Reports remain conflicting – as they always do – but it appears Barcelona star Dani Alves could leave the Nou Camp in January with a number of top European clubs circling as his contract enters its final six months.
A number of Premier League sides have been linked, in fact virtually all of them; Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea have all popped up in the tabloids. Yet if there’s one club that requires his services most in England, it’s unquestionably Manchester United.
They say another man’s trash is another man’s treasure – or in footballing terms, Barcelona’s ageing relic is another team’s world-class defender – and allegedly on the market for a mere £5million, the Brazil international has all the makings of an incredibly astute signing for Louis van Gaal.
First and foremost, Manchester United’s backline desperately requires added experience, organisation and regularity. The fact Johnny Evans, at the age of 26, is now the most established and experienced defender in United’s squad tells its own story, and the issue is further exacerbated by Louis van Gaal already issuing Premier League debuts to no less than three academy centre-halves this season – Patrick McNair, Tyler Blackett and Michael Keane.
Alves is hardly what you’d describe as a natural defensive leader; converted from a winger in his junior years, it’s the Brazilian’s intrinsic contribution to Barcelona’s attack, offering width and penetration down the right flank, that earned him five spots in the illustrious ESM Team of the Year between 2007 and 2012.
Yet, overlooking the experience and defensive qualities he offers United would be naive. Alves’ CV includes two Champions Leagues and five La Liga titles with Barcelona, in addition to two Confederations Cups and 79 caps for Brazil. In short, with the exception of a World Cup, the right-back has featured in and won the most decorated competitions in world football.
Even if the South American is not the defensive orchestrator Manchester United desperately need, he’s unquestionably a step in the right direction. And 32 years of age, with his prolific pace beginning to naturally wane, Alves will be more dependent on his reading of the game, remaining organised and communicating with his team-mates, than simply his own, albeit rather impeccable, athleticism.
Secondly, he fits van Gaal’s philosophy and Manchester United’s current formation perfectly. The diamond system has proved more fruitful than the 3-5-2 LVG brought with him from the World Cup, but Alves’ pace and width from right-back would give it a whole new dimension going forward. United already possess a plethora of attacking talent, but the absence of speed and penetration in the final third and on the break, compared to prior United sides, was a notable thorn in David Moyes’ side, as well as van Gaal’s now.
Rafael has been by no means a disappointment at No.2 this season, yet the role, verging upon ‘false full-back’ territory, is undisputedly more suited to the Barcelona defender’s natural strengths. And Alves would be an ideal role model for the 24 year-old who admittedly, has stirred up questions of his long-term future at United through some inconsistent performances over the last few years. Some mentoring from Alves, even if it were only over the course of 18 months, could bring Rafael’s game to an entirely different level.
Unquestionably, Alves isn’t the great player he once was – the world-renowned full-back whose quality was only contested by Germany’s Phillip Lahm. His assists have plummeted from 11 in 2011/12 to just three last season, tackles won from 91 to 64, chances created from 54 to 38 and crossing accuracy from 29.5% to 19.4%.
But to put that into the perspective of what United currently possess, Rafael registered 17 created chances, 37 tackles won and a solitary assist last season, Phil Jones amassed 15 created chances, 44 tackles won and two assists, and Chris Smalling claimed eleven created chances, 30 successful tackles and no assists whatsoever. Even at the age of 32, Alves is of a higher company than all of them.
Alves’ potential January arrival would further add to what’s been dubbed the ‘Gaalactico’ policy too; the idea that although Manchester United may have a long way to go before re-emerging as the Premier League’s most dominant force, the club can still entertain the fans – and attract further followers world wide – by making high-end, exciting signings.
He’s certainly not a long-term solution to United’s defensive frailties, and one can convincing make the argument that if the Red Devils are now in the market for experienced defenders verging on decline, they could have kept either Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand or all three on for another few years.
But in Alves, van Gaal has the opportunity to add a whole new dimension to his forward-thinking philosophy and vital credentials to his least experienced department. His composed character too, would prove important in a relatively young dressing room that will undoubtedly suffer more highs and lows before the end of the season.
For a mere £5million – just 3% of what United spent in the summer – van Gaal can improve and strengthen his side in a multitude of manners. A shrewd signing indeed.