample time to settle before the start of the season.
United’s transfer business in the summer of 2013 was an embarrassment, and it also foreshadowed the travesty that was the David Moyes reign. The following year — with a better manager, a less green chief executive, and an apparently open checkbook — was a marked improvement. Without the sorcery of Ferguson, the relative lack of quality in the squad had been exposed, and Woodward and Louis van Gaal promptly went about throwing money at the problem.
But just because United was spending money like a drunk with a stolen credit card, it doesn’t mean that it was all necessarily part of a clear plan. Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera, while both very good signings, were merely approved by van Gaal,rather than specifically targeted. Both were deals that had begun by the previous regime, and both were tied up while van Gaal was busy dragging a bang average Netherlands team to third place in the World Cup. Marcos Rojo and Daley Blind were definitely van Gaal signings, but both were presumably assessed as part of Van Gaal’s work for the Netherlands.
The two highest profile arrivals of the summer — Ángel di María and Radamel Falcao — were both opportunistic signings. Di María was being forced out by Florentino Pérez at Real Madrid to make room for the president’s shiny new James Rodríguez-shaped plaything. He didn’t want to leave Madrid, and even so, his first choice was Paris Saint-Germain, which was at the time hamstrung by Financial Fair Play restrictions. United was able to swoop thanks to a cozy relationship with his agent, Jorge Mendes, and by being one of the clubs that could actually afford to pay what Madrid wanted. That same relationship led to the surprise loan signing of Falcao, after Monaco’s billionaire owner’s eye-wateringly expensive divorce made him lose his appetite for wasting money on a soccer club. Neither has worked out as planned. Falcao has taken his talents and his ruined knees to Stamford Bridge, and di María, potentially still PSG-bound, hasn’t given a shit since the winter.
Perhaps a combination of being burned by last year’s mix-and-match transfer strategy, coupled with a full season to have taken stock of the players at his disposal, has led to a change in van Gaal’s approach. The players identified this summer all appear to be clearly targeted with an eye to making specific improvements. United’s lack of a serious alternative to Michael Carrick has been well known for several years, as has its complete lack of steel in midfield. This weekend’s twin incomings handily solve both of those issues.
Other weaknesses have been swiftly addressed as well. Van Gaal clearly does not trust Rafael Da Silva, and Antonio Valencia is still — for all his earnest effort — a bad right back. In Matteo Darmian, United has secured an immediate upgrade that should be able to slot right into the side. In attack, United was crying out for an injection of pace and goals. New signing Memphis Depay should be expected to provide plenty of both. Meanwhile, the club’s determined pursuit of Sergio Ramos and Nicolás Otamendi show that the center of defense has been earmarked for improvement also.
For arguably the first time since 2007, United is operating sensibly in the transfer market. None of the farce of the Moyes season, and none of the questionable punts of the latter Ferguson years. Weaknesses have been identified, appropriate targets have been pursued, and so far, deals have been closed without much fuss. It is the same kind of understated competence and decisiveness that was a feature of Chelsea’s transfer activity last summer, and that didn’t work out too badly, did it?