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How Manchester United could line up in September

Richard Arnold and John Murtough in late bid to save our summer

by David O'Neill


It has been a depressing week for Manchester United fans.

A 2-1 home defeat on what was supposed to be an opening day revenge mission has undermined a largely positive preseason in which Erik ten Hag showed signs of actually getting a tune out of a much-maligned squad.

Eight first-team departures over the summer has dramatically decreased the options available to the new manager, who has seen just three replacements acquired with three weeks to go.

News of United’s interest in Marko Arnautovic – now cooled following fan uproar – shines an unflattering light on the likes of John Murtough and Richard Arnold, who must now answer for an underwhelming transfer window.

The pursuit of the Austrian international speaks to the profile of player the Red Devils are looking at from two angles. For Ten Hag, the forward must have self-belief and physicality. For those above him, they must be easily attainable. In neither case is a long-term goal, as all parties come to terms with the need to strengthen the here and now just to avoid a repeat – or worse – of the historically poor season just gone.

But necessity is the mother of invention, and under the immense pressure of a looming deadline, perhaps the club can add diamonds to the rough situation in which it now finds itself.

A rumour mill that never stops churning has gone into overdrive at Old Trafford and here there is now an opportunity give Ten Hag the weapons he needs to wage war on the English game, sheksy-voetball style.

Adrien Rabiot – a mercurial talent to say the least – looks set to be part one of what must surely be a long apology from the new hierarchy at the club. Best deployed as a defensive eight who can share the duties of a number six behind him, fans will hope that his acquisition will halt the ever-increasing dependence on the tactically and technically deficient Scott McTominay to provide physicality in midfield.

As for the aforementioned six, it really does seem to be a case of Frenkie de Jong or bust now. Fabian Ruiz, one of a rare set of players who could have been a viable alternative, looks set to join Paris Saint-Germain on a cut-price deal. Having spent 14 weeks locked in negotiations for the Dutchman, Barcelona’s dire financial situation is finally coming to a head over player registration issues. De Jong has been priority number one from the moment Ten Hag signed and any ending to this saga that does not see him in a United shirt will surely be deemed a gargantuan failure.

Two midfielders able to use a football effectively in deep positions would be a huge boost to the team, who have often struggled to progress the ball and regularly succumb to any hint of a coordinated press. But it would still not be enough.

Anthony Martial – a player everyone around the club would have been happy to let go of for seven of the last eight months – is now so important to the side that his hamstring injury has left Ten Hag with no central attacking options besides a wantaway striker who bailed on preseason. Given his injury record and priors for dips in form, it would be a matter of gross negligence should the club fail to reinforce its attack. It is because of this that the new boss pushed for the signing of Marko Arnautovic but as previously discussed, dreams must be a little bigger and thoughts more clear.

Benjamin Sesko would have sated Ten Hag’s desire for a physically imposing striker without the Arnautovic baggage, however his move from one Red Bull club to another – a move the Old Trafford hierarchy did anticipate – has ruled him out as an option.

In truth, it is this position that will punish United the most for their dithering. Along with Sesko; Darwin Nunez, Erling Haaland, Robert Lewandowski, Richarlison, Gabriel Jesus, Hugo Ekitike, Gianluca Scamacca and Karim Adeyemi are all among the forwards to have switched clubs this summer. While some of those names would have been non-starters, it only goes to show how quickly the market for centre-forwards has dried up. Sasa Kalajdzic is a name that keeps popping up, but if anyone is hoping the VfB Stuttgart man is an upgrade on Arnautovic, followers of the Austrian National Team will quickly dispel such notions.

Another name to have emerged recently is Cody Gakpo, the Eredivisie player of the season. While his height and strength have led some to speculate that he could develop into a central striker, his success has come as a left winger – one of the few areas of the pitch in which United have numbers. At this stage of his career, Gakpo can play centre forward about the same way that Marcus Rashford can. Moulding the player into a focal point up front would be a task requiring time that the club just do not have at this stage, although signing him could bring more much-needed quality to United’s wide options in the meantime.

With Ten Hag’s insistence on a physically dominant centre forward, the likes of Ligue 1 stars Jonathan David and Amine Gouiri can be ruled out, while Premier League targetmen Ivan Toney and Dominic Calvert-Lewin would likely cost significantly more than their talent would suggest, with the latter also suffering from a recurrence of a knee problem.

Serie A could provide a couple of interesting options in Tammy Abraham and Victor Osimhen, although neither forward (perhaps surprisingly, in the 6’4” Englishman’s case) posts particularly convincing aerial numbers in the division. Each lose over half their aerial duels and contest less than five such challenges per 90 minutes, as per squawka stats. Nevertheless, they each possess impressive physical attributes that could improve United’s frontline.

Tammy Abraham had a fantastic campaign under Jose Mourinho last year, becoming the first Englishman to score 17 goals in the competition. Osimhen scored three fewer, but in under two thirds of the minutes, having missed three months with a cheekbone fracture midseason. On balance, the AS Roma forward is perhaps the better of the two as an outlet for long passes.

However, given the ongoing circus surrounding Cristiano Ronaldo, any incoming centre forward would need to replace his goalscoring ability as well as providing a different option and, for that, the Nigerian is a far more direct goal threat than Abraham, often playing in the width of the six-yard box as he hunts for opportunities in the penalty area. He is also the more effective presser, contributing 14.22 pressing actions per 90 minutes, as per fbref.

Napoli reportedly value Osimhen at around £85m, making him an expensive option. But should the Red Devils lose Ronaldo, they will certainly need to spend big in replacing him, regardless of Martial’s preseason form.

Another player to have enjoyed his preseason was Diogo Dalot, but his struggles against Brighton and Hove Albion on Sunday have highlighted the lack of competition at right back. Ethan Laird is set to go on loan to continue his development via first team football, while Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s limitations on the ball have seen him linked with a move away from Old Trafford.

Given the demands Erik ten Hag places on his fullbacks to support attacks high up the pitch, even an on-form Dalot would need someone of capable technique to share in the immense physical requirements. It is another position of relative scarcity, but names have been put forward.

Denzel Dumfries is said to be available for around £33m, although he would be a physicality-first option, not too dissimilar to Wan-Bissaka in technical ability. While the back-three system at Inter Milan gives Dumfries room to contribute to attacks (he scored five goals and assisted four times in Serie A last season), his attacking numbers are somewhat inflated by his threat from set pieces. Defensively, perhaps that particular quality could be a desirable one to a side planning to field a 5’9” centre back this season.

In open play and without the protection of a third centre back, it is unclear whether Dumfries could contribute effectively to United’s play with the ball. He is in the bottom 2% of all fullbacks in Europe’s ‘Big Five’ leagues for passes attempted, has an accuracy of 74.8% and is not one to dribble past players either, completing fewer take-ons than any of United’s current fullbacks managed last season (stats vis fbref).

Ultimately, this is a position in which United may need to gamble and there is one highly promising right back who could push Dalot for his starting slot and potentially even take over before the calendar year is out.

At Olympique Lyonnaise, Malo Gusto enjoyed a breakout season last term, nailing down his position for the French giants as an 18-year-old. An enthusiastic attacking fullback, Gusto’s underlying numbers suggest a player primed for a big move in the next twelve months.

He is in the 95th percentile of all fullbacks in the ‘Big Five’ leagues for expected assists, suggesting that his tally of four in the last campaign would likely rise in a team with higher quality. He is also dependable on the ball, with an 85.8% passing accuracy despite being heavily involved in Lyon’s possessions – he attempts more than double the passes of Denzel Dumfries per 90 minutes, for reference.

Well-suited to a team that wants to keep the ball, he is also determined in earning the right to play off it. 17.92 Pressures per game ranks him in the top 8% of fullbacks at the highest level. While he can be erratic in his positioning, given his age, it is an area in which he has shown improvement over the course of last season.

In years gone by, it might have been sensible to give Gusto another year at Lyon to develop as a guaranteed starter, however with a paucity of options in the squad and on the market, and the likelihood of a bidding war with European heavyweights should the club hold off, it would be far more prudent to move for the Frenchman now. Transfermarkt.com places his value at £10.8m, although Lyon would likely push for double that amount.

All told, Mr. Arnold, fixing the window will cost you around £200m to go on top of the £70m-odd that has already been spent. Get to it then! Here is your reward:

With the likes of Bruno Fernandes, Luke Shaw, Raphael Varane and Marcus Rashford likely to remain important players under Ten Hag, the above XI highlights the added depth United could call upon with the new signings. It would, at the very least, give the new manager a fighting chance in the race for Champions League qualification.
 
 

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