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It’s that time of year. The January transfer window ‘opens’ earlier and earlier. As with its summer cousin, the major clubs try to conclude deals before the window actually opens.
And already the rumours are flying about Jose Mourinho’s targets. With Paul Scholes having suggested recently that the Manchester United manager will need two or three transfer windows to develop the team he wants, there is a real expectation that United will make at least one signing this January.
But what is Jose’s best team? Before we consider what it might ultimately be, let’s consider who he would pick for the Christmas programme if everyone was fit. Then we can go on to speculate on the ultimate ‘dream team’.
United’s squad is gelling
It is good that Jose has stopped whining about the points dropped in four home draws, because his team have certainly found their form recently – especially against a gritty West Brom outfit.
The more they play together, the more the best players will develop an instinctive understanding, and the faster and more spectacular the football will become. And let’s be in no doubt; skill and pace are going to be at a premium going forward.
Some would say that United have the makings of a very good squad already, even though there are relics from the Moyes and Van Gaal eras. Some of those may well be shipped out in July, if not in January.
Whatever happens, we can safely assume that Morgan Schneiderlin, Memphis Depay, Marouane Fellaini and Ashley Young are unlikely to feature in the 2017/18 squad.
It is no exaggeration to suggest that most United fans are thrilled that Henrikh Mkhitaryan has finally made his breakthrough. Sadly punctuated by a poor tackle from Danny Rose, Henrikh will surely be central to Mourinho’s plans.
Just…how?! 😮 pic.twitter.com/P7jUaiRNEE
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) December 26, 2016
So what is his best team?
Now this is the hard one. Even a matter of weeks ago, who would have thought that Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones could play so well together? And after his impressive debut season, many would be surprised that Anthony Martial is not a first choice. Marcus Rashford is also struggling to reproduce his form of last term.
The media was not alone in sounding Wayne Rooney‘s ‘last post’. Of course there are always going to be supporters of other teams who detest everything about him; and he has always had a legion of doubting England supporters.
This hardly seems just for one of the nation’s greatest ever players. In 100 years Sir Bobby Charlton will still be remembered, but the ex-Evertonian, who has captained England vastly more than the ‘Busby Babe’, will also have had many more caps and more goals, but will not be so celebrated.
He does, however, seem to have recaptured much of his best form as he hovers on the brink of eclipsing his hero’s goalscoring record. So should he feature in Mourinho’s best team?
We have two possible escape routes: the best ‘squad’ of 18 players; and the fact that different squads are appropriate for different scenarios.
Leaving out the variations implied by Premier League, Europa League, FA Cup and League Cup, there will be a slightly different team against Liverpool than against Burnley or Sunderland. However, in an ideal world the team would be pretty much the same for all scenarios, carrying all before them.
Anyhow, while some players are certainties: De Gea, Pogba, Valencia and Ibrahimovic, the rest are harder to pick. Based on our article about Michael Carrick, we would add Carrick and Ander Herrera to those four first picks.
This leaves us with five to select, starting with central defence.
Fully fit, surely Eric Bailly is a shoo-in (except during the African Nations Cup). The question is, who plays alongside him? The two natural left-footers are Rojo and Blind. The latter should surely be a candidate for holding midfield or reserve left back if he stays long term?
But what do you do when Jones and Rojo have played so well together in the last few weeks and Chris Smalling was deemed to be good enough to be appointed club vice captain? In some parts of the media there has even been speculation that the 27-year-old former Maidstone United and Fulham player would be surplus to requirements, especially if Victor Lindelof arrives this January.
Without any additions to the current squad, one would have to think that Bailly and Smalling would be first choice. And at left back, Luke Shaw should be an obvious pick, unless Rojo retains his recent form.
Which leaves two attacking positions to be decided: left and right attacking players. These should surely be Martial on the left and Mkhitaryan on the right.
All of which leaves Mata, Rooney, Rashford, Lingard, Blind, Darmian and Jones surplus to requirements, let alone the players who might be released.
So United’s current best team could be: De Gea; Valencia, Bailly, Smalling, Rojo; Carrick, Herrera, Pogba; Martial, Ibrahimovic and Mkhitaryan; with Romero, Jones, Blind, Mata, Rooney, Lingard and Rashford in reserve. Shaw only comes into the picture, fully fit, if he can reproduce the form that suggested he might be England’s left back for years to come.
So who should leave in January or July?
Mourinho let Juan Mata leave Chelsea because he wanted regular first team football. He has achieved that at United, but there are other players who the manager will allow to leave if they want to.
It can be disruptive to team spirit having a player who is resentful at not getting games, but also we should consider that virtually none of the present squad was chosen by Mourinho.
The obvious ones to leave are Schneiderlin and Memphis Depay. Blind, Jones, Ashley Young and Matteo Darmian will have to decide whether they are happy to remain squad players. Despite his better form until the clumsy gift of a penalty, Fellaini’s departure would not disappoint most supporters.
Hopefully the youngsters, like Tim Fosu-Mensah and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson can look through the prism of the next couple of years to a brighter future. Let’s hope Axel Tuanzebe is similarly optimistic.
But if Mourinho says that any unhappy player can leave for the right price, this could include Martial, who has been a shadow of last season’s bright prospect for much of this season and would surely command a massive fee from the likes of Paris St Germain or Sevilla?
And what of the future?
Every transfer window brings its spate of rumours. There are some names that come up more than others, however.
Lindelof seems likely to arrive soon and therefore would replace Smalling in our chosen few. Similarly, Antoine Griezmann could replace Martial for the time being, with the latter or Rashford reverting to striker when Ibrahimovic retires.
But don’t forget the budding young talent hanging around United’s first-team squad: Fosu-Mensah, Borthwick-Jackson and Tuanzebe have already caught Mourinho’s eye, but there are also Tahith Chong, Roshaun Williams, the two Joshes (Gribbin and Harrop), Indy Boonen, Angel Gomes, etc. Sean Goss looks like a Carrick clone in the making.
The big question could be who will replace Carrick? And for that matter, how long will David de Gea stay? Jan Oblak looks like the best replacement.
So in two years’ time, assuming that Ibrahimovic and Carrick have retired and possibly Wayne Rooney also, the line-up could resemble the following:
Oblak; Fosu-Mensah, Bailly, Lindelof, Shaw; Herrera, Pogba; Rashford, Griezmann, Mkhitaryan; Martial.
What do you think?
Words: Terry Carroll | Main image credit: Usman Malik