With three weeks of the window left to go, Manchester United certainly aren’t finished in the transfer market just yet.
Having allegedly already agreed a fee, it’s a case of when rather than if the Red Devils get their deal over the line for Barcelona winger Pedro, as they seek to replace now-PSG star Angel Di Maria.
But the two biggest gaps in United’s squad – centre-back and centre-forward – are yet to be addressed and with every passing day it’s becoming increasingly unlikely they will.
Louis van Gaal wants the perfect centre-back; a ball-playing extraordinaire with world-class ability and the experience and leadership to orchestrate a predominantly youthful backline; but following snubs from Sergio Ramos and Mats Hummels, there simply aren’t any defenders who fit that strict criteria left on the market.
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Likewise, the pool of attainable strikers befitting the standards at Old Trafford is only getting smaller and despite the sale of Robin van Persie to Fenerbahce, reports linking Man United with the world’s best – Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema or Borussia Dortmund’s Robert Lewandowski, for example – haven’t exactly been forthcoming in recent weeks, as van Gaal continues to hype the netting prowess of the attacking options already at his disposal.
Without such additions, United’s Premier League title chances take a monumental hit. So to retain any hope of claiming the English crown this year, incredible, astronomical and career-defining campaigns are needed from two England internationals – Chris Smalling and Wayne Rooney.
Smalling is a strong athlete and a very difficult defender to play against. His lanky, awkward and bony frame, and the manner he uses it to disrupt the flow of attackers, reminds me of Arsenal icon Martin Keown. The 25 year-old’s form is on an upward curve, following some brilliant performances against Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City at the end of last season, and on Saturday he succeeded where many Premier League defences failed during the 2014/15 campaign in keeping Tottenham’s Harry Kane quiet.
But it’s not always been glowing reports for the former Fulham youngster and there are abundant limits to his game, particularly his quality on the ball and positional intelligence off it – which is why he found himself alongside the technically adept and tactically shrewd Daley Blind against Tottenham last weekend.
Whether we’re now seeing the real Smalling – the one that Sir Alex Ferguson once held under siege in the Craven Cottage car park until he agreed to sign for United – or whether he’s simply caught in a zeitgeist of good form, will come to light between now and May. On top of that, United need a leader at the back; not only through example but the ability to organise those around him; and becoming that figure will be integral to United’s title chances.
Likewise, despite Rooney’s almost unquantifiable all-round contribution to the United cause, we haven’t seen a truly world-class campaign from him since 2011/12, when the Red Devils skipper bagged 27 goals in the Premier League and 34 in all competitions. He’s spent a significant chunk of the intermittent period in midfield – at one point last season being deployed deeper than Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera – and although there’s no question of his overall ability, it remains to be seen whether Rooney can turn those predatory instincts off and on at will.
And there’s a warning from history for van Gaal; those 27 goals proved insufficient as City instead claimed their first Premier League coronation that season, and the division’s summit has only become even more competitive since, with Arsenal awakening from their decade of dormancy towards the end of last season and Chelsea revitalised by the return of Jose Mourinho.
Although firepower isn’t the be-all-and-end-all for a United side who recorded the fourth-best defensive record in the Premier League last season, the Red Devils’ goals for tally was the biggest difference between themselves and the rest of the top four; scoring nine less than Arsenal, eleven less than Chelsea and 21 less than City. Similarly, no side has claimed the English title without their top scorer netting in excess of 20 goals since 2009 – so recent history suggests Rooney will have to breach that barrier for only the third time in his career this season.
Although a twenty-goal campaign certainly isn’t beyond Rooney, it’s not guaranteed either. Likewise, Smalling must grow rather than wilt under the pressure of becoming LVG’s most consistent selection at the heart of defence. Should they rise to the challenge, United will have a better chance of winning the title than most will give them credit for come the close of the transfer window. But to actually claim it, the Red Devils will need unforgettable campaigns from both.