Just 24 hours removed from the conclusion of their Champions League group campaign and it’s very much job done for Jose Mourinho and his Manchester United side.
They topped Group A winning five out of their six matches and can now look forward to their first taste of knockout Champions League football since 2014.
One of the more pleasing elements of this success for the Portuguese coach will be the extra leverage it provides him over his employers. Everybody remembers Louis van Gaal’s disastrous attempt at getting out of the group stage of the Champions League where the club slipped to third in a group containing PSV Eindhoven, Wolfsburg and CSKA Moscow.
The fiscal benefits of qualifying for the knockout phase are thought to be worth a minimum of £25 million with extra bonuses coming per subsequent round.
Jose Mourinho has made no secret of the fact he hasn’t got the perfect squad and he has often looked over at the Etihad Stadium with envious eyes as Pep Guardiola was allowed to spend over £120 million on three full-backs in the summer, one of whom has only made six Premier League appearances this far, despite injuries in that position.
Manchester United’s bean-counters have on the other hand been far more reserved, at least in comparison.
Of course no club that has the means to spend an up-front fee of £75 million on Romelu Lukaku can claim to be paupers but the reality is that the Reds are not able to compete with their rivals in the market as much as they had since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.
Mourinho is aware of this and genuinely feels it is why there is an eight point chasm between the two teams in the league table heading into Sunday’s Manchester derby.
On Wednesday, Duncan Castles posted an exclusive story for Yahoo Sport which detailed that Ed Woodward was to hand Mourinho a winter war chest of just under £80 million. A full-back, central midfielder and winger is on the agenda, yet my understanding is that it will be incredibly difficult for United to spend that money in January.
There is a willingness on United’s part to do business in the winter, something that hasn’t been present for a long time, it is worth remembering that the last senior transfer the club made mid-season was Juan Mata back in 2014.
You could also consider Victor Valdes but he only made two senior appearances that season and was only a periphery signings. He was also a free agent.
January deals are the most difficult to complete, teams aren’t willing to lose their star players halfway through a campaign and Manchester United can’t afford to bring players in who aren’t yet at the requisite high level.
Danny Rose is perhaps the deal that can be done; he is clearly out of favour at Tottenham Hotspur after fitness issues and his summer outburst, although Ben Davies has been outstanding in his place. It seems likely he will push to leave the North London club and Mourinho is a keen admirer who ideally would have liked to bring him in during the summer.
It’s obvious he doesn’t trust Luke Shaw and it seems like he never will, although many thought that about Mata when the former Real Madrid coach arrived.
Tottenham Hotspur are acutely aware of the difficulties that come with winter signings and would likely demand Shaw in return for Rose’s services, such deals are rare and it’s incredibly difficult to imagine how that would be structured, especially given Shaw’s tender age of 22, yet for the moment the Spurs left-back is United’s priority.
Ivan Perisic is a rumour that will likely appear once again but he is going nowhere. He signed a contract extension with Internazionale after it looked like his Old Trafford arrival was a nailed-on certainty in the summer.
In addition, Luciano Spalletti has the Milanese club performing like they haven’t been able to since Mourinho was at the helm and the Croatian will not jeopardise his form in a World Cup year.
Furthermore there is the issue of where a winger would fit into the team. Anthony Martial has hit top form once more and is playing in a way few other footballers in the world can do.
In terms of production you would say Marcus Rashford’s place would be under threat but his work ethic is incredible and he is still learning his trade ahead of a transition into a central position in the future.
Paul Pogba’s injury highlighted the deficiencies in Manchester United’s midfield, aside from the Frenchman there is very little creativity.
Marouane Fellaini has his own unique skill-set and works hard, but he can’t make the difference that the club’s record signing does. Michael Carrick’s health has been a concern this term and it’s difficult to see him playing much more football before retirement.
Andreas Pereira’s loan spell with Valencia is proving to be a smart move, yet he isn’t playing centrally and it’s unclear if he will be ready for Manchester United when he returns.
Adding creativity to the heart of his midfield is something Mourinho wishes to do, although this desire has only grown as the season has progressed. A potential Fellaini departure means the club is on the lookout for a player with a physical presence but who isn’t limited creatively.
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is a player who has caught the eye with United having sent scouts to several of Lazio’s matches to monitor the Spanish born, Serbian international. Unfortunately for the Manchester club, the issue once again is a mix of cost and timing.
His contract with the Italian club runs until June 2022 and Lazio’s hierarchy have privately briefed that they expect his sale to recoup a club record figure, likely to exceed the £60 million mark.
With regards to the January window specifically, a far better option could be Anderlecht’s Leander Dendoncker. The Belgian midfield excelled against United in last season’s Europa League and the Reds made a brief enquiry last summer, although he was never high on their list of priorities.
What is striking about the 22-year-old is his ability to dominate physically whilst maintaining a level of creative control that can influence matches, he is not the complete player that Milinkovic-Savic is, yet he would be a useful, cost-effective signing who is at a club who likely wouldn’t be able to prevent him from leaving mid-season.
However, signing Dendoncker would be a waste of short-term resources if Fellaini is going to stay with the club, United need to make clear what is happening with the former Everton midfield before finalising their winter plans.
If the club are going to get 2-3 more years out of Fellaini then they would be far better served looking at a more naturally creative option, Carlos Soler and Cesc Fabregas jump off the page as the better options, although signing either would be problematic for obvious respective reasons.
Jose Mourinho will be encouraged and further energised by the fact his board are willing to back him, he cut a forlorn figure as his transfer demands of the summer went unfulfilled, he then watched his team be decimated by injury as Pep Guardiola’s charges put together a stupendous run of form.
Being handed money to spend in the winter gives the Portuguese coach a chance to further shape his squad, unfortunately timing may well prevent it from being as productive a window as the former Porto coach would like.
Written by Chris Winterburn
Follow Chris on Twitter @cmwinterburn
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