The current squad hard at work... but who will join the United ranks this summer?
Taking a look at Manchester United's recent transfer history, a clear pattern has emerged. It is a philosophy that is not only shaped by United's history of producing and developing young players but one that is a necessity going into a somewhat uncertain financial future.
In this article I will suggest the three positions that United will look to strengthen this summer with this philosophy in mind.
Two indisputable facts illustrate this transfer philosophy quite clearly: Firstly, no more than three first-team players have been signed at one time in a single transfer window. Secondly, not since the purchase of Dimitar Berbatov in the summer of 2008 has a considerable amount of money been spent on a player over the age of 26.
Both of these policies make great sense. Introducing too many new first-team players at the same time threatens the balance and chemistry of the team, and spending too much money on a player who has already peaked means that the player cannot be developed much further, lessening his value.
Some United fans persist in the belief that the owners of the club do not give the manager enough funds to compete for world football's top talent. Others argue that the manager is talking sense when he says there is "no value" in the current transfer market.
I believe the truth lies somewhere in the middle. With the signings of David de Gea, Ashley Young and Phil Jones costing over £50million last summer, it is clear that the board is giving the manager the money he needs. Yet it is common knowledge that the Glazer family has attached great debt to the club and that debt needs to be addressed by making acquisitions that will potentially earn the club money.
This means that instead of panic-buying and over-paying for second-rate options, United are targeting young players who are still expected to develop and who would reap great profits in the future if they reach their potential.
With this in mind, here are the three positions United need to address this summer...
Rafael needs competition at Old Trafford.
First and foremost, United will sign a right-back. Since the retirement of Gary Neville, no defender has nailed down the position in the way the former club captain did. Wes Brown played there consistently during the 2007-08 European Cup winning season but soon fell out of favour, as did John O'Shea. Both have since left the club.
Rafael and Fabio have progressed nicely this season but a worrying injury record has prevented them from playing on a regular basis.
Consequently, on more than one occasion this season the disciplined and hard-working Antonio Valencia has been deployed as an emergency right back. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling have each seen time in the position but both do seem destined for a future pairing in central defence.
While I still believe that the 21 year-old Rafael will one day develop into a very good player and may yet develop into United's first choice right back, at the moment the position seems slightly understaffed. What United need is someone who has been there and done it all already, who has played the position his entire career and who can come to the club and solidify the back four and offer competition to Rafael.
LOSC Lille Mathieu Debuchy is the latest name to emerge as a potential candidate. Having won a domestic double with his club last year, it could be argued that Debuchy has already achieved everything he can in French football and may relish the prospect of joining one of Europe's top clubs. At 26 years of age, he is entering the peak years of his career.
In five years time (when he is 31 and Rafael would be 26), he would probably present good resale value if any suitors were interested in an experienced right-back. As long as United do not overpay for Debuchy, he would be an astute signing.
A younger alternative would be Ajax's 24 year-old Gregory van der Wiel, another player who has achieved everything at his current club and who has become the first choice right-back for his international side in their Euro 2012 qualification campaign.
Could Ajax talisman Christian Eriksen be the answer to United's midfield problems?
What Wednesday night's shock loss to Wigan shows is that when Paul Scholes does not play, the United midfield lacks character and leadership. He may be quiet and subtle in his leadership but when the "ginger prince" is out of the game, you know it.
The stats speak for themselves. Out of a possible 36 points available to United since Scholes returned, they have gained 34. Prior to his return, United achieved 25 out of a possible 36 points.
Scholes is reaching the end of his career and United need a new midfield general who can both win tackles and dictate the tempo of the game. Yet despite this apparent need, I do not believe it will be addressed this summer.
WIth Paul Scholes (who will most likely decide to stay on for another season), Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher and the versatile Phil Jones all able to anchor the midfield, Sir Alex may decide to put off signing a defensive midfielder for another year.
With his technique and versatility, Spaniard Javi Martinez remains the exceptional candidate should Ferguson be in the market for a deep-lying playmaker. However, Athletic Bilbao are in a very comfortable financial situation and would quite rightly demand a king's ransom for Xabi Alonso's heir apparent. PSV's Kevin Strootman and Benfica's Javi Garcia (who recently extended his contract with the Portuguese club) have been two rumoured alternatives but I believe that United's priorities lie elsewhere.
Manchester United will instead look to sign a midfielder who can unlock defences and offer top class competition to Anderson and Tom Cleverley. United have become a little too reliant on Wayne Rooney to be their talisman and creator and will be on the lookout for a midfielder who can cause more panic in and around the opposing penalty area. We only have to look at the examples of David Silva and Juan Mata to understand what a player of this type brings to a team.
With a high transfer fee and little resale value, the time for Wesley Sneijder to join United has almost certainly passed. Bleacher Report columnist Ryan Day makes a persuasive argument that Clint Dempsey may be the answer to United's needs but at 29 years old he too would present little resale value.
Luka Modrić remains a popular choice but will command an extortionate fee as Tottenham fight to keep their prize asset. Instead, Sir Alex will make signing either Benfica’s Nicolás Gaitán or Ajax’s Christian Eriksen a top priority.
At the time of writing, it is being reported in Portugal that a deal has been reached between Manchester United and Benfica for the transfer of Nicolás Gaitán this summer. The deal, believed to be around €25million, may include United academy players Davide Petrucci and Federico Macheda going in the opposite direction. Whether this transfer does indeed happen or not remains to be seen with neither United nor Benfica making any announcements at this point.
Berbatov is heading for the Old Trafford door this summer... will others follow him?
Dimitar Berbatov is on his way out. Michael Owen, who turns 33 in December, will quite possibly follow him. Federico Macheda has not set the world afire wherever he has played over the last twelve months, be it in limited appearances for United or on loan at Sampdoria and Queens Park Rangers.
With up to three forwards potentially leaving Old Trafford this summer, a new attacking force will almost certainly be brought to the club. United tend to deploy two strikers a majority of the time and as such would require four strikers in rotation (thinking back to the Yorke/Cole/Solskjaer/Sheringham days of '99 as an example). The question is who would join Rooney, Chicharito and Hernandez in the United striker corps?
Robin van Persie’s contract is to expire next summer and will on the lookout for new opportunities if he feels Arsenal are not progressing. While Sir Alex Ferguson is said to be a great admirer of the Dutchman, both the potential cost of the transfer and van Persie’s age means he will not present good resale value. Truth be told, I cannot envision the Arsenal captain leaving for any club.
Another option would be Athetlic Bilbao's Fernando Llorente, who showed in his games against United that he is both an exceptional finisher but is also unafraid to get the ball outside the box and craft and work opportunities for himself. Not since the days of Cristiano Ronaldo have United had a player who has done that. However, at 27 years old, this transfer is not as likely given the price tag Bilbao would attach to Llorente and the lack of resale value he would present in five years time.
Instead, Ferguson may be tempted to sign long term target and heir-apparent to van Persie, Sporting Lisbon’s Ricky van Wolfswinkel. The younger Dutchman has played in both striker and attacking-midfield positions during his career, an ability that would especially interest United.
He would offer options in both the deep-lying, number 10 role that Wayne Rooney has made his own and also in the number 9 position in which Welbeck, Chicharito and Berbatov have been rotated. At 23, he has plenty of years ahead of him to develop further—and as strikers don't tend to start declining until they reach their thirties, would again present great resale value.
Now before you rush to the comment box to tell me why I am wrong, allow me to elaborate and discuss why other positions will not be addressed this summer.
Despite recent suggestions that United are interested in England under-21s goalkeeper Jack Butland and even more ludicrous rumours that United were considering replacing David de Gea with Swansea's fantastic Michel Vorm, the goalkeeping team is well stocked. de Gea's recent form has been nothing short of spectacular, Lindegaard is a solid and ambitious back-up and Ben Amos is an academy graduate who has impressed in every opportunity he has been presented.
Even with a number of injuries throughout the season (including a season-ending one for club captain Nemanja Vidić), United's central defence has coped well and improved gradually as the season has progressed. Despite rumours of United's apparent interest in Borussia Dortmund's Neven Subotic and Vasco da Gama's Dede, the centre-half position is well-staffed going into next season, especially if Ferdinand continues to put in age-defying, stellar performances.
At left-back, Patrice Evra's form has undoubtedly dropped this season. Yet he remains the club's vice-captain and has probably worn the armband more times than Vidić this season. He has been ever-present with 40 appearances in all competitions this season, more than anyone else at the club. Evra shows no signs of slowing down with age, he remains extremely fit and injury-free despite his drop in defensive form. With Fabio and Jonny Evans also able to play left-back (along with rookie Zeki Fryers), the position is not one that needs considerable investment at this time.
Finally, United are a team that still places a great emphasis on wingers. While Ryan Giggs and Park Ji-Sung are reaching the end of their careers at Old Trafford, the team is still amply staffed with Ashley Young, Nani and Antonio Valencia all performing exceptionally at different stages of this season.
Additionally, I would argue that the twins Rafael and Fabio, with their talents for drifting in from fullback and dribbling the ball into dangerous areas around the box, should be given more chances to play on the wing. It is a position that will be addressed in the not too distant future but not one I would label a priority going into this transfer window.
Let me know what you guys think. I know a lot of the United fans on Bleacher Report have very different ideas about what the team "needs" this summer so I'm expecting a hearty debate in the comment section down below.
N.B. Stay strong, we're still five points ahead!