Erik ten Hag still has plenty of work to do retooling his Manchester United squad and, by the time March ends, a number of high profile players will find themselves with just three months remaining on their contracts, including the likes of Lionel Messi, Milan Skriniar, and Karim Benzema.
And while it is highly unlikely that Messi will be playing under the Dutchman next season, there are plenty of bargains to be had that may well improve the Red Devils’ burgeoning chances of overtaking the likes of Manchester City in the race for the top trophies.
Skriniar will probably be playing alongside the legendary Argentine next season, with his move to Paris Saint-Germain looking all but assured.
As for Benzema, there could actually be a window of possibility. After all, Man United have had success in bringing in Real Madrid superstars Raphael Varane and Casemiro in consecutive summers and may have a similar chance with the striker. Given the exorbitant fees demanded by Napoli and Tottenham Hotspur for Victor Osimhen and Harry Kane respectively, it would hardly come as a surprise should United contact the Los Blancos star’s camp – if they have not done so already. There may even be a version of events where Benzema ends up at Old Trafford for a year only to be replaced by another high profile free transfer, should Kane remain at Tottenham on his current terms.
The Midfield Need
It does appear that the centre forward position is one in which the club will look to spend serious cash, however, and as such it is in midfield where United are likely to hunt for bargains as they endeavour to give Ten Hag everything he needs to challenge for the Premier League title.
Man United signed two midfielders in the summer, having lost Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic, but it was clear before those two departed that more depth was needed. A lengthy pursuit of Frenkie de Jong may see a resumption in the summer, but given the playmaker’s recent comments, it would be far more prudent to line up a player with a similar skillset early in the window. The Barcelona star is a fairly unique player, which makes that somewhat difficult, but there are a couple of analogous talents free to negotiate a summer move on the market right now.
In Eriksen, United have an excellent passer of the ball and, up until his injury, the team had been able to create from deep with his range. But Ten Hag would certainly like to have a player in there capable of breaking through midfield and defensive lines courtesy of their dribbling ability – a progressive ball carrier.
Lessons in swift action
Daichi Kamada would have been one such talent, with the Eintracht Frankfurt midfielder comfortable in tight spaces and well able to receive the ball on the half-turn. His incisive passing and set piece delivery would have been an added bonus for games in which Eriksen were unavailable as well. Unfortunately, the Japanese maestro looks Dortmund-bound, with a reported €40m contract package having already been tabled.
Frankfurt appear to be replacing him with Olympique Lyonnaise playmaker Hassam Aouar, another player available on a free transfer in the summer. It was not so long ago that the Ligue 1 midfielder was linked with the cream of Europe’s crop, but his career has clearly stalled. This season he has managed only a handful of starts for Lyon, having fallen down the pecking order. At 24, Aouar could still return to the heights of his 2020 form, but it seems unlikely that Old Trafford would be the place to do it.
Bundesliga sides are often credited with acting decisively in their transfer strategies and both Frankfurt and Dortmund appear to be doing just that. If Man United are to benefit from the quality up for grabs on the Bosman market, they must learn to do the same.
Bosman signings do not always translate to ‘cheap deals’ and United will know that well should they approach Adrien Rabiot in the summer. The France star was subject to an approach from the Red Devils last summer, but a deal never materialised owing to disagreements with mother/agent Veronique over the financials. But with a transfer fee no longer a requirement, it could be well worth revisiting those terms, particularly given Juventus’ perilous situation. European football looks unlikely for the Turin side next season and Rabiot is sure to be moving on, even if the financially stricken side are able to manage an offer.
Rabiot has been magnificent this season, with his fantastic displays during the FIFA World Cup catching the eye. He has also been inarguably Juventus’ best player during their difficult campaign. The 27-year-old can often be found bursting through the middle of the park and has clearly done a lot of growing up over the last couple of years, becoming a real leader for club and country.
He also possesses plenty of physicality and defensive nous, meaning that a partnership of the Frenchman and Casemiro would take some getting past – something that could be very useful in matches against the European elite. Given United’s already-established interest, there are sure to be more developments surrounding the midfielder in the coming months.
A Premier League Option
Closer to home, there are a couple of other midfield options on expiring deals who are currently plying their trade in the Premier League. Ilkay Gundogan and N’Golo Kante are the highest profile among them, but neither seem a realistic prospect for an Old Trafford switch. Both players will be 32 by the end of the month, while one captains one of United’s biggest rivals and the other hasn’t played since August.
Youri Tielemans could be a realistic option, although he is far more of a passer than a ball carrier. That could make him an attractive proposition as cover for Eriksen – perhaps even a long-term replacement. He has endured a difficult couple of seasons at Leicester City, who look to be sinking under a frustrated Brendan Rodgers, but a summer move could be just what he needs.
Under Erik ten Hag, Tielemans could well flourish into an excellent deep creator on the European stage. At 25 years of age, time is certainly on the Belgian’s side. Whether he is the type of midfielder the manager wants remains to be seen, however.
United may also look to bring in another player at the back, particularly if they part ways with Harry Maguire. The club captain has struggled for gametime this season and was recently warned by Gareth Southgate that his lack of club appearances could put his inclusion in future England squads in jeopardy. Receiving a fee for Maguire and getting in a replacement on a free transfer would be a shrewd move for a club needing to raise funds to strengthen elsewhere.
There are a couple of defenders with contracts up for expiry in the summer who could be well worth a look at. There are even a couple of left footed centre backs to consider – an important factor, given that Lisandro Martinez is the only one in the current Man United squad.
23-year-old Evan Ndicka is one of the hottest properties on the market. Another Frankfurt player, he has caught the eye with his aerial ability and comfort playing out from the back. At United, he could replace Maguire’s task of dealing with crosses late on in certain matches, while also covering for Lisandro Martinez and developing as a player for the club’s future.
At 31, Inigo Martinez of Athletic Bilbao would be more of a veteran option. Having missed fourteen games due to injury this season, he may come as somewhat more of a risk, but his ability to start attacks from the back is far beyond that of Ndicka. A swansong in the Premier League could well appeal to the Basque star, even if it meant playing second fiddle to Lisandro.
Both players have been heavily linked with Barcelona, but even with all of their ‘economic levers,’ the Catalan giants cannot sign everyone. Either could be of good use to Manchester United, should some wheeling and dealing need to be done to flesh out the squad.
A more leftfield option could be to have Luke Shaw fill in more regularly in the centre back position, as he did when United’s No. 6 was away after winning the World Cup. That could leave a spot in the squad open at left back. SL Benfica’s Alejandro Grimaldo has been linked to a move to the Premier League and Old Trafford could end up being a possibility. Having provided eleven assists and four goals across all competitions this season, he boasts the kind of attacking productivity that Erik ten Hag would certainly like to see from his fullbacks.
How Man United could line up next season
By no means do we expect that all of Manchester United’s summer shopping will be done on the Bosman market, but the above does show that there are opportunities to improve the current squad right at the club’s fingertips.
A couple of shrewd signings could pave the way for bigger investments in priority positions. As discussed, the striker position is likely to be this summer’s showstopper, but even goalkeepers are edging ever closer to the €100m-mark. With tightening FFP rules and uncertainty over the outcome of United’s takeover saga, the club must be prepared to seek out ways of keeping their spending in check while improving the squad.
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