Instead of spending, Louis van Gaal could improve the players he has
The transfer window does not even need to be open for Manchester United to be central to the rumour mill. Now that it is, however, speculation is officially in overdrive mode.
You've seen the headline-grabbing gossip: Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Neymar have all been repeatedly linked to a move to Old Trafford. But you can understand why, too. United are in fifth in the Premier League. Despite spending over £250 million in the 18 months since Louis van Gaal arrived, the club must feel the ominous threat of not qualifying for Europe next season while other teams, such as Tottenham and Liverpool, press for a top-four finish.
In reality, with Ronaldo, Bale and Neymar out of reach until the summer at least, if at all, less-storied types like Felipe Anderson, Riyad Mahrez, Lucas Moura and Sadio Mane could be the type of player on Van Gaal's radar when he said, in November, that United "need speed and creativity on the wings."
United are still short on quality there. Angel Di Maria (remember him?) joined from Real Madrid for £59 million in August 2014, only to be sold a year later -- at a £15 million loss -- to Paris Saint-Germain.
Maybe Mahrez, Moura and Mane could provide that pace and spark, and perhaps Anderson, whose signing was trailed as "imminent" by a number of outlets as 2015 closed, will supply the playmaking qualities that might grant goals to Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial.
But it is also likely that none of that quartet, or anyone else for that matter, will be handed to Van Gaal, whose position as manager is hardly secure. Allocating fresh funds to someone who may not be in charge come the summer would appear foolish, even for a club of United's deep resources, and a Forbes valuation of $3.1 billion.
January is rightly treated with caution by United, who have rarely done much business in the winter since the system of transfer windows was created ahead of the 2002-03 season. A year ago, for example, goalkeeper Victor Valdes, who as a free agent was already training with the club, was the only addition to the first-team squad.
Juan Mata was helicoptered in for £37m during David Moyes' 2013-14 season in charge, but is still yet to prove himself a consistent force. The Spaniard became the first January signing brought into the first-team reckoning since 2010 when striker Mame Biram Diouf arrived for an undisclosed fee. He ended up making just five Premier League appearances before being sold to Hannover.
Aside from minor names like Ritchie De Laet and Zoran Tosic in 2009 and Manucho the previous year -- the three played six league games between them -- United fans must go back a decade to find significant January signings in Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic.
Even then, while both would ultimately attain status as gold-plated stars of a defence that won the 2008 Champions League and five Premier League titles together, that pair's immediate contribution was hardly stellar as both struggled in their new environment. It was not until the following season's title win that Ferguson was able to call them key defenders.
So scant business is expected this month, even if Van Gaal did hint after Saturday's 2-1 defeat of Swansea City that a striker might be targeted: "[Goal scoring] is our problem. It can be solved with money, but also on the training pitch," he said.
With very few top strikers available, the latter option looks likelier. Moreover, considering the money lavished on the Dutchman's squad, it is high time that his training methods effect a positive change in his team's goal record -- United have managed only 24 in 20 league games -- and, beyond that, the quality and entertainment of the team's overall play.
None of Van Gaal's 12 first-team signings has proved themselves an unimpeachable success, with Daley Blind, previously the most reliable, having suffered a loss of form during United's eight-game winless recent slide. Meanwhile, it took until last Saturday's Swansea victory, in which both Rooney and Martial scored, for the striking duo to look anything like a partnership.
And Memphis Depay, whose £25m signing from PSV Eindhoven was supposed to add the speed and creativity that Van Gaal craves, was criticised last weekend by Dutch legend Ruud Gullit, who pinpointed that Depay has become more famous for his collection of luxury motors than any of his on-field contributions.
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Meanwhile, the jury is still out on summer midfield additions Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin. In United's 0-0 draw with Chelsea on Dec. 28, the German was slow in possession while the Frenchman so far suggests that starring for Southampton is little guarantee for success on a bigger stage.
Schneiderlein inability to impose himself, which somewhat mirrors like the problems suffered by former teammates Dejan Lovren, Adam Lallana and Nathaniel Clyne at Liverpool, ought to provide caution against United paying what has been quoted as a £62.5m overall deal to sign Mane from Saints.
Defensively, left-back Luke Shaw's absence because of a broken leg is being felt keenly, and a proper central partner for Chris Smalling is still required with Blind not a long-term solution and Phil Jones still dreadfully injury prone. There are few obvious suitors for either position, though PSG's Marquinhos has been rumoured.
Were executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward and the club-owning Glazer family to give Van Gaal money to spend, it might serve as confirmation of early December's media-briefed faith in the manager. Yet after so many costly signings, any further business is in danger of just becoming more waste.
United's transfer dealing since Sir Alex Ferguson left his post in May 2013 has been chaotic, with multimillions lavished on a squad that has cost the club £398 million in total to compile. And still the club looks an ailing giant struggling to match a recently glorious past.
Before he gets the chance to buy new talent, Van Gaal probably needs to prove that he can actually improve the players he already has.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.