In the few weeks at the end of last season when I was part of Ryan Giggs’ coaching team at Manchester United, I was asked my opinion on whether the club should sign Cesc Fabregas or Toni Kroos this summer. I thought there was only one response to that difficult choice between two great players. I said United should sign them both.
I do not know what happened to the Kroos and Fabregas deals over the summer. The club were originally working on both of them. Perhaps the deal could not be done in the end. Either way, the situation now, with 11 days of the transfer window left, has become increasingly urgent for my former club. They have to sign some quality players.
I am scared for United. Genuinely scared that they could go into the wilderness in the same way that Liverpool did in the 1990s. I realise that it is just 15 months since United won the league for the 20th time in the club’s history. I know that it is still the most commercially successful club in the country. It has the biggest stadium in the Premier League, and the biggest match-day revenue. But ultimately all a club’s success and standing are built on the foundations of what happens on the pitch.
After the defeat to Swansea City, and only one player signed since the end of June, I feel it is time for major change. What do United need? Five players. Not five players with potential. Five experienced players... for now. Five proper players who can hit the ground running and turn the situation around. United’s forwards are as good as any team in the league. The problem is what comes behind them.
My five would be: Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira, Raphaël Varane, Angel Di Maria and Mats Hummels. It would be one very big cheque for Real Madrid, given that four of them would come from that club. It would be hard to land them all. But that is the level that United need at this stage of the transfer window. I have not seen a lot of Marcos Rojo. He may fit the bill.
Let us be clear about one thing. I am sick of having to criticise the club to which I gave my life as a footballer. But this is a United team that lost seven league games at Old Trafford last season and began on Saturday by losing at home to Swansea. United need to arrest their decline. In those years under Sir Alex Ferguson, when trophy followed trophy, this sort of mediocrity was unthinkable. But it is happening.
Looking at those five players, the obvious issue with Alonso for United fans would be his past with Liverpool. So what? He has that quality United lack. He is not the quickest but then he never was. Neither is Andrea Pirlo but he can play a bit. Alonso has a superb range of passing. He can shoot too. I noticed he signed a contract extension in January but, with Kroos as well as Luka Modric at his club, perhaps now would be the time he would consider leaving.
I like Khedira for his energy and his experience. He has won the World Cup with Germany and the Champions League with Madrid in the space of two months. This is a footballer with confidence. His passing is more limited than Alonso but he has great qualities. And it seems as if he is available.
As for Di Maria, I feel £50m is a lot but he has something that Old Trafford has lacked of late. He would bring that excitement to home games. When United play at home, they need to have players that have the pace and ability to go past opponents and lift the crowd. The club have always had them in their best years: Ryan Giggs, Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, even Carlos Tevez. Antonio Valencia provided it, certainly in his early time there.
Today you look around the squad and ask who will give United that impetus at home. Adnan Januzaj? Playing away from home is a different prospect. There is less pressure to attack. You keep the ball, quieten the home support and wait for your opportunity. At home it is a different proposition.
I like Varane, and I feel his chances might be limited again this season at Madrid. Hummels has said many times that he is committed to Borussia Dortmund, but he has the sort of experience that United need in defence. Watching them on Saturday I was struck that every time Swansea were in United’s half it looked like they could score.
My concern, as ever, is about the long-term fitness of Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling. In the 3-5-2 system, Jones and Smalling never looked solid. Jones is another one of those for whom the question of “potential” comes up. He is 22 now and has been a United player for three years. I don’t feel that he senses danger in the way that a centre-half should do. I would prefer him to play at right-back, or in midfield.
As for Chris Smalling, he just looked exposed in the 3-5-2 formation. There were times when Wilfried Bony seemed to get the better of him physically. Neither Jones nor Smalling are great talkers on the pitch. Ideally, you would have liked Tyler Blackett to take his first steps in the senior team alongside Nemanja Vidic or Rio Ferdinand, but even saying that I find myself asking, why are United’s current centre-halves not up to it?
I still have my doubts about Van Gaal’s 3-5-2 formation. I did wonder during the World Cup whether he looked at the Netherlands squad available to him and decided that his best bet was to pack the midfield, make his side as tight as possible and hope Robin van Persie or Arjen Robben could get him goals. I wouldn’t say it was exciting football. I worry that he might be taking the same approach at United.
It is not all Van Gaal’s fault. The problems have been there for a while. I suppose I should have realised that the very fact I was still playing for United at 38 years old was a sign that there was not enough pressure on us senior players from those coming into the side. It was the same last season with Ryan. At times last season he was the best player on the pitch, at the age of 40.
The sad, and worrying, aspect of it all, after watching Manchester City and Chelsea over the first three days of the season, is that United are not on that level. They may not even be on the same level as Arsenal and Liverpool, who I think are the next grade down. United must make some signings in the last two weeks of the transfer window.
The club continues to be a commercial success. But that is based, like everything else at a football club, on what happens on the pitch. That is the simple basis of any great club and United are no different. We are told that the money is there. I would say that now is the time to start spending it.
THE FIVE SCHOLES WOULD SIGN
Age 27 Club Real Madrid Country Germany
Position Midfielder Previous club Stuttgart
International caps 51 International goals 5
Career transfer fees £12m
Angel Di Maria
Age 26 Club Real Madrid Country Argentina
Position Winger Previous clubs Rosario, Benfica
International caps 52 Goals 10
Career transfer fees £27m
Age 32 Club Real Madrid Country Spain
Previous clubs Real Sociedad, Eibar, Liverpool
International caps 114 Goals 16
Career transfer fees £41m
Age 25 Club Borussia Dortmund Country Germany
Position Defender Previous club Bayern Munich
International caps 36 Goals 4
Career transfer fees £4m
Age 21 Club Real Madrid Country France
Position Defender Previous club Lens
International caps 11 Goals 0
Career transfer fees £8m
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