Thu. Oct 1st, 2020

Man Utd

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Manchester United have solutions to sell centre backs in the transfer window

4 min read

That Nike ‘You can’t stop us’ campaign that went viral was shared by the great and the good of sport, as well as Marcos Rojo, who has stopped playing football.

His loan with Estudiantes expired in June and he is still in Argentina, where Rojo was enjoying some spa facilities while his teammates slugged it out with Leicester to qualify for the Champions League.

It is worth clarifying those teammates are at Manchester United, where Rojo is still contracted until next June. United have the option of an additional year but it would be advisable to pay off another sorry South American and there are no plans to reintegrate him into the squad.

Rojo is the most egregious example of United’s contract strategy. His initial deal was due to expire in 2019 and then in March 2018 United handed him a three-year deal with wages of around £160,000-a-week. He has started five Premier League games since then and United attempted to sell him in the last two summer transfer windows.

United could have released not just Rojo but Phil Jones by now. Jones was approaching the last months of his previous contract (with the option of an additional year at United’s discretion), only to be gifted a four-and-a-half year extension in February 2019 that surprised his representatives.

“He’s won the Premier League, he’s won trophies, he knows what it takes,” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer beamed. “He’s been here so long so it’s one of them things, he knows what it takes for us to move up the table.”

Jones is a survivor from the last title-winning United squad, but started 13 league matches in 2012-13 and four were after the championship was sealed. He was an unused substitute in the 2016 FA Cup and 2017 Europa League final triumphs and injured for that year’s League Cup final. Jones started only one of United’s eight Europa League knockout ties and did not play a single minute in the FA Cup run four years ago.

Now 28, Jones mustered a meagre two league starts in 2019-20 and has been injured since stadiums reopened for matches. His stock has never been lower and the length of his contract is prohibitive to selling him.

Chris Smalling is sellable on the back of his catenaccio course with Roma, where his form lured Gareth Southgate out to Italy after a two-and-a-half year exile from the England set-up. The ownership of Roma is just about to change and club and player are keen on a permanent deal.

The caveat is Smalling might still be the best defender United have at centre-back. He cannot pass water – something Jose Mourinho brazenly derided at a seminar – and Solskjaer has placed an emphasis on distributive defenders, hence the axis of Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof. Smalling played the fewest minutes of United’s centre halves in pre-season.

That number has increased to eight with the deserved debut of Teden Mengi against LASK Linz and Axel Tuanzebe is expected to be fit for the start of next season. Tuanzebe was omitted from the Europa League squad but Jones retained under the assumption he is nearing a return to fitness.

Despite his haphazard efforts, Eric Bailly has only sustained one injury all year. “A bang on the head? That’s just Eric and his playing style!” Solskjaer laughed on Wednesday night. It transpired United had only two senior centre halves available against LASK, as Lindelof was absent with an unspecified injury.

The inclusion of Maguire – on his 53rd club start of the campaign – with the aggregate advantage already 5-0 was an unnecessary risk. Maguire has played all 12 of United’s matches since the restart and stayed on for every minute, having become their first outfielder to start every league match in a single season since Gary Pallister in 1994-95. Copenhagen would mark his 60th start for club and country within a year.

Mengi is raw back-up for the latter rounds of the Europa League and performed unflappably for the academy in their run to the FA Youth Cup semi-finals. Quantity reigns over quality at centre half in more than any other department at United yet there is an understandable reluctance to invest more in a defence that was reinforced to the tune of £130million last year. United conceded 18 fewer goals in the league and only Liverpool and Manchester City had superior defensive records.

'The Spider' and 'Slabhead'
‘The Spider’ and ‘Slabhead’

If a Nathan Ake squad option is to arrive, that is £40m out of a budget that the majority has been reserved for Jadon Sancho and another forward. Outgoings, rather than incomings, have to be the priority at centre-back and there are some bargaining chips to push forward with Jones and Rojo.

The European Championship and Copa America have been delayed until next year and Jones made Southgate’s England World Cup squad in Russia, while England have a dearth of quality options to supplement Maguire. Nothing can stop United from releasing Rojo next summer.

They can just do it.

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