But United’s hierarchy – guided by Sir Alex Ferguson – pointedly swerved the Portuguese, instead taking what they saw as a long-term option in David Moyes.
The fact Moyes has been so busy scouting transfer targets in Europe these past few weeks implies that the club is giving him the responsibility to bring in new talent.
So, bearing this in mind, I do not think they will sack Moyes. Not now anyway.
I think they expected some pain in transition, particularly with a squad that has been seen as overachieving for a few years now. I don’t think they could have predicted things would get to this stage, but all the same I genuinely believe the club is focused on rebuilding for a new era, as opposed to gaining instant results.
I don’t buy all these conspiracy theories about Fergie undermining Moyes, certainly not the implication that he has deliberately played his fellow Scotsman a ‘hospital ball’ by leaving him with a dud squad.
In a funny way having Fergie around helps Moyes. He will be telling the board that Moyes is the right man to get where they want to long-term; Fergie will also be reminding them that it took him three-and-a-half years to rebuild the Manchester United squad.
It’s easy to forget that, early in Fergie’s reign, United were in a far worse position than they are now. Many fans won’t even have been alive, let alone aware, when that was happening.
This time, United are not that far off challenging again, in terms of the coaching set-up, the relative youth of the squad and the development of young players at the club’s academy.
They do need to spend, though.
It’s clear that the balance isn’t there anymore. What United had in previous seasons was a mixture of big players with big personalities, promising youngsters, and functional squad players who would do a job without complaining when left out of the team.
What the big, experienced players did was support, help and protect the younger lads and the average footballers. Right now, that Old Trafford ‘elite’ is not functioning.
Part of that is down to luck. Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie have had injury problems, while Marouane Fellaini – a fine player – is having an unexpectedly difficult start to life at the club.
But much of it is a completion of a natural cycle. Paul Scholes has retired (again); Ryan Giggs, Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic are in various stages of physical decline; Michael Carrick is a square peg in a round hole (more on that later).
Those senior players with a winning mentality are not performing, and due to their ages it is hard to see that dominance returning.
So, it naturally follows, that United need to spend big, both in January (when it is notoriously hard to get good players at good prices), or in the summer, where they will hope to have learned from mistakes in 2013’s pre-season.
But what type of player – and who, specifically – should United be after?
1. A new back four
One area where United are very strong is in goal. But the rest of the defensive line needs a major overhaul.
Regarding centre-backs, Vidic and Ferdinand are in steep decline, while Jonny Evans is not quite good enough to be first choice at a club like that. The promise of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones has not been matched by their development, with the former too error prone and the latter unable to establish his position on the pitch. A strong, commanding, no-nonsense defender such as Dejan Lovren - who has proved his ability to step up from Ligue 1 - would be an excellent buy, although I’m not sure if Southampton would sell. Moyes watched Juventus play Cagliari recently, with Davide Astori’s name mentioned among others involved in the game. United have also been long linked with ball-playing Benfica centre-half Ezequiel Garay and Porto's Eliaquim Mangala.
2. Two central midfielders
It is embarrassing for United that they are so frequently overrun in midfield, and that they keep looking to a raw 18-year-old for inspiration. The old-guard’s legs have faded, while sickness has unfortunately halted Darren Fletcher. Michael Carrick is a good player when he is not exposed, but he lacks the mobility to cover the gaping holes appearing either side of him, thanks to a wooden defence and clueless attacking midfield. Additionally, he is not suited to the pressing, hard-running game United are trying to play. Anderson has been shipped out, and Tom Cleverley does not appear to be good enough; Fellaini should come good but that is still not quite enough.
There are two types of player United should target.
First, an all-action, driving midfielder like Arturo Vidal of Juventus. The kind of player who shuts down that space between midfield and defence, but is able to get forward and support the attack.
Ilkay Gundogan is a less physical but more technical alternative, but Atletico Madrid's Koke signed a new contract last week and so will stay for now.
And secondly, they need a canny creative playmaker who can cut through tight defences.
Marco Reus would be an excellent option in this respect as he is not just a fancy-dan attacking midfielder – he runs, works and covers brilliantly.
And he also has a release clause, which at least ensures you can get the player without being outbid by PSG or City. United will have learned from the Fellaini farce – where they could have got him for cheaper earlier in the summer – and, provided he is indeed on their list, quick action could see them land a world-class footballer. Claudio Marchisio, who is more a box-to-box player, has also been mentioned.
3. A world-class winger
I still can’t work out why Nani was offered a new contract, as his inconsistency means he will never reach the heights his natural skill hinted at. United have plenty of wide players, but Ashley Young has lost his mojo, while Antonio Valencia lacks that x-factor for the biggest games. It is lower priority than other positions, but they could still do with a key signing. Julian Draxler, who can play wide or through the middle, has been mentioned but Arsenal seem to be ahead in the queue. Any hopes of re-signing Cristiano Ronaldo can be put to bed for a few years at least.
This is the lowest priority for United, but with Van Persie seemingly keeping an eye on the World Cup, and Rooney constantly picking up injuries, they could do well to bring in a forward. None of the existing quartet need replacing as such, as Danny Welbeck and Chicharito have their qualities, so someone with different attributes to those already at the club would be helpful.
Fernando Llorente – another Juve player – has been linked, although he has just started to play well for the club, and had the chance to join United on a free in the summer.
So, all in all, that is a lot of transfer activity to conduct in 10 days. The likelihood is that Moyes will bring in a couple of new faces this window, and do major business in the summer.
Certainly they cannot afford to rely on Adnan Januzaj. He played the whole 90 minutes of a lost cause against Chelsea, when they could have rested his legs for what has now become a massive game for United against Sunderland in the League Cup, as it now represents their best chance at silverware. Additionally, there is a real risk of hampering his development by placing too much physical and mental pressure on his young body.
Some of you will ask 'why would any top player join United at the moment', and they have a point - the jury is out on Moyes, United are unlikely to win a major trophy this season, and they even look like outsiders to reach the Champions League.
But two things talk - history, and money. One bad season does not end a club, and United are one of the biggest clubs in world football. They are a handful of achievable signings away from being one of the top teams again.
While United may not wish to match Monaco, PSG and City in terms of individual salaries, they are comfortably able to outpay most other teams, and certainly any side in Italy, where Moyes has been scouting. Yes, Juve are top of Serie A, but they are out of the Champions League, and cannot compete with United on wages, with Paul Pogba an exception in that United were not prepared to give him a first-team salary at that stage of his career.
So it looks to me like they will be looking at players in Italy and Portugal, leagues where the very best can be snared by the lure of the Premier League. But with just a week-and-a half left, United need to act quickly.
- Sports & Recreation
- Manchester United
- David Moyes