Manchester United did not sign the new defender that they wanted in the summer transfer window but where does that leave their title chances? It has implications throughout the team, writes Adam Bate.
Was it to be Tottenham’s Toby Alderweireld or Leicester’s Harry Maguire? Atletico Madrid’s Diego Godin, Bayern Munich’s Jerome Boateng or Barcelona’s Yerry Mina? They are five men who range in age, style and nationality but ones who share at least two things in common – they are all defenders and not one of them plays for Manchester United.
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August 10, 2018, 7:00pm
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The forlorn pursuit of a centre-back dominated the club’s summer and as Jose Mourinho’s mood in press conferences became increasingly disillusioned there was a palpable sense that supporters were not the only ones frustrated by Ed Woodward’s transfer work. But it is gone now. Attention must switch to the first game of the season against Leicester. Mourinho the manoeuvrer must make way for Mourinho the coach.
That may be no bad thing. After all, he has more than a little pedigree in that regard. This is a man who has won eight league titles around Europe and a couple of Champions League trophies, usually armed with far more modest resources than he has at his disposal at Old Trafford.
Perhaps that is why it is so surprising that he has placed such an emphasis on the need for more signings. Of course, Manchester City have invested vast sums. But what is striking is that Mourinho, who referenced those eight titles once more this week, believes that he is already working wonders just to ensure this group of players are closest to catching City.
1:07 Paul Scholes says that United will not catch City this season
“It is difficult for me to believe that we finished second, because you are capable of making people finish second look like they were relegated and you’re capable of making people who win nothing and finish below us look like serial winners. I keep saying, thinking and feeling that the second position last season was one of my biggest achievements in the game.”
Ignoring the now customary dig at his rivals, the more interesting message here is that Mourinho appears convinced that he is coaxing the most that he can from this squad. That helps to explain why he was so determined to add greater quality. What is interesting is that he believes that the acquisition of a centre-back is so pivotal to the team’s progress.
Last season, United conceded only 28 Premier League goals – one more than Manchester City but fewer than anyone else. They also conceded only 29 goals in the previous campaign – meaning that since Mourinho arrived at the club, United have by far the best defensive record of any Premier League team. It is their strength. It is Mourinho’s strength.
The problem has been at the other end of the pitch. United have scored only a fraction of the goals netted in that period by each of their top-six rivals. That is seen as a Mourinho trait but he would – and does – point to the 121 goals that Real Madrid scored during the 2011/12 title-winning season as proof that he can play a more expansive game.
Chiefly, that was down to the array of attacking talent at Madrid but it was also because of the defenders in that team too. He had Sergio Ramos and Pepe as his centre-backs with Ricardo Carvalho and Rafael Varane in support. These were excellent one-on-one defenders who allowed the team to commit bodies in attack in the knowledge that they could cope.
At United, Mourinho has not felt able to open up in quite the same way and this has had ramifications throughout the team. It has discouraged him from permitting his full-backs to make raids in the opposition half. Anyone who has sat in the Sir Bobby Charlton Stand and witnessed his regular dialogue with Luke Shaw would testify to that.
It has also curtailed the freedom of United’s midfielders, most notably Paul Pogba. The Frenchman has been frustrated by the restrictions imposed upon him and the sacrifices that he has had to make when playing in a midfield two. With Pogba not encouraged to join in the attack, the service and space for the forward players has not been there either.
The quality of the back line has had implications all over the pitch.
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Alderweireld, in particular, might have changed that. He is the sort of imperious defender who enables his team to play on the front foot more easily – a defender comfortable when being dragged out into wide areas if the full-backs have been caught high up the field.
Without him, Mourinho is faced with a stark choice. He could be expansive. He could open up. He could trust a defender such as Victor Lindelof to grow into the role, risking the instability that he so fears. Or he could continue to ensure that his centre-backs are well protected, limiting the attacking invention of his team in the final third.
It was just one signing.
But the consequences of not completing it could be huge.
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