MARTIN SAMUEL: Manchester United have spent £300m chasing their own Virgil Van Dijk. Harry Maguire was meant to be their rock but having shipped more than Fulham this season, Solskjaer cannot keep chucking away money to solve crisis
- Manchester United’s season is already at a crossroads after just three games
- United have tried to get their own Virgil Van Dijk in club captain Harry Maguire
- Gareth Southgate will also struggle to name an England team without a bad boy
- Tammy Abraham’s penalty antics will annoy Chelsea manager Frank Lampard
The problem for Manchester United is that they have already bought their Virgil van Dijk. Three of them, in fact.
This window’s transfer business at Old Trafford is again considered underwhelming, with a desperate supermarket sweep on the final day — but if United’s defence remains a weak point, surely the biggest problem is the investment that has gone into that area already?
Close to £300million has brought scant improvement, so what to do? Continue the expensive pursuit of their own Van Dijk until one clicks? Liverpool got it spectacularly right, while United have tried just as hard, only to be hundreds of millions down.
Manchester United tried to get their own Virgil Van Dijk in captain Harry Maguire (pictured)
Eric Bailly, he was Virgil No 1. The first signing of the Jose Mourinho era, 22, and at £30m in 2016, not cheap. Bailly was already a winner of the Africa Cup of Nations with Ivory Coast. He was going to be the rock United needed, beside the smart defensive brain of Daley Blind.
Next came Victor Lindelof, a year later. Another 22-year-old, and the first signing that summer. Lindelof cost in the region of £31m, plus £10m in add-ons, and was intended to be a central defender in the Rio Ferdinand mould, technically proficient, bringing the ball out, feeding midfield.
Ideally, Bailly and Lindelof would complement each other, but initially Lindelof struggled to get into the side.
Leading to Van Dijk, mark III. Harry Maguire. By now, Liverpool had set the going rate for a top-class, game-changing centre half at £75m, so Manchester United were forced to top that by Leicester.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer paid £80m in the hope Maguire would do for his back line what van Dijk did for Liverpool’s. He wanted a leader, a cool head, a match-winner, the foundation of the team.
Phil Jones was going to be that once, too, and Maguire at times looks to be treading a similar path from colossus to klutz.
Eric Bailly (right) and Victor Lindelof (left) have also been brought in as defensive saviours
Losing 6-1 to Tottenham, Manchester United’s central defensive pairing of Maguire and Bailly cost £110m.
The club have also played their wild card, their joker. That was Paul Pogba, bought in 2016, to be their transformative presence, the driving force in midfield. Pogba cost a world-record fee, £89m, precisely because he was considered the final acquisition that would make Manchester United title-contenders, driven by Mourinho.
Just as Van Dijk and Alisson were viewed as players who would complete Liverpool, so Pogba was the crowning glory of Mourinho’s first transfer window. The problem now, is Manchester United have played all their trumps without winning enough tricks.
The players who were supposed to have an impact, to shore up frail areas, to kick-start momentum, have not done so. The argument that Manchester United need a Van Dijk ignores one simple fact: they’ve paid for one many times over now.
It is easy to blame Ed Woodward’s naivety while ignoring the fact that, across three years, £140m has been spent on central defenders alone.
Since Sir Alex Ferguson departed, Manchester United have invested £279.5m on defence to end up conceding 11 goals in three league games this season, a poorer aggregate than Fulham.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (left) has tried to make Maguire (right) the leader and rock at the back
Yet still everyone implored the club, and Woodward, to go again. Indeed, there is outrage that they have not, with only Alex Telles, a left back from Porto, adding to defence.
Yet what are United to do? Keep writing them off? Would better recruitment come with a sporting director? Depends. It hasn’t exactly helped Manchester City, who have invested £400m on defence under Pep Guardiola, without finding another Vincent Kompany.
One imagines Mourinho and Solskjaer got to pick their defensive targets, too. Solskjaer must have supported the idea that Maguire was the answer.
What few consider now is United’s financial outlook. Despite their status as the richest club in the country, United have lost £140m since the Covid-19 lockdown. So it is not as easy as just chucking another £80m defender on the fire.
Players of Van Dijk’s quality are not in great supply. What if the next one does not bear comparison either? For United, where does this end?
GARETH WILL STRUGGLE TO NAME TEAM WITHOUT A BAD BOY
For an England manager, there is one problem with enforcing a moral code. Players. They’ll screw you over every time.
So having left Mason Greenwood and Phil Foden out of his squad, Gareth Southgate is now having to balance their misdemeanours with those of Tammy Abraham, Ben Chilwell and Jadon Sancho.
Greenwood and Foden were out of line while on England duty, so that is one difference, but in terms of risks and foolishness during a pandemic, the cases are quite similar.
Foden and Greenwood invited outsiders into England’s bubble; Abraham, Chilwell and Sancho attended a party which flew in the face of current Covid guidelines less than 48 hours before scheduled to join up.
Tammy Abraham (left), Jadon Sancho (right) and Ben Chilwell broke lockdown rules this weekend by attending a party and breaching the ‘Rule of Six’ in place from the UK government
Neither is the crime of the century but if three remain while two stayed barred it looks more like expediency than ethics.
It was ever thus. In 2003, Alan Smith was stood down by the Football Association pending a police investigation into an incident at a match between Leeds and Manchester United. It immediately transpired that James Beattie, his replacement, was banned for drink-driving; and that Nicky Butt had played three matches under the same regime — that of former chairman Mark Palios — while awaiting news of charges over a fight outside a nightclub.
So good luck to Southgate in negotiating this moral maze. He was planning a squad meeting to reinforce the regime’s principles this week.
Might be best to do a head count first. He still needs 11 for Wales on Thursday.
NOW DOM HAS HUNGER OF A LION
In 2019, reflecting on a season that had yielded six goals in 36 Premier League matches, Dominic Calvert-Lewin struck a note of self-pity.
‘There is always going to be something,’ he said. ‘If I get 15 goals, people will want 20. If I get 20, they will want 25.’
It is to be hoped he now appreciates the less daunting reality. Far from being met with increasingly unattainable expectations, Calvert-Lewin will now know what nine goals in six matches brings a young striker: consistent praise and a place in the England squad.
He will likely make his debut against Wales on Thursday. Never settle.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s form for Everton has elevated him to the England senior squad
‘LATIN’ JIBE WRONG, BUT MINDSET TO WIN AT ALL COSTS IS LOST IN TRANSLATION
Luis Suarez has a trophy of a goalkeeper making a save, given to him by Uruguayan football supporters. On the plinth is one word: ‘Gracias’.
So while Graeme Souness was wrong to state Erik Lamela’s cheating to get Anthony Martial sent off was ‘Latin’ behaviour, there is a wider point to be made.
In Suarez’s autobiography, he admits cheating and justifies it by explaining that, in Uruguay, anything a player can do to advantage his team is acceptable, whether inside or outside the rules.
The symbolic trophy was awarded for punching a certain goal for Ghana off the line in the final minutes of a World Cup quarter-final. Ghana missed the resulting penalty, Uruguay subsequently progressed. Africa is still without a World Cup semi-finalist as a result.
Graeme Souness was wrong to call out Erik Lamela’s behaviour as ‘Latin’ for his part in the sending off of Manchester United striker Anthony Martial in Sunday’s 6-1 demolition
But, even so, the verdict from home: thank you. Paolo Montero, the Uruguayan defender sent off 21 times in his career including a record 16 occasions with Atalanta and Juventus in Serie A, echoed these thoughts. Football, he said, was for ‘cunning people’.
‘I don’t think it is true to say that you are disloyal to football if you feign an injury, or tug a shirt or do something else to win the game,’ he said. ‘Winning games is the purpose and cheating the referee is not a sin if it helps your team win.’
This is not to say there aren’t English cheats. Just that, in this country, they are not celebrated for their actions. Jamie Vardy’s falls are questioned every week, and both Dele Alli and Ashley Young earned unenvied reputations after being judged guilty of simulation.
Had Souness said Lamela comes from a football culture that sees no wrong in gaining advantage by any means, it would have been more accurate. There is no controversy over the Hand of God in Argentina.
TAMMY’S TANTRUM WILL ANNOY FRANK
If Tammy Abraham wanted to get on the scoresheet against Crystal Palace he shouldn’t have needed to steal a penalty from Jorginho. In the eighth minute, he could have done better than the weak header from Jorginho’s chip.
Then there was the Ben Chilwell corner that he headed wide right after 25 minutes. And in the 39th minute, a fabulous pass from Jorginho was miscontrolled by Abraham as he tried to bring it down.
So he could have had a first-half hat-trick long before embarrassingly trying to over-rule Jorginho and his manager, Frank Lampard, by promoting himself up the order for penalty duty.
Tammy Abraham (right) tried to promote himself up the penalty taking order against Palace
Fortunately, Cesar Azpilicueta intervened, giving the ball back to Jorginho and putting Abraham very publicly in his place — but what is it with these Chelsea players?
Maybe Azpilicueta handled this one so well because he was found wanting in 2019 when, to Maurizio Sarri’s fury, Kepa Arrizabalaga refused a substitution for cramp prior to a penalty shoot-out in the Carabao Cup final. It could even be argued he hasn’t been the same since placing so much pressure on his shoulders with that tantrum.
Sarri forgave Arrizabalaga, but what will the hard-nosed Lampard make of Abraham’s insubordination? The manager names the penalty taker and, unless that instruction changes, it is not for any player to dissent.
A link is being made between Arsenal’s decision to ditch mascot Gunnersaurus as part of a cost-cutting exercise — the man in the green suit, Jerry Quy, was a part-time employee — while keeping Mesut Ozil on £350,000 a week, outside the team.
Yet leaving aside that Arsenal could not cancel Ozil’s contract without paying him up, therefore saving precisely nothing, it is an economic fact that one job does not finance the other.
As Steve Parish, the Crystal Palace chairman, said on Monday, investment continues on players even during the current crisis, because they are considered assets and contribute to the success of the football club. Ozil is not doing that at the moment but, when he was given his present contract, it was thought he would. Now Arsenal have no way out.
The man inside Arsenal mascot Gunnersaurus has been sacked by the Gunners after 27 years
There is sad symbolism in Quy’s exit — he was a loyal fan who followed Arsenal home and away before the invention of Gunnersaurus — because in many ways his fate epitomises that of the little people most affected by this pandemic, even those who dress as dinosaurs.
Maybe Arsenal’s finances are such the club is past caring how it is perceived, but this feels too obviously brutal to have any true worth. Given the reputational damage, how much have they really saved?
NOBODY BUT KLOPP IS MASTERMIND OF KOP TROPHY HAUL
Zeljko Buvac was known as ‘The Brain’ during his time as assistant to Jurgen Klopp.
He left Liverpool in 2018, after they fell out and is currently sporting director with Dynamo Moscow.
He now claims to have been working as a manager for 17 years, implying Klopp is little more than the colourful front of house, while he toiled in the kitchen.
Strange then, that during Buvac’s time as ‘manager’ of Liverpool, the club won nothing, while in the two seasons after he left, the new manager — the one we see each week standing on the touchline — won the Champions League, the UEFA Super Cup, the Club World Cup and then the quickest title in English football history.
Zeljko Buvac (left) claimed he is the main behind Liverpool’s success, not Jurgen Klopp (right)
We have been introduced to these powers behind the throne before. Colin Harvey to Howard Kendall, Ray Harford to Kenny Dalglish. No doubt Buvac’s input was important.
But he wasn’t the manager. Klopp’s the manager. Klopp’s name above the door, Klopp’s responsibility whether rewriting the record books or conceding seven to Aston Villa.
That’s what management is about. The buck stops with you. Dynamo Moscow has a caretaker coach at present, Alyaksandr Kulchy, and are sixth in the league. So if Buvac fancies being a real manager, with his reputation on the line and every result his business, there seems to be at least one job he could very easily land.
One imagines Klopp might even recommend him, with that big, passive-aggressive smile.
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