All summer long, the record has barely changed; Manchester United are interested in a transfer for Jadon Sancho.
It’s a line fans have heard a thousand times, to the point of boredom, though it did not feel especially relevant during a frenetic 3-2 victory over Brighton on Saturday lunchtime.
The adopted mantra from United and many of their followers is that the right-wing drastically needs attention, that a marquee addition is the only thing that will solve Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s problems. Solskjaer, to be fair, has never directly said it but the fact he left out Daniel James — the man who filled the right-wing position for most of last season — from his entire matchday squad at Brighton perhaps reflected the Norwegian’s feelings on the situation.
Yet Mason Greenwood, the man who started on the right flank and has done so well since James’ collapse in form, was one of the few United players who shone at the Amex Stadium. His ability to run at pace, yet with composure on the ball, is astonishing for an 18-year-old and on another day he would have notched a goal and an assist, both his and Marcus Rashford’s efforts either side of half-time chalked off for offside.
Put simply, the right-wing position did not appear United’s biggest problem on a day when they were outplayed by Brighton. So with only around a week remaining in the summer window, what next?
United legend Rio Ferdinand was among the few allowed into the Amex to see the crazy game first hand, and on BT Sport punditry duty afterwards he was quick to suggest Sancho should no longer remain the transfer priority.
Ferdinand fumed: “I want Jadon Sancho, he is a generational talent and would get fans off their seats, but does he solve the fundamental problems I see with this team?
“There are moments before games when the opposition, are they looking across and saying they are going to have to be at their best to score past this Man United defence? I don’t think so.”
Ferdinand went on to suggest the centre-back position ought to be the biggest area of concern, citing RB Leipzig’s Dayot Upamecano or Napoli talisman Kalidou Koulibaly as potential targets. There is no doubt Victor Lindelof’s performances in the opening two games of the campaign have let a lot to be desired.
So Ferdinand is right, even if United cannot attract a big name centre-back. Perhaps a younger man could arrive to put pressure on Lindelof and Harry Maguire.
Yet another position that United actually addressed last summer is now causing fans to scratch their heads. There is no suggestion that Aaron Wan-Bissaka should be replaced as the club’s first choice right-back at this stage, but his performance at Brighton was uncharacteristically poor. The fact Solskjaer does not seem to rate Diogo Dalot leaves the former Crystal Palace man without any real competition at right-back. Timothy Fosu-Mensah is a back-up utility defender.
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Solskjaer addressed Wan-Bissaka’s display after the Brighton game and suggested the 22-year-old was still developing.
“Aaron is improving as a defender and is one of the best one-against-one,” said the United boss, addressing his performance. “He’s practising defending back stick. He’s a joy to work with, he wants to learn, so he’ll improve. And, of course, the chance towards the end there [Solly March’s equaliser] he needs help.
“Every player in this league has got strengths and weaknesses. We all know Aaron’s strengths. But one of his strengths is he wants to learn and wants to improve.”
One method of ensuring Wan-Bissaka does improve this season, and does not go backwards after a promisingly consistent debut campaign, would be to offer more strength to the full-back positions in the transfer market.
United have been touted for Porto left-back Alex Telles, a move that could see Brandon Williams switch more regularly to right-back and compete with Wan-Bissaka. Either way, it’s important that Wan-Bissaka does not sink into a comfort zone.
United have, of course, already added competition for places to their midfield this summer. It’s the only area of the squad that seems brimming with options right now, though the decision to leave new signing Donny van de Beek on the bench for the first two league games has been baffling.
Paul Pogba hasn’t been at his best and, like Wan-Bissaka and the centre-backs, would surely be fired up to perform better if he lost his spot to Van de Beek. The Dutchman came off the bench to score against Palace and helped keep the ball alive to win the last-gasp penalty at Brighton.
Solskjaer made allowances for Pogba, who has suffered with coronavirus recently, but soon he must make a decision on the Frenchman.
“He missed a lot of the pre-season because of his illness, so he’s not had internationals or the friendly against Villa,” said Solskjaer.
“So of course the two 60, 65 minutes he’s had will help him along and he’ll just get better and better.”
The only way to make all of these players improve is to be ruthless, to inject competition and rivalry into the United squad. Sancho would give that to Greenwood, though bigger problems are cropping up elsewhere.