It’s an unwelcome distraction for Manchester United, though one that was always likely to rear its ugly head sooner rather than later.
United and David Moyes in particular were always going to be up against it this summer to put right everything that went wrong last year and reshape an ageing and under-performing squad. Nemanja Vidic was perceived to be the only member of United’s back line with an expiring contract worth keeping, but continually the message pointed to an exit in the summer with the club and player unable to reach an agreement.
It’s worth asking whether the reported £200million in transfer funds (which may be less after the signing of Juan Mata) is enough to replace the United defence – possibly all four positions if Rafael also departs – and also address issues elsewhere in the team.
It is a bleak outlook. United are battling to secure fourth place in the Premier League as a means to make their life easier in the summer market. The promise of something positive in the way of world-class signings following the arrival of Juan Mata may be offset by the interview in which Anderson, having just departed on loan to Fiorentina, said a number of players at United were looking for a way out of the club.
Furthermore, you have a manager in Moyes whose continued reliance on excuses for his side’s poor run of form doesn’t fill many with hope that he is able to turn the ship around himself. New players will come in of course, but is he the manager to put all the new pieces of the machine into fluid and effective motion?
That’s one side of the argument. The other is that Moyes will eventually come good in this new environment and perform far better next season with a higher quality of player (you’d assume) in various areas of the pitch. It’s still Manchester United we’re talking about. The fall hasn’t been so great that we’re discussing an impossible task of trying to reclaim the mountain.
The need for a transition was evident. Vidic’s departure may in fact be a good thing. While Phil Jones and Chris Smalling aren’t currently ideal partners for Jonny Evans at centre-back, the loss of such an experienced player in Vidic could and should kick United’s relevant bodies into action early.
There is no room for failure as there was last summer. United needed a midfielder then, but could have gotten away without a Cesc Fabregas or Thiago Alcantara, as they’ve done in previous seasons under Alex Ferguson. This time, impending departures of two veteran centre-backs, who were largely reliable when their two juniors didn’t look up to the task, means United will be considerably weaker, rather than just stagnant in an area of the pitch.
Ed Woodward’s ability to get the deal done for Mata, without ever having to come in direct contact with Chelsea and thus avoiding the topic of Wayne Rooney, will give the club as a whole some encouragement going into this summer’s transfer market.
The mood at United this season is one that changes so erratically that it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what is on the horizon for the club. After signing Mata, the outlook was one of renewed hope, only to be dashed following the loss at Stoke. It could change completely again over the coming weeks.
Which is why Vidic’s departure, along with Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra, shouldn’t spell the crumbling of the castle. United very much have the chance to erase the slate and start again during the summer.