Manchester United’s 3-2 win at Chelsea seemed to rubbish the idea that they’re a team who will always be on the back foot in big games this season. They’re lacking in notable areas of the pitch, but there’s so much firepower in the attack that it almost seems a waste not to partner it with genuine solidity throughout the team.
A big part of United’s failure to land the Premier League title last season was the holes in the team, more specifically in their own third of the pitch. But what we saw this summer is United’s ability to capture some of the biggest names in Europe, even ahead of those with greater spending power. The question should be how long can United get away with not addressing the problem areas in the squad, allowing for potential poor runs in either Europe or the Premier League and subsequently falling agonisingly short of the prize.
Alex Ferguson has a strong core of players at United, a good mix of youth and experience. But these are the players who could take United a few important steps forward and away from their closest title rivals.
Schalke defender Kyriakos Papadopoulos continues to impressive in the Bundesliga. Even at the age of 20, the Greek international has become an integral part of Schalke’s back line, regularly partnering captain Benedikt Howedes. He’s been linked with Manchester United in the past and rejected a move to Zenit last summer. But United’s injury worries at defence certainly calls for something of a fresh addition to the squad. The returning Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are undoubtedly players who will be in the United team for many years, but it doesn’t totally address the decline of Rio Ferdinand and the injury problems of Nemanja Vidic. Papadopoulos is extraordinarily strong, can be excellent in the air, and also managed a run in his national side during Euro 2012. His status in German football suggests he’s one of the rising stars on the continent, but there should be no doubt that the player is set to become one of the best defenders in Europe.
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One of the big problems areas for Manchester United has been their lack of any great protection from the midfield. Darren Fletcher has been out of the side since last November and has only recently began to feature again in Alex Ferguson’s team. But in spite of their numbers in defence—putting aside the issue of injuries—and their attacking threat going forward, United seem to be missing important pieces in the centre of midfield. Jeremy Toulalan made the move from Lyon last year to Malaga, where he quickly became one of the team’s vital cogs in their charge towards Champions League football. He’s the type of midfield general that United would do extremely well with. The Frenchman shields the defence seemingly with ease and has experience and composure in abundance. Malaga’s recent fire sale would have made a potential move much easier, but regardless of the Spanish team’s rise in recent months, Toulalan is still one of the very best in Europe at what he does and would command a lot of attention should he become available.
The links to Robert Lewandowski really aren’t going away in a hurry, despite Manchester United buying one of Europe’s finest strikers in Robin van Persie last summer. But perhaps there should be a view that van Persie is 29 and may only play at the highest level inside the length of his current contract. If United are looking to reinforce their attack, then one of the candidates to be considered should be Real Madrid’s Jese Rodriguez, a lesser known yet extremely exciting prospect in Spanish football. Alongside Gerard Deulofeu, Rodriguez is leading Spain’s youth teams to the top of the mountain in European football. He gave another good account of his abilities in last summer’s U19s tournament in Estonia, finishing as the leading scorer with five. At this stage, he appears to be the complete striker, blessed with pace and finishing ability. The comparisons in style to Cristiano Ronaldo are not totally wide of the mark, and Rodriguez is sure to blossom into one of Europe’s best forwards. Whether that happens at Real Madrid is unclear, but any club in Europe will be landing a potential phenom if they can convince Real to part company with the striker.
Porto’s James Rodriguez recently scored the only goal in a Champions League clash between his side and PSG; a stunning volley which curled into the far corner. Since arriving in Portugal, the Colombian international has impressed. And despite playing from the wide positions, Rodriguez has undoubted talent to be his team’s creative spark from the midfield. Manchester United are well stocked for numbers for the wide positions, with Shinji Kagawa and Wayne Rooney also able to play there. But there is continued rumours of a departure for Nani, and the current Porto midfielder would act as a fine replacement for the former Sporting Clube winger.
It was always necessary to reference the most obvious at some point. Marouane Fellaini’s performance at the start of the season against Manchester United was that of an unmanageable goliath, one who could be integral to United’s future success if they were to land him. Yaya Toure was Manchester City’s primary outlet when they travelled to the Bernabeu to face Real Madrid in the Champions League, and you always get the sense that United do not have a player who can take on similar responsibilities. But Fellaini would bring a great deal of versatility, although his better position is further up the pitch. He’s someone who can carry the ball and who would provide plenty from aerial threats. United are short of creative sparks, but Shinji Kagawa is capable of bringing those qualities to the club over the long term. However, they are also short of genuine powerful forces in the midfield. Someone to protect the back four, yes, but also someone who can drive into the opposition defence and cause plenty of problems. United’s loss to Everton this season was simply down to who had Fellaini in their team and who didn’t.