Without having the ear of Jorge Mendes, it’s a little tricky to know what to make of the latest episode of the Cristiano Ronaldo show. Maybe he really does want to leave Real Madrid. Maybe he really is upset that the club haven’t been supportive enough over accusations of tax avoidance. Maybe his ego, justifiably colossal though it is, really is fragile enough to need the soothing sounds of interest from other superclubs.
Whatever the truth of the matter, we can be reasonably sure of one thing: Manchester United would be best advised to stay completely clear. In all likelihood they are simply being used to scare Real into giving Ronaldo what he wants, and it would be good for nobody’s dignity if they allowed themselves to be paraded as arm-candy to make someone else jealous.
In any case United have other, far more pressing – and dare we say realistic – transfer concerns this summer. The need for another central defender has been filled by Victor Lindelhof, but another forward or two will be required after the departure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Jose Mourinho still seems fascinated by Ivan Perisic, or some other hard-working winger to run all day for him. If only Ji-Sung Park was around, eh Jose? There is also talk that a deep-lying, passing central midfielder is on the shopping list, and it’s this that is probably the most important, as it could provide the key to United’s success in the coming season.
New signings are of course very useful and, if you listen to Mourinho at least, absolutely necessary. But the point is not just to recruit players who are better at their specific jobs than existing personnel, but also to make the most of what United already have.
Because, as frequently seems to slip the mind of Mourinho when he complains about fighting against the odds while managing the biggest club in the world, United already have some pretty decent players. And yet, for whatever reason, last season many of them didn’t seem to gel properly, resulting in some quite stultifying displays that were partly down to Mourinho’s occasional allergy to entertainment, but also because he hadn’t quite figured out the best way to fit the pieces of his very expensive jigsaw together.
The frequent target of derision from the giggling classes that still take transfer fees far too seriously, has been Paul Pogba. The Frenchman seemed to irritate a section of football fans beyond reason, not just because of a few underwhelming displays on the pitch, but because he appeared to publicly and ostentatiously enjoy himself off it. But, of course, over the season Pogba was not quite the player most imagined, occasionally going missing and not influencing games in the expected manner. Some of that was his fault, and in some games he looked like he was trying a little too hard, of being too aware of the unrealistic expectations on him and trying to meet them.
Some of it, however, was not Pogba’s fault. A lot of the time he was asked to do things that weren’t his forte; his role seemed to be inconsistent, shuffled around midfield as Mourinho tried to figure out his best system; in some games he was asked to play alongside Marouane Fellaini. But a consistent theme throughout the season was that he was often starved of service, not given the ball in a timely fashion in which he would be able to influence the game, to play those brilliantly inventive balls and to run things in midfield.
Mourinho gave an illuminating interview at the end of the season in which he essentially admitted that, in some games at least, he asked his centre-backs not to give the ball to Pogba. “I told my players that, for me, beautiful is not giving our opponents what they want,” he said, discussing his tactics for the Europa League final against Ajax. “I even joked with Smalling – ‘With your feet, we’re for sure not playing out from the back! During the initial stage of build-up we never played from our centre-backs to our midfielders.”
This was just in reference to one game, but it was repeated throughout the campaign. In games like this Pogba must essentially feed on scraps, rather than be presented with the opportunities to excel. It’s not really a surprise, therefore, that his better games were often ones in which Michael Carrick also played, a man whose primary skill is quickly, calmly and efficiently getting the ball to more attacking colleagues.
But Carrick will be 36 in July and probably only has a year left. Indeed, last season he only started 30 of United’s 64 games, and was picked alongside Pogba just 18 times. Carrick can’t be relied upon for consistency, so in order to get the most from the players already at Old Trafford, a younger version is required.
This is easier said than done. There is not a surfeit of players with Carrick’s qualities available on the market. The most obvious candidate is Marco Verratti, but United might not want to get involved in a potentially ruinously-expensive bidding war with the likes of Barcelona. Nemanja Matic has been mentioned, but a more convincing option is Eric Dier, who was linked with United in the past week. A mooted fee of £50million received some derision, but he’s young, adaptable and his smooth passing and smart use of the ball has perhaps been the most underrated aspect of Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham side. On that basis, it wouldn’t be a surprise if United paid up.
United will inevitably make some eye-catching moves in this summer’s transfer market: they usually do. But rather than a ‘statement’ purchase, perhaps their priority should be a player who would help get the best from their existing talent, and makes the rest of the team fit together. Who that will be is up to them to decide.