Manchester United’s new signing Eric Bailly looked composed, steady and flashy when needed as United calmly kept a clean sheet in their first game under new manager Jose Mourinho, a 2-0 friendly win over Wigan. However, many believe United still needs another defender, and rumours say the Old Trafford outfit is after Roma’s Greek star Kostas Manolas. According to The Sun, Manolas will not come cheaply, as reports are indicating that Manolas would cost in the region of £37.5 million for any potential suitor.
United’s defensive partnership of Daley Blind and Chris Smalling ended up being the best base in the Premier League last season, despite the fact Blind isn’t necessarily a central defender. However, even though United purchased Bailly, there are question marks about the quality of United’s defence. Bailly and Smalling fit the mould of the stopper United needs in one central defender berth (and perhaps in both berths situationally), while Blind and Marcos Rojo represent the ball-playing defenders suited to the other berth. That leaves a couple intriguing debates to consider before pondering a transfer for Manolas.
The first is a question regarding Mourinho’s liking of Rojo and Blind in the centre of defence. Rojo endured a promising first season in the centre of defence for United and rivalled Smalling as United’s best defender- strong in the tackle, calm in distribution and as aggressive as Nemanja Vidic, Rojo endeared himself to United fans with his undying passion. However, he spent most of his second season at United playing at left-back, and if he has a future on the left for United I would be baffled. That being said, many believe he could be part of United’s defence because he’s likely willing to be a fringe player. The question is whether his potential from the first season is enough to keep him at United because based on his second season he’s half way out the door.
As for Blind, he undoubtedly has the quality to be a solid central defender. Many people will say he doesn’t, which stems from pure ignorance; deploying him in defence was one of the very few master strokes in Louis van Gaal’s culminating season at United. However, there are debates as to whether Mourinho would like Blind. Arguably answering those questions, the Dutchman played in central defence against Wigan ahead of Phil Jones, suggesting that he will have a place there in the squad (perhaps as the fourth defender, if not one of the rotating starters).
The second debate is around Manolas’ suitability to what Mourinho wants, which seems to be a (particularly) physical defender who can pass the ball. Mourinho’s recent Chelsea side had Gary Cahill to distribute the ball, while his Real Madrid side featured both Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane. On the face of it, Manolas is a defender with star quality, but with record fees on the table, there could be better options out there.
Chelsea reportedly is abandoning a chase for Manolas in favour of Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly, who is a ridiculous passer of the ball in comparison. Koulibaly is almost three inches taller than Manolas, standing at almost 6’5, and he records five tackles and interceptions per game compared to Manolas’ less than four.
United’s prime target should be in La Liga, where Athletic Bilbao’s Aymeric Laporte is known as one of the best young defenders in the world. Laporte’s passing statistics are nearly identical to Manolas’, and he completes more tackles and interceptions than the Greek defender. Laporte’s left-footedness will be important to a United defence that has been built around the concept of left and right-footed defenders. Laporte, 22, has been playing senior football for years already, using versatility to play in the centre and left of defence to help Bilbao push for Champions League football. Laporte’s release clause is reportedly £39 million, less than £2 million more than Manolas. Bilbao failed to qualify for the Champions League, making him an even easier target.
Manolas is undoubtedly a good defender, but there are so many footballers out there who represent better business. Juventus just signed Mehdi Benatia, a world class defender, and the loan has the option of a £14 million fee next year. Barcelona signed young ball-playing central defender Samuel Umtiti for less than £20 million. For United to spend almost £70 million on two defenders when others are available would be ridiculous when players of this calibre are moving for bargain fees. Again, Bailly and Manolas are good defenders, and Bailly’s signing could prove to be a masterstroke, but adding Manolas to that would be a bit excessive.
If United is going to spend more than £30 million on another defender, he better be special, Laporte is arguably the best young defender in world football, and already better than Manolas while being three years younger. In addition, there are still questions around Marcos Rojo and Daley Blind, both of whom have done enough to arguably warrant another year in the centre of defence.
Signing a player like Laporte would allow United to build a world class defence instead of assembling one. United could definitely use another defender, but it seems a bit harsh on the new signings and the other players currently at the club to shoehorn a completely new type of defender into a unit that was clearly built around the partnership Blind and Smalling had, Manolas won’t be Daley Blind at the heart of defence, and if United is signing a new defender to partner Smalling, they will need to emulate Blind.
In a checklist that involves maintaining the harmony of the current selection while adding quality (with stylistic similarity) to the old selection, Manolas ticks none of the boxes. The track record of defenders joining the Premier League after being successful in Serie A is hardly reputable. There is no reason as to why United needs to purchase guilt-edged panic targets like Manolas when the players joining the club right now are tactically tailored to the system. On a tactical, logical and comparative level, no deal for Manolas works nearly as well as the deals for Bailly, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and, on the face of it, that is the standard to which all transfers should be held at United.