Manchester United’s pursuit of Cesc Fabregas in the off-season must go down as one of the most hopelessly futile in transfer window history.
One can never say never in the crazy world of football; but with Fabregas having so much unfinished business in the city he was born, at a club he was raised, with Barcelona playing to the style he fancied and with the results he had so craved, and with Arsenal contractually entitled to first asking, it was easy to make the exception.
Whatever United’s excuses, in the heat of the moment back then and in retrospect now I still believe the whole affair exposed their near-fatal failings on the scouting front, inherited and accentuated by David Moyes but all too apparent in Sir Alex Ferguson’s last years when his brother Martin was in charge.
Never mind that Fabregas was out of reach, United were going for the tried and tested rather than cast their net much wider and take the calculated gamble that, say, Man City had taken with a David Silva, Chelsea with Oscar, Liverpool with a Coutinho or Arsenal with a Mesut Ozil.
When considered that the Fabregas chase was accompanied by overtures for Luka Modric, another proven performer in the Premiership in a case where ‘selling’ club and player were equally unwavering, those scouting failures were underwhelming.
After all, in the same window, Man City and Chelsea went all the way to Ukraine and Russia and spent as much as United were willing to part with, scooping up the all too willing Fernandinho and Willian who as expected are proving to be worth every penny.
Any one of those two, or even United’s New Year’s Day tormentor-in-chief Christian Eriksen whom Tottenham acquired uncontested from the Dutch Eredivisie, would have made the midfield at Old Trafford completely unrecognisable from its current shambles.
The last time United shipped in a midfield maestro of such caliber was when Juan Sebastian Veron came to town, and yet even with all the compatibility issues then I still vividly recall him making significant contributions to their comeback title win of 2003 (until injury struck) and to the Champions League adventure ended by Ronaldo and Real Madrid that year.
Times have changed and the game has evolved, and all the teams above United on the current Premiership log have not just one but several midfielders of outstanding technical quality, playing as deep-lying playmakers, central conductors or advanced trequartistas.
Yet United’s reluctance and hesitance to go with the times manifests itself in several different ways, from the puzzling failure to lure Wesley Sneijder to Manchester down to the inability to exploit Shinji Kagawa’s subtle qualities, and so much more in between.
That Sneijder, who has already played Champions League football with Galatasaray, is said to be back on the radar, along with other Cup-tied candidates likes Sevilla’s Ivan Rakitic lends credence to those scouting failings.
The Premiership-proven prospects that are not Cup-tied, like Southampton’s Adam Lallana and Everton’s Ross Barkley, have not played enough football at the highest level to take on the immediate immense pressure of delivering United from the doldrums; there would also be enormous risk attached to any unknown gems in Latin America or Eastern Europe.
So, playing scout as I am wont to do, here is widening the scope a lot more than United apparently do but still narrowing it down to just a few of the best performing clubs across Europe’s top tier that are not playing in the continental competitions this term.
With the best already taken and rendered ineligible, the next best would be relative bargains and yet any two of these would lift the midfield gloom off United and spark a transformation to shock many.
A raid on Monaco for Joao Moutinho or James Rodriguez, Athletic Bilbao for Iker Muniain or Ander Herrera, Roma for Miralem Pjanic, Kevi Strootman or Adem Ljajic, Inter Milan for Ricardo Alvarez or Freddy Guarin, Wolfsburg for Diego or Luis Gustavo, or Newcastle for Johan Cabaye would do, just for starters. And like United’s better performing English rivals have found out, those are no gambles at all.
Man City are full to the brim and need not scramble through this window, and so my scouting mission for Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool is on next week.
MARK SSALI’S PLAYERS OF THE WEEK > EUROPEAN FOOTBALL STARS
1. Theo Walcott. The Gunners are back on top of the log, in no small part thanks to his return. A double against West Ham and the clincher against Cardiff only tell part of the story.
2. Fernandinho. Took a back seat and lived in Yaya Toure’s shadow for long, but now the Brazilian has stepped forward to more visibly help City’s title charge.
3. Eden Hazard. Chelsea are keeping up the heat on the top two with some resounding victories lately, as Liverpool and Southampton will attest. The Belgian is at the centre of it all.
4. Luis Suarez. If there is a way through, Suarez will find it. They might have lost the table leadership they held at Christmas, but they are hanging around thanks to him.
5. Seamus Coleman. There is not a better right back in the English Premiership at the moment, and Coleman is currently an outstanding performer in an over-achieving team.
6. Emmanuel Adebayor. In the post-Andre Villa Boas era, no player better represents the new dawn than Emmanuel Adebayor who has gone from outcast to hero in some style.