Manchester United spent big money last summer, largely on their defence.
In a summer transfer window that did not quite satisfy the demands of supporters, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer still sanctioned a £140million spend, with more than £125million of it going on defensive additions Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire.
It’s no exaggeration to say Solskjaer performed major surgery on his back line in the market, pinpointing the right-back and centre-back positions as priorities and ushering in two leading homegrown players who befitted the ideal profile of target.
Even in a world in which coronavirus was not having an effect on the finances of every football club, spending big money on the defence for a second successive summer would be seriously unlikely. Jose Mourinho was not allowed to do as such, denied a central defensive signing in 2018 after paying a combined £65million for Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly in the two summers before. Ed Woodward, the man who put a spanner in those Mourinho plans, has admitted it won’t be “business as usual” — even for the Premier League’s behemoth clubs this summer.
So United must temper the expectations of supporters expecting another glut of arrivals in the back four this summer.
There was understandable excitement on social media when a video emerged appearing to show Solskjaer telling Bournemouth’s Nathan Ake that “we need a left-footed centre back, so keep going” after a game. But despite United’s interest in Ake he has gone to Manchester City, whose need for a centre-back was more pressing.
There is always scrutiny on Maguire and Lindelof at the heart of United’s defence, yet their record stands up to the criticism. Liverpool’s title-winning defence only conceded three fewer goals than Solskjaer’s United.
So with all this in mind and attacking targets (yes, Jadon Sancho) taking higher priority in 2020, defensive signings will be back-ups — if they arrive at all. Swansea City youngster Joe Rodon, Brighton’s talented defender Ben White and Lille 22-year-old Gabriel Magalhaes have all been touted for Old Trafford moves.
Again, these are more understandable names as they would not usurp Maguire and Lindelof in the short-term, but could improve for the future at United. The likely departures of a number of current, slightly forlorn United centre-backs, such as Marcos Rojo, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones necessitate that fans expect incomings.
Yet the two defensive players likely to come into the first team squad for the 2020/21 season may be promoted from the academy instead.
Solskjaer last week handed a senior debut to the versatile Teden Mengi, the 18-year-old centre-back who came on at right-back. The Norwegian admitted Mengi, who has seriously impressed in Under-23s football in the past campaign, is one player for whom the club have high hopes. You would hope he could provide decent back-up, along with Eric Bailly and Axel Tuanzebe.
Ethan Laird is another United youngster who seems destined to play a more prominent role. Having just turned 19 and made two Europa League appearances, the right-back is again versatile and hugely promising. If Diogo Dalot’s days at United are numbered, Laird could be the ideal cover for Wan-Bissaka.
It might seem a little underwhelming to some supporters, but Solskjaer would have no qualms about promoting academy players instead of signing backups. He has already done it successfully with Mason Greenwood and Brandon Williams, who are growing into first-teamers in their own right.
It has always been the United way to put faith in youth, to trust the academy. It might not be as exciting as a glitzy new transfer, but it could be an effective strategy for United in this summer of all summers.
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