Sneijder? Surely not.
For months the global media has constantly returned to the theme that Wesley Sneijder will go to Manchester United.
The thing is, while it is easy to see that United have struggled at times—and the City defeat was seen by some as a death knell—they have still only lost one match in the Premier League, where they have more points than at the same stage last year.
Yes, they also lost against Crystal Palace, but that wasn't even a fully fledged second team.
It is easy to overlook the burgeoning injury list that Sir Alex Ferguson has had to manage around. No sooner were the pundits purring about the next generation, with a midfield including Tom Cleverley and Welbeck in attack, then both were struck down with injury.
The majority of the frailty since the explosive start, during which Rooney scored 10 goals in five games, has been hung around an inability to field a consistent defence, with every potential member missing out at some stage due to injury—except Phil Jones.
And not just midfield
And yet, it's the midfield that is getting much of the attention.
Sir Alex believes that there isn't value in the market, especially in January, although he found just such when he signed Evra and Vidic.
His attitude may have changed, however, following the shocking defeat by Crystal Palace, even though it was a weakened team. Many commentators have pointed out that up to nine internationals were fielded. Although the manager has often referred to the difficulty of giving so many players game time—especially the young aspirants—he has a right to expect that those who believe they deserve a place in the first team will hit the ground running.
Phil Jones versatility gives the Boss the choice of buying another defender.
So will Sir Alex buy anyone at all?
He's in transition mode again, viz not only the need to replace retirees Scholes and Neville, together with Giggs in due course but also the staged replacement of Ferdinand, Berbatov, Carrick and Vidic as they approach their "sell by" dates.
Assuming their continued loyalty, he could either sell those players one by one to recoup some value or, as he seems to have indicated with Berbatov, keep them on the back burner until needed. This is the basis on which Michael Owen has been retained so far.
At the end of the day, Sir Alex would surely rather have a player of any age that will pledge their career to United than one who is constantly surveying possibilities elsewhere.
Paul Pogba and William Keane are good examples. For my money, both are going to be full internationals, with bright futures; but while Pogba would be a devastating loss, if he's seriously considering offers elsewhere, then it's only a matter of time before he'll move on anyhow.
Whereas Will Keane (and his brother Michael), like Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, would pledge their lives to the red shirt. As the Crystal Palace match showed, that's what you want when the chips are down. Pogba looked a class-act but somehow seemed distracted.
Blending immediate needs with the past and the future
So, as with the team in general, any transfer activity in January or indeed next summer should be dictated by the long term strategy with, perhaps some tinkering to meet shorter-term needs. After all, there is no harm bringing in a star of the future or even a squad player, earlier than you need—and the current need is in midfield, as it has been since Roy Keane left.
It's interesting to see what is going on elsewhere. City and Liverpool seem in the main to be buying the finished product. Chelsea are building for the future if all the rumours about young players are true. Arsenal have always pursued a youth policy under Wenger.
United have done as well as any of the top six in producing their own players and the current crop may be the richest ever, with Pogba, Morrison, Fryers, both Keanes, Wootton, Macheda, Cleverley, Welbeck, Tunnicliffe, etc., to name but a few.
So the key to the future is whether those young players have red blood running through them; because if they have, they'll get their chance, however long it takes, and will become either stars or squad players.
This means that Sir Alex has to gauge three things above all: what are the immediate needs; which players are investments for the future; and which will he have to replace from outside.
January or summer?
While Sir Alex suggests it is difficult to find value in January, there is an interesting set of dynamics at play.
First, the top clubs compete for the same top players. While City signed Dzeko, Real Madrid Benzema and Barcelona David Villa, SAF bought the future in Javier Hernandez. Some of his gambles in the past haven't paid off (Bebe.)
Increasingly, those same clubs are looking at the global pool of talented youth, such as Neymar, Lucas Ocampos, Marek Hamsik, Mario Gotze, et al.
The summer is when most business is done. If you're desperate you may have to pay up in January.
The UEFA FFP rules are looming. It is no surprise that clubs such as City and Chelsea have been notching their expensive acquisitions before next summer to give themselves time to have a clear-out and balance the books.
This latter point may be uppermost in Sir Alex's mind. It is possible that transfer fees will fall sharply when FFP comes into being, but United will have no difficulty meeting the requirements. Their salary structure is more realistic than City, Real Madrid and Barcelona, and they have the commercial revenues to cope with a steady but generous transfer budget for years to come—especially if they get the Singapore float away and pay off the debt.
The final consideration is how quickly Sir Alex will want to clear the decks and bed in the caucus of his future squad. Apart from planned obsolescence of senior players, there may be rather more dead wood after the Palace debacle.
Who comes in could be a function of who goes out
First, there is the matter of loans. SAF has already indicated that Macheda, Diouf, Pogba and Morrison will go out on loan. On the other side of the coin is who comes back. Wootton is apparently already back at Old Trafford due to injury—he may get his chance next year; and Tunnicliffe could be needed if Darron Gibson is sold.
When it comes to who might be sold, that will largely be dictated by the market. It's no secret that Sir Alex tried to offload Gibson and Kuszczak last summer. Currently, however, there are 13 clubs in the relegation zone in the Premier League. Martin O' Neill will have a transfer budget. Martin Jol, Roy Hodgson and others are on the lookout. Wigan always look for value. And so on.
The other consideration is who might be attractive by way of part-exchange. Berbatov, Ferdinand, Macheda and even the da Silva twins could fit that bill—especially in Italy or Spain.
The last time we looked at January targets, we went through the following thought process:
What do Manchester United need?
Who would be prepared to move?
Who would be eligible?
Who would be unavailable in January?
What nationality would fit best?
Who fits the United mould?
We'll apply the same criteria in selecting the twelve names who are realistic targets.
One of the hallmarks of Sir Alex's recent signings is versatility.
Apart from the obvious example of Phil Jones, Ashley Young has already shown he can play through the middle or on the right. Chris Smalling looks equally comfortable in central defence or at right back.
This makes Javi Martinez a highly attractive proposition. Although naturally a midfielder, he stand 1-metre-90 and has been used as a central defender this season.
The right age at 23, he already has seven full caps for Spain as well as 24 U21 appearances, mainly with David de Gea.
Although Athletic Bilbao would be extremely reluctant to sell, he has a release clause that United could spring with a £27 million bid.
Of course, Everton don't want to sell Jack Rodwell. But Everton are struggling both on and off the pitch. Unless one of the supposed interested parties materialises as a bidder before January, the only way to release funds for much needed freshening is for David Moyes to sell one of his stars.
While Ross Barkley has been touted as a United target also, Rodwell offers more versatility. He and Phil Jones are symbolic of England's future and will play together many times. Where better to form an understanding than at Old Trafford.
It is no secret that Sir Alex has coveted Rodwell for a while now and, though he may have gone off the boil last season, he looks back to his best now. Although most see him as a midfielder, he has played in central defence and is willing to go where asked.
David Moyes has just awarded Fellaini the most valuable contract ever for an Everton player. Moyes wants to build the team around him. Sir Alex has the trump card of being able to offer some of those possibilities with Macheda on loan and Darron Gibson and possibly even Jonny Evans on a permanent basis.
Villareal are out of the Champions League and, almost certainly, the Europa League as well.
Bruno Soriano is the best player of his type in La Liga. Sir Alex is desperately in need of replacing Owen Hargreaves, and Soriano fits the bill perfectly. He has the best tackle and intercept rates in La Liga, and his stats are way ahead of Fletcher, Anderson and Carrick—all of whom have had to adapt to an unfamiliar role.
Soriano is also an adept distributor of the ball and, although now 27, he gives Sir Alex a ready-made solution until his younger prospects like Tunnicliffe come through.
Luka Modric cannot surely be in the slightest doubt how highly Sir Alex rates him. And if he thinks it's expeditious to sell his star midfielder, Harry Redknapp will give a rave review of his Scottish friend.
Surely Modric can see that he will be given the chance to truly replace Paul Scholes and that Sir Alex would build the team around him.
Already a budding legend at Spurs, Modric could be even more so at Old Trafford, where he would find the playing style very similar to what he has become used to in London.
He has not yet signed a new contract and has made it clear that it is the challenge rather than the money which appeals to him. Why go to City where he would be another cog, when at United he can be the wheel?
Again, Sir Alex has gems that Redknapp covets. He would take Rio, Michael Carrick or even Dimitar Berbatov in part-exchange.
There is so much competition for Mario Gotze's signature that is seems most unlikely he would end up at Old Trafford. Furthermore, he seems to have committed his future to Borussia for a couple of years.
So, what better than to duck under the radar and buy Gotze's colleague Kagawa? Kagawa has had a difficult year, mainly due to a broken leg, but he is a goal-scoring midfielder with a superb engine who could replace Ryan Giggs and/or Ji Sung Park with his skill and versatility.
Equally important, as we have mentioned previously, he is a marketing dream for United's Far Eastern commercial ambitions and could, like Park, become a national hero through his exposure at United.
Borussia are out of the Champions League. Kagawa could not only release some funds but also allow them to hold on to Gotze.
I make no apologies for returning to the subject of Gary Cahill because he seems a no-brainer—especially now that Phil Jones has shown his versatility in midfield.
It seems likely that Vidic's head was turned by Mourinho last summer and only stayed for the captaincy at Old Trafford. In which case, Sir Alex has to plan for his and Rio's succession.
Cahill is also the finished product and, as a mature English international, can slot straight in. He also seems likely to be a long-term partner with Jones for his country.
The Palace debacle may finally have convinced Sir Alex that Jonny Evans' talent is not matched by his focus or consistency. This would be a fair exchange.
Cahill, like Jones, lives in Greater Manchester. He and his team have had a wretched year. Time to restart his engine just down the road?
And signing him would keep him out of the clutches of all United's major rivals.
It would have been no surprise if Sir Alex was looking for a left back after the Manchester City debacle, as Patrice Evra went missing for five of the goals.
He is also now 30, so, although his form has been much better since, planning for his replacement seems wise.
Now plenty of people would expect Fabio da Silva to be the likely successor, but he and his brother don't seem to last a game just now—either through fitness, injury or being yellow carded.
Zeki Fryers looks a great prospect and Jonny Evans can play left back, but Fuchs has 39 caps for Austria, is 25 and has been getting rave reviews since his move to Schalke.
Following the Palace match, Sir Alex may be planning to roll forward his replacement programme quicker than anticipated, and it will undoubtedly be based on a mix of youth and experience.
Having missed out on Luis Enrique, Fuchs seems a good choice and he has apparently been scouted by United recently.
He looks like a young Ruud van Nistelrooy in the way he plays. A great goal and an outrageous overhead for Sporting Lisbon last week mark him out as a precocious young talent who looks better value than Huntelaar.
So why buy another striker?
Macheda has not followed through; Berbatov is saleable; Diouf won't make it; Hernandez is injured; and United need another striker with height, together with Welbeck. William Keane will make it later and, with Rooney being versatile in his role, van Wolfswinkel could be part of a bright future.
Sir Alex was a striker himself and he loves talented young strikers. United have a close relationship with Sporting Lisbon thanks to Carlos Queiroz and may have young players they would be interested in—especially on loan, like Macheda, Pogba and Morrison.
If van Wolfswinkel was available at an attractive price and wanted to come, Sir Alex wouldn't say no. He hasn't had another striker like van Nistelrooy. This lad fits the bill.
To my mind, Montolivo is one of the most likely to come to Old Trafford. There are, of course, several other possible targets, and United will always be scouting the very best talent. But until the market settles down after the FFP rules come into play, the prices will remain unrealistic as far as Sir Alex is concerned.
Also, there is only a finite number who will move in January and whose clubs would let them go. As far as the latter is concerned, it will come down mainly to whether another club will pay an inflated price (such as a release clause, as with Phil Jones) or whether they need to sell to finance their own targets.
Another wild card factor could be if United have a player to offer in part exchange or on loan that the selling club may be interested in taking.
At the end of the day, the most important factor is, do they want to play and stay at United. Ji Sung Park is a good example: flattered to be signed, happy to stay for the rest of his career, patient enough to wait until the manager picks him and ready to give his all, each and every time he is called on. Michael Carrick is another.
Some players simply won't be available or suitable in January—specifically those either still engaged in the Champions League or cup-tied. Why on Earth do people still think Sneijder will arrive in January, when AC Milan are through to the knockout stages and he would only be able to play in the FA Cup and Premier League?
So, while Sir Alex may covet Eden Hazard, Yann M'Vila and Milos Krasic, Montolivo represents a real prospect of sorting out the midfield conundrum. His contract is up in the summer; he has refused to sign a new one; and it is clear he will now move in January.
He is captain at Fiorentina; has played 30 times for Italy; is a traditional deep-lying Italian play-maker, who can play defensive midfield.
He may never be United captain, but one thing they have missed at times this season is individuals taking responsibility for the performance of the team. With the other resources they have, he can be a foil to Cleverley, Anderson, Carrick or whoever in midfield.
Finally, he won't cost £30 million despite being a mature professional with, prospectively a five to six years career ahead of him at Old Trafford.
This is the one everybody wants—Real Madrid, Chelsea, Arsenal, United, Inter.
And no surprise. He is one of the most hugely talented midfielders in Europe and, at his age, possibly the world.
Whether he moves in January will come down to whether: a) Lille qualify for the knockout stages of the ECL, b) who is prepared to pay the most money, c) and above all, who the lad wants to spend probably the rest of his career with.
There is no sense in him moving to a club where he will simply be a squad player. Samir Nasri has made an error in my judgement in going to City, because he would have played almost every match for United because of his versatility.
Hazard can play through the middle or on either wing. He is a potential natural successor to Ryan Giggs, and this is what he needs to understand if United come in with a serious bid. He would get the same opportunity at Arsenal, but they won't pay the price. Even at Chelsea he will be subject to rotation.
Finally, even at £40 million he would represent better value than Sneijder at £30 million. Either would be the marquee signing that Rooney was probably looking for last October.
M'Vila's talent is also widely recognised and coveted. Teams that have a depth of squad can sign either a creative or defensive midfielder and mould the rest about them if they are talented enough.
United, however, need a combative midfielder above all. Yes, they would love to replace Paul Scholes, but Tom Cleverley or Paul Pogba could possibly do that. Since Roy Keane left, Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher and even Anderson have had to subjugate their natural tendencies to shore up the middle.
M'Vila meets the need. Apparently an English club made a £20 million offer at the last minute last summer. This is likely to have been either Arsenal or United, following the Nasri saga.
He plays for Rennes, he's 21 and ambitious. He would ordinarily move next summer, but Rennes would probably cash in for the right price in January. Will Sir Alex pay it?
Milos Krasic has been described as "the new Pavel Nedved," and that alone would be enough to make Sir Alex an admirer.
He also could replace Ryan Giggs on the wing, as well as filling the midfield creative role. At 27, he is at the peak of his playing ability. Best of all, he has 36 caps for Serbia and would come with a personal recommendation from Nemanja Vidic.
So why would he leave Juventus?
Basically, he's lost his regular place. He would get regular football at Old Trafford and would follow such as Michael Carrick as being part of the core of the team.
There are other clubs interested. Both City and Chelsea are reputed to have had an interest when Krasic left CSKA Moscow. Whether they would pursue such interest now may well depend on whether they have success elsewhere—e.g., Hazard—or whether he fits Andre Villas-Boas' master plan rather than Roman Abramovich's.
Like Samir Nasri at City, Krasic needs to judge whether he will get a regular start if he moves to another club, because that's his beef at Juventus.
He may not be Wesley Sneijder, but he could be, at the right club and with the right manager. He would walk into the United team tomorrow—and stay. At a probable £15 million, he ticks all the boxes: midfield, versatile, available, affordable, mature, likely to finish his career at Old Trafford.
What do Ashley Young and Phil Jones have in common?
They are versatile. They were affordable. They wanted to join United. They have fitted straight into the team ethic, because they are prepared to subordinate their own egos to the corporate goal—as is Javier Hernandez.
In the preceding slides we have featured a number of players that fit those criteria, together with a couple of "marquee" signings.
When the UEFA FFP rules come into effect, the European transfer market may quieten down. But right now, Sir Alex has an immediate need—maybe several. The Palace, City and even the Basel home match will have infuriated him and will probably have lead him to question the commitment and the future of several players.
So this gives him much more flexibility in the market: He can raise money if he sells Gibson, Kuszczak, Diouf or even Berbatov. In the right circumstances and for the right player, he would probably consider a part-exchange of some others that might surprise us.
He is a realist, as well as a pragmatist. He is not the only person who can see that United need change—and he's building for the future.
Jones' and Young's versatility give him more flexibility in the squad. If he can find defenders who can play right or left as well as centre back; midfielders who can play in defense (or vice versa); or who can play either holding or attacking; in the middle or on the wing; he will have the "dream ticket."
United are ahead of last year in the Premier League, but the "new kids on the block" are doing even better. Elsewhere, they have struggled to a surprising extent. Above all, despite the early success of Tom Cleverley, the midfield conundrum has not been solved. Depending on whether Pogba stays, he may need two new midfielders—one mature and one prospect.
Why? Because United will never again win the Champions League without solving this problem. And as this season has shown, you can have open football, bucket loads of goals and lose 6-1 to City, or you can have rock-solid defense, 1-0 wins and struggle against Newcastle and Stoke—but you can't have both.
Form is temporary, class is permanent. When you have won 12 titles and the Champions League twice in 25 years you can't afford the luxury of even one bad year—otherwise things can begin to unravel, to the point where the manager's time could be up.