Without the addition of a top-class centre-back, it seems inevitable Manchester United will fall short in this season’s title race. Their two biggest pursuits thus far however, Borussia Dortmund skipper Mats Hummels and Real Madrid contract rebel Sergio Ramos, have both ended in rejection. The longer the summer transfer window drags on, the more it seems Louis van Gaal will have to accept a compromise.
The Red Devils boss has never openly discussed the deficiencies of his current options or allowed himself to be dragged into commenting on reported targets. In fact, he’s often argued United’s defensive record – boasting the fourth-best goals conceded column and eleven clean sheets in the Premier League last season – is a lot stronger than most give it credit for.
Yet David De Gea’s influence on those statistics – the PFA Player of the Year-nominated goalkeeper tipped to swap the Red Devils for Real Madrid before the end of the transfer window – cannot be overstated and van Gaal is yet to address the void created by one of his first acts as Old Trafford boss; releasing veteran centre-halves Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic to QPR and Inter Milan respectively.
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LVG’s desired template of centre-back, even if he’s never divulged it publicly, is no great mystery. Although one offers typically German aerial dominance and the other typically Spanish pace and flair, the majority of Hummels and Ramos’ defining characteristics overlap.
Both are considered to be amongst the world’s best in their trade and would resultantly bring that ‘wow-factor’ to United’s starting Xi, both are immensely experienced as World Cup winners who have started in Champions League finals, and both are currently captains of their respective clubs. But most importantly of all, both are ball-playing defenders with immaculate distribution and a willingness to contribute going forward, famed for their ability to drive from the back.
Indeed, nothing epitomises van Gaal’s philosophy more than a centre-half who would have been a talismanic sweeper in yesteryear – a Franz Beckenbauer or Ronald Koeman reincarnated – but Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Jonny Evans and Marcos Rojo have never possessed that natural creativity or confidence on the ball; and none can rival the level of experience on show in Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City’s backlines.
But United’s attempts to sign both have ended in failure. Not for the first time, Hummels has rejected interest from Europe’s top clubs to stay at Wesfalen, whilst Ramos’ new contract at Real Madrid suggests his month-long transfer saga – during which the Red Devils allegedly launched several bids – was unsurprisingly phony; nothing more than an effort to gain leverage for improved and extended terms at the Bernabeu.
And overall, the centre-back market isn’t exactly booming at the moment. Attacking players are dominating world football arguably more than ever, whilst those in company with Hummels and Ramos aren’t easily obtainable.
Selling Thiago Silva, for example, would have an enormously detrimental impact on PSG’s ability to attract fellow world-class players to the French capital. Juventus’ Leonardo Bonucci has just extended his Turin contract until 2020, whilst Giorgio Chiellini’s doesn’t expire for another three years. Likewise, Jerome Boateng, Mehdi Benatia, Javi Martinez and Dante all seem more than happy at Bayern Munich despite the immense competition for places.
Even the next quality bracket of centre-half have affirmed their summer fates; Benedikt Howedes will stay at Schalke, Dortmund’s Neven Subotic has signed a new deal, Atletico Madrid’s Joao Miranda has joined Inter Milan and long-term target Stefan de Vrij wants at least one more season at Lazio.
So if United are to sign a central defender this summer, Louis van Gaal will have to accept a begrudging compromise. Whilst he may be able to obtain an experienced, rugged leader or a playmaking centre-half, the chances of a signing that incorporates both are rapidly dwindling towards zero.
Four names resultantly come to mind; Zenit’s Ezequiel Garay, Valencia’s Nicolas Otamendi, Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen and Everton youngster John Stones. None are what you’d describe as truly world elite players, but Garay is a modern twist on the classically thuggish centre-half, with great aerial ability, strength and aggression, Otamendi is a phenomenal athlete who averaged 17 defensive actions per-match in La Liga last season (2.9 tackles, 3.1 interceptions, 7.3 clearances and 3.5 successful aerial duels), and in addition to already proving their worth in the Premier League, Stones and Vertonghen are both supremely gifted on the ball.
Of course, price is another factor – one which has already turned the Red Devils off Otamendi and his £35million release clause. Everton are demanding a similar fee for Stones and Tottenham are particularly famed for squeezing out every penny when selling to another Premier League club. Garay, meanwhile, only joined Zenit last summer, so they’re under no direct pressure to sell.
That doesn’t make any a particularly resounding candidate, but the situation won’t change much in a year’s time. Perhaps Hummels’ love affair with Dortmund will have lessened, perhaps Silva will decide to test himself at a higher level than Ligue 1. But neither are certain or even likely scenarios at this stage, whilst another one of van Gaal’s three chances to claim the Premier League title before his contract expires in 2016 will have passed the Dutchman by.
Sometimes, the wrong signing is better than no signing at all – and that’s the risk United will have to take this summer. Although the Red Devils will be left short of either leadership or ball-playing ability at the heart of defence, addressing one of those needs is a better option than simply standing still.