Whom would Manchester United want to sign in January and why?
Spend a little time Googling "Manchester United Transfer" and you'll come up with an amazing array of players who might take Sir Alex Ferguson's fancy-in January or any time.
Many of these are just fantasy. Of course he would like to sign Neymar, but Chelsea and Real Madrid are interested and, as last summer's business demonstrates, the wily old Scot majors on "value" in the market. That's why he was so relatively quiet in 2010/11.
And who can say he got it wrong? While he spent upwards of £50 million, he also shipped out some of his old boys and reduced his salary bill with the retirement of Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and Edwin van der Sar.
De Gea has received rave reviews; Phil Jones has been compared to Duncan Edwards and is touted as a future England captain; and Ashley Young has been regarded by some as the signing of the season.
Sir Alex doesn't often do big business in January, but when he did in 2006, he picked up Vidic and Evra (now captain and vice-captain), for a combined £11.7 million. Nice business.
One of the difficulties the Boss has is that United will always be monitoring players and this will inevitably get out. Also, as with every other top club, if an agent wants to improve the package for his star player, he only needs to discreetly place a transfer rumour about United, or similar.
In this article we won't just be putting forward 10 Potential Targets, but also the factors to be taken into account in selecting them.
For starters, however, here is a fairly complete list of the players already linked to United in the last month or so:
Paulo Henrique Ganso
Robin van Persie
Daniele de Rossi
Ricky van Wolfswinkel
A growing number of writers suggest that United don't need to sign anyone in January. They certainly have a big enough squad and some of their loanees may return at that time also.
After the start of the season, many raved about Welbeck and Cleverley, as well as the new signings. A key suggestion was that there was no need to go and sign another midfielder—and especially Sneijder—because Cleverley had filled that gap.
But the criticisms of Carrick continue; Anderson's form has dipped since Cleverley was injured; United have looked pedestrian at times, especially in the Champions League; and Ryan Giggs can no longer be considered a first choice, etc.
Somehow, Sir Alex needs to freshen up midfield. While Cleverley should soon return, he is not yet the dominant midfield force that Roy Keane and Bryan Robson were. And if he and Anderson are on the attack, who is going to "stay at home?"
Then there is the continuing saga of a "holding midfielder." Carrick has performed the job admirably when called on, but it's not his position (nor is centre back). Fletcher can play the role, but he's better going forward. Hargreaves was meant to be the answer. In short, there has been no one of this ilk since Keane and Nicky Butt. In an ideal world, you would combine the two, as with Keane.
Then there are Pogba and Morrison waiting in the wings, together with Tunnicliffe and Brady, currently out on loan. While all of these—especially the first two—have talent, they clearly have so far been deemed too young and/or inexperienced—like Rooney was at 16 and Ross Barkley is at 17 (not).
Sir Alex has a twin dilemma with his large squad. How do you keep everybody happy? And how do you give younger players who may represent the future a chance, when almost every game is critical in some way or another? The early ECL matches have been a disaster in this respect, because early qualification has always in the past been used to blood new players in the later group stages.
I am of the view that Sir Alex needs to freshen midfield. He should find a deputy for left back and could use another wide player. He also doesn't need any more strikers.
In the mini injury crisis this season, the two areas that have shown the greatest strain have been defence and midfield.
Sir Alex has been smart in developing the versatility of his players. Playing Valencia at left back a couple of times may have been expedient, but it also gave him playing time and developed his defensive play.
Phil Jones was already seen as a utility player and Jonny Evans can adequately deputise at left back when needed. Chris Smalling has added another string to his bow playing at right back—to the extent that Fabio Capello sees him as a potential long term prospect in that position.
The big disappointment has been the Da Silva twins. Rafael is taking a long time to recover and has been missed at right back. But in the meantime, his brother Fabio has deputised more than once and has been found woefully wanting. In addition, what are all these "wimping" episodes, like the one against Otelul Galati where he clearly indicated he could not continue before being told to get on with it?
It had been expected that Fabio would be Evra's understudy and Rafael would hold down the right back berth, but much better evidence is needed. For now, an additional defender should be under consideration.
Scott Wootton and Tom Thorpe may be the future, but there would be no harm in signing a defensive midfielder who could double up at left back or a centre back who could do so. Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra aren't getting any younger.
January is the hardest time to sign a player. The top players at European clubs will often be involved in the Champions League. If their team qualifies for the knockout phase they will not want the player to leave; if they don't, they will still want to hang on.
UEFA changed their qualification rules in 2010. A player may now join another ECL team provided their original team has been eliminated from the competition. In addition, a team can sign up to three players in January, but only one is allowed to have played in the ECL that season—even if their team was eliminated.
So Wesley Sneijder could not play for United in the knockout phase if Inter qualify and because he played against Lille last night.
If the Red Devils can manage without him until the end of the season, however, his price is likely to be lower. Former Inter coach Gasperini has revealed that Inter were keen to sell but United would not match the valuation. The big question now is whether they would sign a player older than their age limit of 27 next summer. If their existing midfield disappoints, they might just make an exception for the UEFA "midfielder of the year," but not in January.
There are three other key considerations as to whether a player will move:
Are their club willing to sell the player?
Does the player want to move?
Does he want to join United?
We'll keep these in mind in choosing the 10 possible January targets.
Of the players we have listed, some are non-starters, some would not be eligible for the knockout phase of the Champions League and others might not be eligible for a work permit.
In the latter case, United have found ways to get around this in the past. Even though a player has insufficient caps at the international level, a case can be made for their "exceptional talent," especially where they have several appearances at junior international level.
In addition, some have been loaned out to mainland European clubs, where the work permit regulations may be easier. Once a player has an EC permit, it is easier to bring them to the UK. For example, Dong went to Royal Antwerp.
Those that could be ruled out by UEFA from playing for United in the knockout phase of the ECL are likely to include:
Thiago Alcantara, Nicolas Gaitan, Robin van Persie, Javi Garcia, Gonzalo Higuain, Mezut Ozil, Thiago Silva and Wesley Sneijder.
They may also include:
Nicolai Boilesen, Christian Eriksen, Ezekiel Lavezzi, Marek Hamsik, Michel Bastos, Seydou Doumbia.
Those who could struggle to get a work permit are:
Paulo Henrique Ganso, Lucas Ocampos and Brek Shea.
But Mario Gotze could be available.
Whether because their clubs need or want them, or the player is unwilling to leave, Mario Gotze and Stevan Jovetic would seem unlikely to be available in January. They have recently signed new long term contracts and are deemed too valuable to let go.
There are a number of factors to consider when it comes to the suitability of a prospective signing. One of those relates to nationality and how they would fit in with the existing mix.
United have no German players, so Marin or Gotze, for example would have no contemporaries. There are several other prospects in a similar position. The same is true of Eriksen and Boilesen, although veteran Dane Peter Schmeichel could help persuade them.
Hamsik and Kovacic would have no fellow nationals, but Jovetic is a Montenegrin (recently split from Serbia and Montenegro) and Krasic is a Serb, so Nemanja Vidic could help either of them settle.
Lavezzi and Montolivo have a compatriot in Federicho Macheda, if he stays. Daniele de Rossi looks like he could look after himself. There is a long established Italian community in Manchester and all of them would be welcomed with open arms.
David de Gea would probably be delighted to have fellow countryman Soriano at the club or Thiago Alcantara. Valencia and Hernandez speak Spanish.
Bastos, Ocampos and Ganso would join a growing Brazilian contingent and Nani also speaks Portuguese.
Finally, there is the prospective marketing angle. United have a huge following in Japan and the United States and either Shinji Kagawa or Brek Shea could help enhance these audiences, as Park Ji Sung has in Korea, where he is the number one sportsman.
Several of the other targets are already English, English speaking or playing in the UK.
Whatever else, Sir Alex will be mindful that Carlos Tevez never made a proper attempt to learn English or to integrate into the squad and this was a material factor in him leaving United.
One of the fundamental factors in Manchester United's success, especially since the departure of Ruud van Nistelrooy and Cristiano Ronaldo, is the "togetherness" of the squad.
United have always taken a player's character into account when signing them. While there have been some mistakes and some exceptions (Eric Cantona, for example), there now appear to be several factors that help sway Sir Alex.
Attitude. Does the player have an over-inflated sense of their own importance, or are they a ready-made "team" player? How were they brought up? Are they respectful by nature? Do they have a strong self-determination and self-confidence?
Athleticism. Not all players are athletic but Sir Alex has certainly focused on speed as an attribute recently. If a player (such as David de Gea) does not yet have a strong athletic build, the physios will be prepared to work with them to build strength and duration. Hernandez has benefited from this.
Another player who has become much stronger is Anderson. He had a bad leg break before he joined and has had ligament problems since. He is now the strongest he has ever been and is very hard to knock off the ball.
Another aspect is that players must have the potential to develop complementary characteristics. So Valencia, Nani and Anderson have worked on their tackling and defenders have worked on their offensive skills.
Age has become a critical factor and this is often now dictated by price. It is why we shall see more clubs committing to "growing their own" players, but it has also been accompanied by escalating prices for young players of real talent.
As far as United are concerned, they will rarely now sign a player over 27. With a conveyor belt of young talent coming out of their Academy and Reserves, when they sign a new young player, he should either be suitable to go into the Academy or should be an established player, as Wayne Rooney, Phil Jones and David de Gea were.
Finally, there is this immeasurable quality of "what makes a Manchester United player." There is no doubt that Fergie knows best in this department. Just look at the players he has bought and how long they have stayed. It helps if they were United fans as a kid! "I've always wanted to play for United."
So who are the 10 most likely potential targets for Manchester United in January?
It is no secret that Sir Alex has admired Luka Modric for some time and has expressed an interest in signing him in the recent past.
Last summer, however, Chelsea looked to be in pole position as they successively hiked bids for the Tottenham playmaker to a reputed £40 million. But Chairman Daniel Levy refused to countenance a sale and Modric stayed, with a promise by Spurs to renegotiate his contract.
Now the Metro and other sources report that contract talks have stalled.
The most recent reason given is that the player is concerned that Harry Redknapp may leave next summer to succeed Fabio Capello as England manager. In any event, Spurs are said to be only offering around £70,000 a week which, although a more than 50 percent hike in his existing wage, falls short of Chelsea's rumoured £120,000.
In the event, Chelsea signed Juan Mata who, although not a carbon copy of Modric, has added materially to the Blues' attacking capability. Villas-Boas is understood to wish to continue rebuilding Chelsea for the future and their interest is assumed to be still live.
In the event that they do not follow up and with Modric clearly unsettled, it would be hardly surprising if Sir Alex stepped in with a bid which could well be significantly below Chelsea's extravagant valuation last summer.
The problem about signing Modric, however, whom Ferguson has previously seen as a ready-made replacement for Paul Scholes, is the potential effect it could have on his younger players. Many have seen Tom Cleverley as a replacement. Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison have first team potential.
If Sir Alex continues his youth policy, a non-threatening signing could be Mateo Kovacic, who has already been dubbed the "young Luka Modric." He is also a Croatian.
The 17-year-old Dinamo Zagreb player was the youngest debutant and goalscorer in the Croatian league last year, which prompted an enquiry from Arsenal, who were told he was not for sale.
While he seems happy to stay for now, he has given a clear indication that he would take seriously any interest from Manchester United or Juventus. That opportunity may come in January.
Riccardo Montolivo looks like a ready-made replacement for Paul Scholes. He can do everything Michael Carrick can and a whole lot more. He has Scholes' passing and goalscoring touch.
There are many other reasons why he would be a potential signing for Manchester United.
At 26, he is of similar age to Modric and has recently been transformed from an attacking midfielder to a deep-lying playmaker, which means he can do both.
While his maturity is demonstrated by him having been Fiorentina's captain, there is a growing bitterness among the Viola, because Riccardo does not wish to renegotiate his contract. This is bad news for them, but excellent news for a prospective suitor such as United.
He is into his final 12 months and wishes to leave on a free transfer next summer to excite interest from top clubs. Although a fee would be required in January, it would be unlikely to be much above £10 million.
After last night's defeat by Manchester City, Villareal are unlikely to progress to the knockout phase of the Champions League. This opens the door for a side remaining in the competition to sign Bruno Soriano in January.
If Sir Alex is still looking for a replacement for Owen Hargreaves, Soriano fits the bill. At 27, he may be at the top end of United's preferred age range, but there is no similar player at the club. This was the missing link in both the defeats to Barcelona in the ECL Final.
Soriano is regarded as the best player of his type in La Liga and Villareal would be very reluctant to sell, but if they miss out on the lucrative later stages of the ECL, a juicy bid might tempt them between his sell-on clause of £22 million and Sir Alex's rumoured first offer of £10 million.
As a colleague pointed out on here a few days ago, Soriano has among the best tackling and intercept statistics this season. He can pass a ball as well and although not in Scholes' class for long range, his current statistics at 87 percent are more than a match for Michael Carrick.
This story keeps coming back. This is curious because Milos Krasic has only been at Juventus for just over a year. He has been favourably compared to the great Pavel Nedved and has the advantages that he can play in central or wide midfield with excellent dribbling skills.
At 26, he would also bring maturity to the side, but unlike Sneijder, he would probably not expect to play every match. He is also not cup-tied in the Champions League.
Krasic's agent has publicly stated that Manchester United have been interested for at least two seasons. It makes sense for him to join fellow Serb Nemanja Vidic at Old Trafford, but it would also not be the first time an agent has spread rumours simply to get his client a better deal.
It would also be no surprise that Manchester United had scouted every decent midfielder in Europe with an eye to replace Paul Scholes, Owen Hargreaves and the now aging Michael Carrick.
Paul Scholes he ain't, but Ryan Giggs he could be. And with Ji Sung Park now the wrong side of 30, Shinji Kagawa could be a perfect replacement. Like Park, he is respectful and would not expect to play every game.
He is also a marketing dream for the Old Trafford money men. Ji Sung Park receives the most fan mail of any United player and is a hero in Korea. But United are big across the Far East and Kagawa could massively increase their following in Japan.
A full international with 27 caps and nine goals, he made his debut at 19. He joined Borussia Dortmund in 2010 and has an extraordinary career goals to games scoring ratio for an attacking midfielder of 71 in 164...better than Ryan Giggs.
Borussia are also likely to slip out of the Champions League at the Group stages and, with two players courting attention (including Mario Gotze), they may have difficulty in keeping hold of both.
Kagawa has recently apologised to his club for his loss of form, which followed a broken foot in January. His self-confidence may have been restored with two goals for Japan in the recent international break.
There are potential reasons for Manchester United to not sign Daniele de Rossi. He's 28, combative with red cards for violent conduct and his marriage has collapsed. But these things wouldn't make him unusual at Old Trafford. The big question would be whether he would fit in with the new team spirit.
He also has experience as a captain of his club and United need more leadership in midfield. In fact, in many ways he reminds me of Roy Keane. He is excellent defensively, can hit a pass like Scholes, can dribble and beat his man and score goals.
Better still, unless he signs a new contract, he could leave next summer for free. He therefore represents yet another opportunity for United to steal a march on potential rivals and pay a reasonable fee for him in January.
A Roman by birth, he has played for his home club most of his career. He also has 68 appearances and 10 goals for Italy. With all that has gone on, a new start might appeal to him and where better than one of the best clubs in the Premier League?
At face value, the last thing Manchester United need is another striker. But there are enough potential changes around to make that a possibility.
While William Keane and others are flexing their muscles in the reserves, Federico Macheda hasn't made it at United and has had a dismal spell in Italy on loan. It's no secret that Sir Alex was prepared to sell Mame Biriam Diouf in the summer and he is also likely to leave in January.
The rumours of Dimitar Berbatov's departure won't go away and Sir Alex isn't playing him in the Champions League. Arsenal aren't the only club who would be interested in taking on Michael Owen.
So although at face value United have six strikers, they could be left with three after January—Welbeck, Rooney and Hernandez—unless of course they sign another.
The one most frequently touted recently is Ricky van Wolfswinkel. United have an excellent relationship with Sporting Lisbon since Carlos Queiroz's days and it's where they signed Cristiano Ronaldo from.
Although Ricky only joined Sporting from Utrecht in June this year, Sporting might be tempted to bank a profit on their £5 million investment.
At only 22, his career record is 50 goals in 120 matches, but in his last three seasons he has scored 44 in 87 matches, including eight from nine this season.
While United are reported to be at the head of the queue for the young striker's services, it would not be surprising, even after six months, if his agent were trying to improve his client's remuneration.
A year ago, Jack Rodwell was being regarded as an England fixture in the future. At the time Manchester United weren't the only club interested in him.
Like Wayne Rooney a lifelong Everton supporter, Jack made his under 18s debut at just 14 and followed in Rooney's footsteps by making his first team debut at 16. At the age of 20, he has already played 97 times for Everton and 37 times for England up to Under 21 level.
And that may be what helps United to prise him away. He is a versatile player who should already have his first full England cap. At United he would be expected to advance as a player and attract more attention.
Manchester City and Liverpool are among clubs that have previously been rumoured to be prepared to spend up to £20 million for Rodwell. Everton resisted these bids in the summer but Rodwell's form was poor in the Under 21s European Championships and not much better since.
Indeed, his only mention of note recently seems to have been his disgracefully wrong sending off in the Merseyside derby.
So what are his attractions to United and why would Everton sell?
He started life as a centre half and David Moyes has converted him into a useful midfielder who can score goals (although not recently). This would give Sir Alex excellent options in both defense and holding midfield.
It is well-known that Everton are struggling financially as well as on the pitch. David Moyes cannot sign top players and will be desperate to hang onto Phil Jagielka, having previously lost Joleon Lescott in central defence. Now everyone seems to be after Ross Barkley.
Clearly Moyes can't hang onto all his prize assets, but he might be prepared to let his old friend Sir Alex take over Jack's development so that he can look after Ross Barkley himself.
United are rebuilding with a mixture of youth and experience. Rodwell has both at only 20 and could fill an important missing piece of the jigsaw, possibly with Michael Carrick moving the other way.
I've previously trailed Gary Cahill as a possible signing for United. The logic doesn't change. In fact it becomes even more persuasive.
As the last couple of months have shown, Rio Ferdinand cannot be relied on match in match out. Meanwhile, Nemanja Vidic has shown that his body is creaking too. This bides ill for United, who have built their recent success on arguably the best centre back combination in the world.
But now it's coming to an end. Jose Mourinho would gladly take Vidic off Sir Alex's hands, allowing him to build the next combination.
For England, that is likely to be Gary Cahill and Phil Jones before too long. Cahill is only 25 and is now regarded as a fixture in the England squad. Phil Jones is 19 going on 30—mature before his time. What they also have in common is their North West base.
When push came to shove, Jones was delighted to move across Manchester without leaving home, so why not Cahill as well?
With Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans, Sir Alex would have prospectively four UK based world class centre backs, with little difficulty in keeping them all employed.
Smalling has already shown the versatility to look composed and convincing at right back; Jones can play there too, as well as defensive midfield. Jonny Evans, a naturally left-footed player, has several times played at left back.
So the logic makes sense.
Spurs have withdrawn their interest and Arsenal didn't follow through in the summer, nor did Liverpool. Chelsea will need a replacement for the aging John Terry soon, but why wouldn't Cahill join United if Sir Alex came calling?
Two Scots and an Englishman for the future?
As much as any other Premier League manager, Sir Alex has shown a preparedness to pay the price and sign promising UK based players. They stay closer to home at international level.
These three players have been linked with United several times recently, as well as other clubs—not surprising with the wily Scot rebuilding around a mix of youth and experience.
But he also has a raft of young talented players coming through the Academy or out on loan. While you can make a case for Rodwell's versatility, Kagawa's attacking flair, Soriano's defensive qualities or even "the new Modric," it is difficult to see why Sir Alex would put at risk the future of Pogba or Cleverley with one of these three.
However, while Bannan or Barkley would cost a hefty fee, Scott Allan is in a position to negotiate a lucrative contract on a free transfer. While he would cost a small fee in January, he would be following in the footsteps of Darren Fletcher, on the recommendation of Ferguson's top scouting brother Martin.
It may well be that United don't sign anyone in January, but with Gibson and Diouf likely to move and other possibilities, Sir Alex will have the financial and squad headroom to add further talent and finally replace Paul Scholes or Roy Keane.