Manchester United‘s summer business continues to be a source of concern for manager Jose Mourinho and the club hierarchy, as they look to bolster a squad that finished second in the Premier League last season but a whopping 19 points behind champions Manchester City.
Among the problem areas identified has been the heart of defence. Mourinho has bought one centre-back in each summer he’s been at the club – Eric Bailly in 2016 and Victor Lindelof last year. However, there are still questions regarding both players, as well as the senior figures he inherited – Marcos Rojo, Chris Smalling, and Phil Jones.
United have thus been linked with a host of different options to reinforce the back-line, and here we run the rule over the five most prominent names in the rumour mill.
The Leicester City man is both the traditional English defender – no-nonsense, strong in the air and in the tackle – and the prototypical modern centre-back, good with the ball at his feet, a solid distributor, and a potent attacking threat, which he showed at the World Cup.
His per-game stats from the Premier League show why he’s being linked with a move to United. Last season, he won 62 per cent of his duels, best of anyone on this list. He won more tackles per 90 minutes in the league than anyone bar Yerry Mina – who only played two league games for Barcelona.
Maguire also beats out everyone (again, bar Mina in his two-game cameo) for successful take-ons (85 per cent) and his key passes per 90 statistic (0.36) is commendable as well.
Fit for United: 9/10
Alderweireld is the other defender who’s been heavily linked with United, and it’s likely that only Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy’s hardball negotiation tactics kept a move for the Belgian from being sealed before the World Cup. Like Maguire, Alderweireld is tough-nosed defender who is also comfortable joining the attack, and provides a goal threat both in the air and with a fierce shot.
He’s good on the ball – he won 83 per cent of his take-ons and had a pass accuracy of 86 per ecnt last season, and he has a penchant for playing long, raking balls over the top which players like Romelu Lukaku will love. However, he wins fewer aerial duels than anyone else on this list – a shockingly low 34 per cente last season – which, under Mourinho, will be a problem.
Fit for United: 5/10
While Bonucci was at Juventus and playing alongside Giorgio Chiellini, he seemed like the classical Italian defender. But his time at Milan revealed a flaw. He styles himself after Franz Beckenbauer, with a love for bringing the ball out and joining attacks – something he’s quite capable of. But his attacking forays left the Milan defence exposed too often for a defensive manager’s liking.
Defensively, then, Bonucci can be a weakness unless there’s cover for him. He only won 53 per cent of his aerial duels in the league last season, lower than anyone else on this list apart from Alderweireld, and his tackles won per 90 number, 0.66, is far lower than the rest.
Does his attacking ability – an 85 per cent passing accuracy, 0.5 key passes per 90 minutes, and a goals scored mark (0.07) that’s the best of this class – make up for that? In Mourinho’s book, probably not.
Fit for United: 4/10
Boateng is much like Bonucci and Alderweireld in that his reputation is based on his distribution and attacking ability as much as defending – if not more so. He’s a stylish centre-back who’s good on the ball, but can get caught out defensively.
The numbers bear that out – he had more defensive errors and errors leading to goal per 90 minutes last season than any of these five (0.07 for both), and his tackling number is lower than Maguire’s (0.99 to 1.23). He does have more key passes than anyone – 0.55 per 90 – and an 87% pass accuracy, but the defensive numbers will give Mourinho pause.
Fit for United: 5/10
Being a Barcelona target says much about Yerry Mina – they thought he’d fit the mould as a passing centre-back who could challenge Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti. Along with that, he also fits the traditional stylings of a defender, especially for England – almost nothing gets past him in the air, and he’s a solid tackler.
Statistically, Mina’s small sample size goes against him – he only played two league games for Barcelona and even his World Cup numbers are based on four appearances. The most remarkable aspect of those four appearances was that he scored three goals, while his tackles per game (1.3), interceptions (1) and passing accuracy (90 per cent) compare favourably to everyone else.
The question is whether Mourinho thinks it’s worth taking a calculated gamble On Mina, when his defence is seemingly crying out for experience and a leader.
Fit for United: 7/10
United midfielder Pogba excelled as France triumphed in Russia this summer, the 25-year-old even capping a fine series of performances with a memorable goal against Croatia in the final.
That came after an inconsistent season with United which at times saw the Frenchman left out of Mourinho’s side and even led to speculation over his future.
Mourinho feels the closed-off nature of tournament football clearly suits Pogba but he hopes the player, an £89million signing from Juventus two years ago, can carry some of its intensity into the club season.
Mourinho told ESPN: “I don’t think it’s about us getting the best out of him, it’s about him giving the best he has to give.
“I think the World Cup is the perfect habitat for a player like him to give (their) best. Why? Because it’s closed for a month, where he can only think about football. Where he’s with his team on the training camp, completely isolated from the external world, where they focus just on football, where the dimensions of the game can only motivate.
“During a season, you can have a big match then a smaller match, then one even smaller, then you can lose your focus, you can lose your concentration, then comes a big match again.”
Still, they’re expected to mount a better challenge for top honours in the new season. Yet their summer has thrown up more questions than answers regarding how they’ll go about doing that.
Here’s a look at five issues facing United manager Jose Mourinho heading into the new season.
Underwhelming transfer window
United’s summer began with the signing of Fred, which came with requisite hype – he was the second player, after Alexis Sanchez, to be prised away from the clutches of fellow admirers Manchester City.
However, after the Brazilian failed to play a single minute at the World Cup, the aura around his signing has dissipated – even if that was partly injury-enforced.
Couple that with United’s other transfer business, the addition of 19-year-old right-back Diogo Dalot and Lee Grant as third-choice goalkeeper, and it’s safe to say United fans are underwhelmed by their club’s summer business.
But the news that really sunk United fans was that of Marouane Fellaini signing a contract extension. In one stroke, Fellaini’s decision to stay symbolised the continuation of the functional, uninspiring nature of United’s play under Mourinho, and allowed the manager to conclude his work was done in terms of bolstering his midfield. No Sergej Milinkovic-Savic arrival, or that of anyone else, looks likely now.
Fred: Of the 34 players to have attempted 25+ dribbles in the Champions League this season, Fred has the best dribble success rate (88.5%)— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) May 24, 2018
For more player stats -- https://t.co/xwZi8mgZ8I pic.twitter.com/bSImm40S4i
Stick or twist with Martial?
The Anthony Martial situation is resulting in two stand-offs. One is between club and player, with Martial adamant about wanting to leave and thus seemingly irked that United can trigger a one-year extension to his contract, which otherwise expires after this season. For United, doing so is a no-brainer – the extension gives them more leverage in transfer negotiations.
But a second stand-off is emerging within the club. Mourinho is apparently ready to let Martial go, as long as it’s not to a Premier League rival. CEO Ed Woodward, on the other hand, doesn’t want to sell the youngster at all. Watching the Frenchman flourish elsewhere would be a huge regret for United.
Meanwhile, Martial will be the team’s starting striker on opening day, with Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford still on post-World Cup holidays. The club are hoping good form and an extended run in the first XI would convince both player and manager that Martial is a part of United’s future.
Anthony Martial scored a goal once every 175.67 minutes in the Premier League in 2017/18; a better rate than any other Man Utd teammate to play at least 700 minutes.— Squawka Football (@Squawka) June 13, 2018
26.67% conversion rate. 🎯 pic.twitter.com/AlxPW5W0Nd
An un-Mourinho defence
United finished with the league’s second-best defensive record, conceding only 28 goals. Yet the defence still seems an area of concern.
Phil Jones had pundits purring at the beginning of last season, as he was hailed as the best English defender around. He ended it by floundering against Eden Hazard in the FA Cup final.
Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo are inconsistent and mistake-prone, Eric Bailly was strangely discarded in the second half of the campaign and Victor Lindelof’s maiden season at United was spent acclimatising to England.
Mourinho prioritises a solid defence above all else, so expect the Red Devils’ rearguard to be upgraded in the coming weeks, with a big-money move for Leicester City’s England hero Harry Maguire being considered.
Most dribbles completed of defenders in the last two Premier League campaigns:— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) July 22, 2018
🥇 Harry Maguire -- 80
🥈 Hector Bellerin -- 70
🥉 Antonio Valencia -- 66 pic.twitter.com/u1L5IIE9DD
Style of play
Pre-season is no indicator of a club’s performance, especially with World Cup exertions depleting squads of many first-choice players. It’s no surprise that United haven’t looked at their best without Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Lukaku, and Rashford.
The question is whether they will ever be that side under Mourinho.
United showed flashes of being a juggernaut last season, especially at the beginning when they were nearly matching City goal for goal. As their form began to dip, however, Mourinho’s returned, with the side playing less and less exciting football.
Second place was a worthy achievement but it was never going to satisfy United fans who could see their neighbours conquer the Premier League with a side playing thrilling football.
Mourinho may never match Pep Guardiola in that regard, and if he wins, it won’t matter. But it’ll be heartening for United fans to see the handbrake lifted against the lesser lights of the league, at the very least.
The biggest question on any United fan’s mind at the moment is whether this side is good enough to reign supreme over City and everyone else.
Guardiola’s side are seemingly poised to continue their dominance, Liverpool look a more threatening side than last year, and Tottenham and new-look Chelsea and Arsenal sides should be expected to offer more of a challenge.
At the moment, United seem to be relying on internal development to stave off everyone else, hoping that a newly-crowned world champion Paul Pogba will be an improvement on last year’s version, Sanchez will be fresh after his first full summer in five years, and Lingard and Rashford will have developed even further after their own thrilling World Cup run.
Will that be enough?