Manchester United veteran takes on new significance after summer transfer window – Richard Fay
It’s the last day of the summer transfer window and Manchester United still haven’t solved a puzzle that has been bothering them from the start.
As summer approaches, the club have identified strengthening the center-back as the top priority, even considering adding two new signings to consolidate a weakness in their squad.
Raphael Varane more than matched the bill in this regard and was quickly identified as the dream addition, although his arrival only came after the club rushed to sign long-term target Jadon Sancho.
These two, along with veteran goalkeeper Tom Heaton, turned United into serious challengers for the Premier League title, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer still wanted another major arrival in order to finish his summer spending.
After the deal for Varane, the club admitted that any further additions would have to be offset by player sales, although they would soon have to change their minds when a must-see opportunity to re-sign Cristiano Ronaldo arises.
In an ideal world, the club might well have taken advantage of their fringe players and moved forward with the next goal on their list – signing a specialist defensive midfielder – instead, it’s Ronaldo who arrived to end an amazing summer at Old Trafford.
As with the signing deal, Portuguese ace United will be on the lookout for any unexpected offers that come their way, but they are expected to be very happy with the new signings.
With the deadline to focus on selling players and sanctioning loans, United will be left with what they have in midfield until at least January, it raises serious questions about what Solskjaer is doing to do face.
Fred failed in his role as a defensive midfielder this weekend, exploited by being thrown into the deep end where his vulnerabilities were glaring. He, like Scott McTominay, works best in a two, although that likely comes at the expense of either Paul Pogba or Bruno Fernandes starting ahead of them.
Pogba and Fernandes were two of United’s best players at the start of the season and with new additions in attack they themselves are limited to playing in midfield roles instead.
This means that a star player will always have to miss a start in the months to come, whether in midfield or attacking, a happy consequence of the star-studded squad Solskjaer has assembled.
However, the Norwegian’s dream is still to play with just one starting midfielder and embrace the attacking talent that has been so avidly collected in recent years.
To achieve this, Nemanja Matic remains a key ally of Solskjaer, with the Serbian the only specialized defensive midfielder who has confidence in the anchor role. The United manager even hailed him as the best player of the preseason last week, although that wasn’t enough to earn him an appearance against Wolves this weekend.
United’s problem in the defensive midfield is that every player has obvious qualities, but is underpinned by their obvious limitations in such a role. Matic, 33, is limited by his mobility and the fact that at his age he is not expected to start two matches a week. Still, he remains the best option available in a purely defensive midfielder role.
Varane’s summer arrival should ease the pullback the Serbian has to make, but it will still be difficult to anchor an attack that has Pogba, Fernandes, Ronaldo, Sancho and Mason Greenwood in the lead.
Having been backed to bring three first-class signings into the summer transfer window, the acid test will now be for Solskjaer to find a way to get the most out of them all.
Ronaldo was too good an opportunity to pass, but in the absence of a new central midfielder, the ultimate question is how United will seek to strike the perfect balance.
By January this might just be an inevitable transfer issue, until then it might show the real value of keeping Matic around.