What Should Manchester United Prioritize In the Summer Transfer Window
United's squad has holes and areas that need upgrading. They need to prioritize filling the holes.
This past week nearly all the Manchester United stories to hit the internet have been focused on transfer rumors. It’s been all over twitter, several podcasts have spoken about it, major publications have put out stories, even the Athletic have been putting out stories on United’s transfer plans this summer.
I have zero idea why this is happening. I know transfer rumors will get you tons of clicks because fans are sheep and they lap it up, but it’s mid February, why this particular week and not… any other time?
I’ve heard Erling Haaland’s name come up as a potential summer target more than ever this week which is ridiculous. Haaland isn’t leaving Borussia Dortmund this summer, even if they don’t make the Champions League. He’s got a release clause that kicks in next year, that’s when Mino controls the price. That’s when he’s leaving.
The whole thing is very reactionary, and the stories themselves are catered to take advantage of the over reaction of fans. United’s defense has been poor recently? Link them to a center back! Dayot Upamecano signs for Bayern? Now you can link them to new centerbacks! Anthony Martial has another poor game? Link them to a striker!
United have a bunch of needs to fill, but like all the previous years there’s not enough money to fill all those needs at once. They have to prioritize.
So, let’s talk about what those priorities should be.
United’s squad needs this summer basically boil down to two things: There are some holes in the squad and there are some positions that need to be upgraded on.
There isn’t really a question here. Without question you focus on filling the holes first. Not only are holes in your squad problems, but they bring everyone else around them down because you have to compensate for those holes. You don’t have a right wing you need your fullback to push up higher, you need your other creative players to fill in that space, which isn’t necessarily their best attributes. If you don’t have a defensive midfielder then you need to play a bit more conservative, that takes away from your attack. You also aren’t protecting your centerbacks which will expose their weaknesses.
While many fans are focused on upgrading certain positions, they fail to see how filling the holes in the squad will ease the burden on everyone else. Add a right winger and your central players can stay central. Add a defensive midfielder and you don’t expose your centerbacks. Filling the holes allows everyone else to just focus on the things they do best.
Right now the focus is on upgrading the striker and centerback position. I’m not saying United don’t need upgrades on those positions (they do), but the players they currently have will perform better if United address the holes first. Once you have a complete team, then you can shift your focus onto upgrades.
So let’s discuss what the priorities should be.
1. Right Wing
The right wing was a position Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wanted to address last summer but we all know how that played out. Guess what? It’s still their most problem position and their biggest area of need.
Tactically, this entire season has been about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer trying to figure out how to hide the fact that he doesn’t have a right winger. He’s tried Juan Mata there, he’s tried playing two up top, he’s put Paul Pogba there, he’s moved Marcus Rashford over to the right. He’s mostly gone with Mason Greenwood out there but recently he’s gone back to Daniel James.
Each one of these plans has worked, and hasn’t worked. Mata was great against Newcastle and Everton. He was invisible against Chelsea and Istanbul. Pogba has had moments coming from the wing, but United don’t score when he’s out there. Rashford has been more productive from the right side this year than the left, but in some games he just disappears and it creates a hole on the left that Anthony Martial is very much not filling. Greenwood is getting better and has been better than his numbers suggest, but he’s not a right winger and never will be. James has been playing great recently but let’s be honest, he’s nothing more than a squad player. Do we expect his current form to continue?
They’re all makeshift solutions. They’re called makeshift because they’re not good enough to be permanent.
If United can only make one big money signing this season, Jadon Sancho has to be that guy. The 20 year old is already a bonafide superstar who is a shot and goal creating machine. That’s what United need. Someone to help ease that creative burden that’s currently placed on Bruno’s shoulders.
I wasn’t a big fan of the Edinson Cavani signing. I was ok with it because it was a very short term contract but while some fans celebrated and called for him to be the first choice striker right away, I always saw him as just an expensive (but needed) upgrade on Odion Ighalo.
Cavani’s United career has so far gone about as good as could be expected. His 0.63 goals per 90 is good. Wait, that’s actually really good, second bests in the league good, and would have been fifth best last season. If he played a full season at that pace he’d finish with 24 non-penalty goals. But he’s not going to give you that because he’s not going to be able to play a full season. He’s 34 years old, his minutes need to be managed. He’s already picked up his second muscle injury of the season.
There’s a reason United fans say the club needs to upgrade at striker (though I will say it’s funny how many of these people were also saying Cavani should be first choice when he first arrived). We’re not seeing the best version of Cavani. Despite Cavani’s good numbers, you don’t need me to tell you the Uruguayan doesn’t quite fit this United side.
Cavani is an out and out center forward. He’s at his best when he’s moving around the box getting into scoring positions. In order to succeed at that he needs to get quality service. United’s wingers - typically Rashford, Martial, and Greenwood aren’t serve it up to your number 9 creators. They’re really just wide forwards. They do have a left back that could provide Cavani with service but nothing comes from the right.
Erling Haaland needs service to. You sign him over Sancho and you’ll be left with the same problem (albeit he’ll be able to play more games). You won’t be getting the best version of Haaland.
United are at their best when their forwards are fluid and interchanging. When they have Rashford, Martial, and Greenwood any one of them could turn up anywhere. Cavani doesn’t partake in that. Rashford and Greenwood will swap sides on occasion but if it’s Cavani, Martial, and Rashford, Martial will stick to that left side and it becomes very static. That really doesn’t help United against low blocks as Cavani doesn’t contribute to the buildup play.
Sancho helps solve all those problems. He’s a creator from the right side but could move anywhere on the pitch. If he’s out there with Cavani, he could stick to that right side and be effective. If he’s out there with more fluid players, he can move around as well.
You sign Jadon Sancho and next year you’ll get a more effective Edinson Cavani. It’ll allow him to be at his best. Then after next season spend your money on Erling Haaland, when his release clause kicks in and you’re set up to allow him to be at his best as soon as he arrives.
2. Defensive Midfield
At best, Manchester United have one defensive midfielder.
Nemanja Matic fits the criteria but at this point of his career his pace can range anywhere between your nan and a tortoise. Pogba is a playmaker, Scott McTominay is a box to box shooter, Fred is a water carrier, and Donny van de Beek… well we still don’t know what he is.
Not having a defensive midfielder causes United all sorts of problems. If you don’t have that player then you need to compensate for that by playing two more box to box players. This will either take away from their attacking game, or risk the protection of your defense.
If those box to box players aren’t creative (and other than Pogba, they’re not), you can’t really attack up the middle. Everything has to go wide. You can’t go square because that will do nothing and it’s hard to get the ball to your number 10 in the middle of the pitch.
Since you don’t have creative wingers, the fullbacks need to push up to give you width, which stretches out your defense. You also will end up needing your midfielder coming over to the flank to provide an outlet.
This leaves your defense particularly exposed. You only have one midfielder (who’s not a defensive one) in the middle of the pitch. If there’s a turnover and the opponent starts to transition they have plenty of options as to how to bypass that lone midfielder. It’s very hard to defend and will often end up with the oppositions forwards getting to run at your defenders.
It also creates a redundancy in your shape. Just look at this situation United found themselves in early this year. McTominay comes over to provide support on the flank but ends up directly in front of Harry Maguire.
McTominay’s position takes Maguire out of the play. Timothy Fosu-Mensah is essentially in no mans land, and Martial doesn’t have much choice to curl a pass to Pogba, which he does poorly.
As a result, when United turn the ball over McTominay isn’t in position to snuff out the attack and Palace’s most dangerous player is running at your slow centerbacks. You’re putting the CBs in a position to fail.
A good defensive midfielder would take up a better position to be able to delay this transition while the rest of his team tracks back. If he can’t do that, then the best holding midfielders will get a little more cynical. They’ll foul you.
Sure tactical fouls are supposed to be yellow cards but the best midfielders manage to commit them without getting booked. Just look at what two of the best - Fernandinho and Fabinho - have in common. They commit a ton of fouls, with the exceptions being the seasons where they’ve had to play at center back.
In a related story, their teams don’t let teams run at their centerbacks in transition.
It’s a cynical part of the game but United’s midfielders are just not good at it. McTominay could have committed a foul in the clip above, Fred could have prevented this shot. Neither one did, leaving your slow centerbacks out to dry.
Playing with an actual defensive midfielder solves a lot of these problems. First and foremost it allows you to play a more attacking minded midfielder next to him in the double pivot. A double pivot doesn’t necessarily have to be defensive. Ilkay Gundogan plays there for City and he’s been turning up in the box and scoring goals all season.
If you have that more creative player, a defensive midfielder will give him space to operate more centrally in buildup. Matic excels at either splitting the centerbacks, or dropping back to left center back. That allows the other midfielder space in the middle, which gives your team far more options as to where the ball could go.
It also allows your fullbacks to push up the pitch and give you that width while still staying covered defensively. If you do lose the ball you’re still pretty well covered to defend the transitions.
Go back to the situation with McTominay from earlier. If the Scot were to simply take up a more central position in line with Maguire, it opens up a lot more options. Lindelof (not pictured) could move more towards the right allowing Fosu Menash to push up and become a cross field option. Maguire becomes the outlet and the safe pass. From there he can either switch it to Fosu-Mensah, play in Pogba, play it to Rashford, or do a bunch of things. And United are well covered (with more pace) for a transition.
It’s not a coincidence that when United had a defensive midfielder last season, they not only played their best football of the season but didn’t concede goals. Yes I know they didn’t have the toughest schedule during project restart but those were all teams that they struggled to beat in the first half of the season, and they’re the same types of teams that United have failed to keep clean sheets against this season.
United don’t need a defensive midfielder with the pace of Fred. He just needs to be a bit faster than Matic was last season (and be that fast every game).
These two holes have been the root of all United’s problems this season. The lack of width means the fullbacks have to push up. That forces the midfielders to cover for them, stretching out the protection for the centerbacks. Those midfielders tend to be over eager to dive into challenges, which when not successful just leaves their teammates out to dry even more.
The lack of ball progression from midfield forces the centerbacks to take on more of that burden, giving them far more responsibilities than most teams give, which puts them into much more difficult situations.
To compensate for this, against the big teams United have been very conservative, not having their fullbacks push up high. Without having to cover the fullbacks the midfielders can stay compact in the middle and protect the centerbacks. As a result United kept clean sheets, but lost all creativity and played out a bunch of 0-0 draws.
Each one of United’s problems this season has been the result of having to do something to compensate for one of the holes United have.
Finally. Remember the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer plan was for a three year rebuild. Next year is year three. The year they need to actually be competing for the Premier League title. Solskjaer had a three year plan of what areas United would address and when. To deviate from that plan - when there are still holes - just to upgrade in a different area would only set you back a year. It’s way too overreactive and would only give off the impression that you don’t actually have a plan.
You can’t compete for the title with holes in your squad that you’re constantly trying to hide. You also can’t rely on a couple of teenagers suddenly playing at superstar levels over the course of a whole season.
Upgrading on certain positions without addressing the actual problems won’t do anything. It’s just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Fill the holes in your squad and you’ll suddenly see how many of the other problems quickly disappear.
This summer address those needs first and then you can use whatever money is left over to either grab some depth or upgrade* some other positions.
*Unless Pogba leaves. Then that creates another hole in the squad and becomes a priority that needs to be filled.