We’ve now entered the month of May where United fans are used to celebrate trophies the club has won. Of course, that hasn’t been the case in these last two seasons but the signs are there that Louis van Gaal is building towards a title tilt next term. To do that, it is widely recognized that United need to strengthen the squad again this summer. I agree with that, and as this piece will discuss, there are certain player roles within van Gaal’s system that needs to be recruited or upgraded.
The players usually mentioned in the media are all well-known superstars like Gareth Bale or Edinson Cavani, or the hottest young talent around like Memphis Depay or Paul Pogba. While there is no doubt that United are prepared to spend big on big players with big names, I believe there are enough stars in the squad already and the recruitment drive this summer should focus on the qualities the players actually bring to team, rather than to improve sponsorship deals.
I’ve identified the need for a right-back, a centre-back, a centre midfielder and an attacker as my preferred positions to be strengthened, and I’ll present a few options for each position. In part 1, I take a look at the two defensive positions. As always, you’re welcome to leave your thoughts and suggestions in the commentary at the bottom of this page.
I am a big fan of Rafael, but his time at the club is surely over after not having featured in the starting eleven since January. The last games against Manchester City, Chelsea and Everton have highlighted the fact Antonio Valencia isn’t good enough to be considered first-choice right back for a club challenging for the title.
In the media, all reports indicate Nathaniel Clyne is United’s first-choice to replace the Ecuadorian in the team, but is he the right man?
Let me introduce two alternatives to the Southampton defender.
The Italian international playing his football in the beautiful city of Turin for Juventus’ little brother Torino is an excellent player who should be mentioned more in connection with the big European clubs. Darmian impressed in last summer’s World Cup where he was one of only a few Italians to leave the tournament with an enhanced reputation after a string of impressive performances down Italy’s right flank.
Darmian is very quick, solid in the air and defensively excellent. His pace and skill in defensive one-versus-one situations means he’s very rarely beaten. Attacking wise, he’s very good at beating his man and getting into good crossing positions, although his crosses can be improved. I’ve used the outstanding statistical analysis tools of Squawka and compared Darmian with both Clyne and Valencia and he outshines them both in areas such as chances created and duels won. What’s more important, he hasn’t made a single defensive error leading to a goal-scoring opportunity for the opposition this season.
The Italian is the type of player van Gaal would like as he can operate both as a full-back and a wing-back on either flank. In the last year he has, for example, shined against England both at right back and left wing-back. He would provide a defensive solidity right now lacking, and would prove a shrewd addition given his price tag would be much cheaper than Clyne’s.
It looks likely United will sign from PSV this summer, but the player talked about isn’t Santiago Arias but instead the Dutch champions attacker Memphis Depay. With United scouts sure to have watched PSV on plenty of occasions this season, then surely they have been impressed by the Colombian defender too. Arias is also quick and very aggressive and he has been a consistent performer for Philip Cocu’s side. Using Squawka again, he’s created more chances than Darmian, Clyne and Valencia. I included Chelsea’s Team of the Year right-back Branislav Ivanovic in the comparison too, and Arias scores better in duels won and interceptions than all four of them. Defensively he looks excellent and going by the stats, he’s a threat going forward too. Just like Darmian, there are no defensive errors to inform about, further underlining the defensive security the Colombian would provide.
Of course, the fact Arias is playing in a lesser league than the others and in a team that has been miles ahead of the rest domestically might help him a little here. The fact is though, Arias looks an impressive player, and at his age he can only improve.
Lots of talk this season has been of the poor choices United supposedly has at centre-back, but I have been impressed with both Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones at different times during the season. The main man in defence right now though is Chris Smalling, a player who has come on leaps and bounds since his red card in November’s derby at the Etihad. However, the defence requires a leader right now, and I’m not sure Smalling is that man yet. Jonny Evans looks likely to leave this summer after not playing a lot this season and Tyler Blackett and Paddy McNair are not ready to be first-teamers and would both benefit from a loan spell. So, yes, United need to sign a commanding presence at centre-half this summer.
Who is that then?
Mats Hummels has, as always, been heavily linked but it remains to be seen whether there is any truth to it this time or just lazy journalism. Aymeric Laporte has also been mentioned, but he plays for Athletic Club in Bilbao which would mean a long transfer process culminating in a massive transfer fee for the 21-year-old. I’ve instead looked at the following three players.
Otamendi joined Valencia last summer from FC Porto and has been a revelation in Spain and leading the revolution at the Mestalla. Valencia have been excellent defensively all season and that is mostly down to Otamendi and his partnership with Germany international Shkodran Mustafi (who once played for David Moyes at Everton).
Otamendi is not exactly a ball-playing defender, instead a proper no-nonsense centre-half who isn’t afraid to put his head in where it might hurt. This is telling in his statistics as he has more blocks and interceptions than Hummels, showing a good reading of the game. His pass completion is also higher than the World Cup winning Dortmund man, but that can be explained by Hummels taking a few more risks in his distribution from deep. Otamendi is also good in the air, which should see him fit in to the English game easily.
The price would be high, but if van Gaal is looking for a leader, he needs to look no further than Nicólas Otamendi.
The shining light in English football right now as the next big thing coming through the U21s regarding defenders. Stones has been consistent beyond his age this season as he’s stepped in and played a larger part than previous seasons. The Everton man boasts an excellent pass completion rate at 91% and was terrific in the Toffees 3-0 win over United in April. Stones is young, but he looks mature in the way he conducts himself on the pitch. He reads the game superbly, and is very good at driving the ball out of defence, something van Gaal likes his centre-backs to do. His aerial game can still improve but he wins more duels than both Otamendi and Hummels as well as making more blocks, and has no defensive errors this season in the 19 games he’s played.
I said earlier that I would like a leader to be signed, but Stones might develop in to that. He would prove a long-term signing, who would still be useful in the short-term. What might be a question mark for van Gaal, however, is the fact Stones plays on the right-side in central defence, the same as Smalling and Jones. He might be able to play on the left side, but I’m not sure he’s left foot is as good as Evans’ for example, which might provide an obstacle to a move for the ever balance-obsessed Dutch manager.
A lesser known star from Spain and La Liga, but don’t doubt the quality of this Argentine. Musacchio has been plagued by injuries this season and thus only played 14 games, but when he’s played he’s been sensational. Villarreal have impressed with their defensive resilience and Musacchio has been a major part of that. In the past he’s been linked to both Bayern München and Barcelona, but he’s remained at El Madrigal. He leads the way ahead of Hummels and Otamendi in aerial duels won, with Musacchio winning an impressive 73% of his headers. He’s also extremely quick and powerful, which makes him a monster defensively. Like Stones, he’s made no defensive errors.
The worry would be his injuries and his relative inexperience at the highest level after only playing a handful of Champions League games. He’s still young though, and given the opportunity I’m sure he would rise to the occasion and develop into a world-class defender.
My pick would be Darmian and Otamendi as I’ve been mightily impressed by Darmian and Otamendi would prove the leader in our defence. A defence with Darmian to the right, Luke Shaw to the left and Chris Smalling together with Otamendi in the middle may be good enough to win back the title next year, and would have very good back-up from Jones, Rojo, Valencia and Blind which would make us all calmer if the annual injury crisis would return next season.
This piece was written by David Selini. Follow him on twitter @DaveSelini