New signing Fred may well be the delicate balancing act Manchester United desperately need in midfield to truly get the best out of Paul Pogba, but if that proves to be the case it will be down to fortune far more than design.
The Red Devils’ swoop for the Brazilian midfielder, described by Tim Vickery as a ‘mini-Fernandinho‘, looks good on paper and could well turn out to be an incredibly positive signing, yet the deal highlights the most perplexing dynamic of the post-Ferguson era or more specifically the post-Gill era at Old Trafford – a completely scattergun approach to the transfer market that largely only reacts to the actions of their Premier League rivals.
That’s not to suggest there’s anything wrong with being pragmatic about the transfer market, especially amid an era in which prices have soared beyond control, but it’s a question of small doses – responding to situations here and there, pulling off the odd signing on the basis of a chain reaction. United though, seem to simply swoop for whoever’s available as long as their level of ability surpasses a certain threshold and in several instances, that availability is only because another major Premier League club has turned them down.
There’s an obvious logic to getting well-proven quality through the door. In fact, Jose Mourinho particularly appears only interested in players he considers to be very close to the finished article, who are experienced professionals and are prepared to operate as part of a team. But there’s an obvious downside too; great players still need to be put into the right team and the right context to truly show their greatness. That’s where United are really starting to fall behind their two main divisional and geographical rivals – Liverpool and Manchester City.
In fact, Manchester United have only signed Fred because City gave them a vacuum to fill – and Liverpool snapping up Fabinho, a much-speculated United target, less than a fortnight prior likely had something to do with it as well. The Citizens were hot on the Brazilian’s heels in January but eventually turned their attentions to other departments of team, particularly centre-half and the forward line resulting in their pursuits of Aymeric Laporte and Riyad Mahrez.
And in many ways, that change in tact highlights the key difference; because he so perfectly suits their style of play, City are still courting Mahrez, while longer to consider Fred’s strengths and weaknesses has lead to the conclusion that Jorginho would be a far better fit in the deep-lying role behind David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne.
United have moved to sweep up the pieces before anybody else does, and in fairness Fred – who Transfermarkt value at £28.8million – has the attributes to address a number of their problems in midfield. However, it’s becoming just too common a theme at Old Trafford. Romelu Lukaku was only signed after Chelsea had placed a bid for him, Alexis Sanchez joined because City reneged their interest due to wage demands, Zlatan Ibrahimovich was acquired because of his availability on a free transfer, and even the swoop for Pogba now feels as much a marketing exercise and intended statement of United’s ability to spend competitively as a genuine attempt to improve the quality of the team.
Once again, all of those players belong to the elite bracket and after some very questionable signings under Louis van Gaal, United desperately needed top-end talent. But how many of those aforementioned names have really solved issues within the team? Ibrahimovich was always a temporary solution, and one that despite his goals often slowed United’s attack down. Pogba’s proved a poor fit for Mourinho’s philosophy and the fractious relationship between the pair still awaits an effective compromise.
Sanchez has struggled to adapt and only added to the imbalance of a United squad that already included two talented left-sided forwards in Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford – if anything, the Chilean’s midseason arrival has created more problems than provided solutions. Lukaku – in fairness – has been the best of the bunch, adapting his game around Mourinho’s methods and providing a crucial foothold in attack.
Compare that, however, to how Liverpool have been going about their business. Jurgen Klopp has always enjoyed a natural knack for it, but he’s done an incredible job of picking the right players for his system and even being prepared to wait for them, accepting short-term losses in results, if a deal can’t be wrapped up quickly. Perhaps the best example of that is the contrasting ways Virgil van Dijk and Andrew Robertson were brought to Anfield to rebuild that shaky defence.
The Scotland international’s minuscule transfer fee raised eyebrows just as highly as the world-record sum spent on the Dutchman, while the former was snapped up midway through July and the latter’s move from Southampton was eventually delayed by an entire transfer window – yet both have since become equally integral components of this Champions League final reaching Liverpool side.
Naby Keita will arrive this summer too after his move was agreed over twelve months ago, and that’s another deal which highlights how Klopp will move heaven and earth, wait entire transfer windows or calendar years, and spend whatever sum is necessary to land the players who are perfect for his way of playing.
That reflects in Liverpool’s and to an extent Manchester City’s performances on the pitch too. They play as an incredibly cohesive, incredibly intricate unit in which all the pieces seem to slot together almost effortlessly. While that’s partly down to Klopp and Guardiola’s impact on the training pitch, it’s also down to the fact every signing is geared towards their distinct philosophies.
Manchester United, meanwhile, are far more disjointed in their play, and that’s probably because none of their pieces quite fit together. Even Pogba and Sanchez seemed to be getting in each others’ way during their early outings in the same starting XI and even Nemanja Matic, one of the most proven defensive midfielders in the business, has struggled to provide the platform the Frenchman truly needs to flourish. Although Mourinho’s pragmatic tactics take the brunt of the criticism, perhaps the real problem lays in how this team has been assembled.
And there’s a wider question here too, of whether United are behaving in the transfer market how a big club should. They have the finances and the pulling power to sign pretty much any player in the world and any player who specifically fits what Mourinho intends to achieve. Instead, they’re walking around the superstore and dragging anything they consider to be elite value into their shopping basket. It’s a missed opportunity considering the money already spent, and one that will cost them dearly in the long run.