Manchester United are the latest club to have been linked with a move for young Crystal Palace starlet Wilfried Zaha recently, but given the team’s obvious deficiencies elsewhere, would Sir Alex Ferguson be best served prioritising where he spends his money, if the club does any business at all in January?
The 3-2 win in the Manchester derby away at the Etihad Stadium was just about the deserved result for United at the weekend, having made all of the running in the first half before being pegged back in the second. Nevertheless, it just served to highlight the lack of control that the team has in the middle of the park, especially when put under pressure by top class opposition, and their team average of 88% pass accuracy which has seen them achieve 55% possession from their 16 matches so far dropped noticeably to an extremely poor 73% accuracy and just 47% of possession against their local rivals. It’s clear that the battle for progress is not being lost out wide.
Ferguson lined up his side in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Wayne Rooney supporting Robin van Persie through the middle along with Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young on the left and right, leaving Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick in midfield, where they were routinely outnumbered and played around. Carrick, like his team’s average, made just 73% of his 60 attempted passes during the match and it’s clear that they’ve forsaken any form of a possession-based game over the past year or so in favour of strengthening where the team does do well already; on the wings and up front.
The 20-year-old Crystal Palace winger has been in exceptional form for high-flying Palace this season, having made his full England debut last month and his direct approach, pace and versatility would seem to make him tailor-made for Old Trafford, but in every other sense, the move doesn’t quite add up.
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It seems that the only reason that United have been linked with a move for Zaha is because Arsenal have in the past and Wenger refused to rule out a move for him in January (also refusing to rule him in, it’s worth noting), and this all fits in rather neatly with the newspaper narrative of a ‘bidding war’, something which seems to have been completely fabricated. Chelsea will be the next club to be ‘chasing his signature’, then Liverpool will get another go, then possibly Tottenham. That’s just how it works, particularly with young English players who ply their trade in the Championship and play in a forward position.
It’s hardly as if Ferguson isn’t blessed with options up top and out wide as it is and he’s struggling to find a system which allows him to balance out his top-heavy squad. Nani has been linked with the exit door recently, with the somewhat laughable explanation behind this being that he was left off the club’s official calendar for next year, the same as Anderson, Darren Fletcher and Rio Ferdinand, but nobody is talking about them moving because of it and the club rarely lets players leave in January, especially one so useful.
That’s not to mention first-choice winger Valencia, who was rushed back from injury for the derby game and England international Young, who while a divisive figure amongst the club’s fans, is capable of playing in a number of roles and appears to be a firm Ferguson favourite just as he hits a rich vein of form. Whenever Kagawa returns from his spell on the sidelines too, he’ll most certainly be made room for, whether that means pushing him or Rooney out wide as a result remains unclear, but that’s one less space for a winger yet again, with van Persie tantamount to undroppable now.
The idea behind the move is that the two clubs apparently ‘enjoy good relations’ simply because United were interested in former Palace product and now Southampton right-back Nathaniel Clyne for a bit last season. There’s no real substance to the move at all, even by flimsy rumour mill standards.
The story has concocted this unlikely scenario whereby United will purchase Zaha for roughly £15m then immediately loan him back to Palace to aid their promotion push. Aside from deals like this rarely ever being struck, much like the famed ‘swap deals’ that practically never happen but are a weekly occurrence according to the press, just why would Palace agree to such a raw deal in the first place? They have no real pressing need to sell and they could fetch a higher price should they go up in the summer, if they want to sell at all in the summer.
No, it’s at centre-midfield and perhaps even at centre-back where Ferguson could do with a bit of tweaking and for all intents and purposes, a team that has scored 40 goals in 16 league games this season does not need yet another attacker to try and integrate.
Any central midfielder that has enjoyed a spell of good form across Europe in the past three or four years has been hailed as ‘the solution to the team’s problems’, like the proverbial missing link, which just goes to show you how clear the weakness in the side is and how continually baffled everyone else is that Ferguson hasn’t bothered to try and patch it up. This partly explains the shifting of emphasis on to a new figure every other month, with PSV’s Kevin Strootman the latest answer to an ever-evolving question.
Shipping 23 goals in those same 16 league games and going behind in 14 fixtures this term across all competitions points to three things – a soft underbelly, a porous defence and a fantastic forward line that’s covered up the main issue plenty of times.
The weaknesses of this United side are clear, and they remain a deeply flawed side, however, given the relative lack of depth and talent in terms of the competitiveness of the league this term, that might just be enough to see them over the line.
The club haven’t been afraid to dip into the transfer market in January to good effect in the past with both Evra and Vidic shining examples that you can do smart, sensible, long-term business during the window, but with concerns to Zaha, while in some ways he looks a good fit for their style of play, the club simply has far more pressing issues to address elsewhere first.