Manchester United have identified John Stones as their priority summer transfer target, with the club prepared to break the world-record fee for a defender in order to sign the Everton and England centre-half.
Despite their Champions League exit on Tuesday after defeat against Wolfsburg, United have already drawn up their post-season recruitment plans and there is a determination to fend off anticipated interest from Chelsea in order to sign Stones, whose progress this season is likely to see any fee rise beyond £50m should Everton finally agree to sell the 21-year-old.
Chelsea endured a frustrating two-month pursuit of Stones last summer, with Everton rejecting four bids for the player – the final one from Chelsea being £38m, which was dismissed. In an effort to force a move to Stamford Bridge, Stones submitted a transfer request during the final week of August but again Everton held firm.
Chelsea are expected to renew their interest in Stones at the end of the season, but with the faltering champions facing a battle to claim a top-four finish, United believe they will have the edge over the London club if they are forced to engage in a bidding war.
Having invested over £300m in new players since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson in May 2013, United accept that their squad remains short on the quality required to restore the club to its previous position of domestic dominance.
United have strategically recruited emerging talent in the shape of Luke Shaw (20), Memphis Depay (21) and Anthony Martial (20) in order to build for the future and, with Stones regarded as the most exciting English defender of his generation, he is seen by manager Louis van Gaal and the scouting team as a player who could form a long-term central partnership with Chris Smalling and offer a decade of service in a similar manner to Rio Ferdinand.
United broke the world record fee for a defender when paying £29.1m to sign Ferdinand from Leeds in 2002 and there would be little reluctance at the club to pay over the £42m – the current highest figure – which Manchester City paid Porto for Eliaquim Mangala in June 2014.
There is an acceptance within the United hierarchy that persuading Everton to sell will prove difficult, having failed to sign full-back Leighton Baines from Goodison two years ago before ultimately completing a £27.5m deal for Marouane Fellaini – £4m more than the Belgian midfielder’s initial release clause at the Merseyside club.
United also understand that, with all Premier League clubs bolstered by the huge financial rewards of the latest broadcasting deal, outfits previously vulnerable to raids from the Champions League competitors are now more capable of resisting big offers for their players. But with Stones yet to negotiate a new contract at Everton to replace his current deal, which has three years left to run, United believe that the former Barnsley youngster can be bought next summer.
While Stones will be pursued at the end of the season, United are considering a move next month in order to sign an experienced left-back following the loss of defender Marcos Rojo with a dislocated shoulder. With Shaw expected to miss the rest of the season with a broken leg, Rojo’s injury setback has forced Van Gaal to deploy Daley Blind and teenage defender Cameron Borthwick-Jackson at left-back to plug the gap.