‘Process’ is the word repeatedly used by Louis van Gaal when asked about United’s summer dealings but, with the transfer window closed, what do we now know about the ‘process’?
A good starting point is a quick check on who actually remains:
1st XI – de Gea, Darmian, Smalling, Blind, Shaw, Carrick, Schneiderlin, Depay, Herrera, Mata, Rooney
2nd XI – Romero, Valencia, Jones, Rojo, Young, Schweinsteiger, Fellaini, Pereira, Martial, Januzaj (loaned to Dortmund), Wilson
Ignoring the obvious selection arguments (de Gea or Romero / Carrick or Schweinsteiger etc.), the squad has adequate, experienced and (almost) surprising levels of cover in most positions – the likes of Young and Valencia providing both depth and versatility. There’s also a blend of youth and experience across the board.
A quality centre-back and proven striker are both areas that still need addressing to progress from being a ‘top 4’ side to one capable of challenging for the Premier League and Champions League but, with a lack of options on the market, would signing ‘available’ rather than quality players have been a good move?
Schneiderlin, Schweinsteiger, Depay and Darmian, are signings who undoubtedly strengthen the first team. In Martial the club has shown a commitment to signing the best young talent available – irrespective of cost or media reaction.
Indeed, the Martial deal suggests that money is available when required, and provides a reminder that reports and speculation around targets are likely to be some distance from reality. United are astute in keeping their transfer dealings quiet – long-term ‘press targets’ (Ramos, Pedro, Fabregas etc.) sell newspapers but never join the club, whereas the movement from Woodward is swift and decisive (with virtually no press chatter) around those who do (Schneiderlin, Schweinsteiger, Martial etc.).
The futures of various fringe players have finally been confronted and addressed to leave a settled and motivated core group. Rafael (passionate but not trusted by van Gaal), Evans (inconsistent), Nani (consistently inconsistent), Di Maria (unsettled…), Hernandez (contract expiring and untrusted by van Gaal), van Persie (injuries and in need of regular football) have all moved on – for both the good of their careers and the balance, hunger and harmony of the squad.
Those fans upset at the departures of Hernandez and Rafael would be similarly angered by them walking away at the end of their contracts in 2016. With the squad lacking a proven goalscorer, the decision to sell van Persie appears strange – but would a van Persie who’s struggled with injuries (and form) be motivated and effective from the bench? Or will time suggest that Wilson and Martial offer more throughout the season?
The de Gea saga could also yet unfold in United’s favour. With the player needing regular football ahead of Euro 2016 a new contract may provide this and secure the club a realistic fee should he still wish to leave next summer – a price Madrid would surely meet if they rate him so highly.
With the benefit of hindsight, this was a transfer window where the club couldn’t possibly match the expectations of most fans. United now have a leaner, younger and more focused squad. Long term problems have been addressed at right-back and in midfield, and there now remains a core group of experienced players complemented by talented youngsters who are either playing regularly or within touching distance of first-team football.
The respected ‘France Football’ magazine provides further reasons to be optimistic – rating Memphis as the world’s best player under 21 – whilst Martial (13th), Shaw (38th) and Januzaj (41st) also feature in their top 50. Add in the likes of Pereira, Wilson and McNair and there’s plenty to be positive about looking forward.
With the pain of wholesale changes this summer, the club should benefit from a more settled period going into 2016/17 with only one or two key additions required.
If anything, the ‘process’ looks to be a return to United’s strength as being the club that makes stars rather one that signs them.