The sports cars and 4X4s are gracing Birch Road again on the approach to Manchester United’s training fortress. Several first-team players were were scattered across the continent on Nations League duty before pre-season training started at Carrington on Wednesday and the surreal nature of this shortest of pre-seasons was compounded by Paul Pogba testing positive for COVID-19.
United barely had enough non-internationals to arrange a game of five-a-side last week: Bishop, Grant, Fosu-Mensah, Dalot, Tuanzebe, Williams, Shaw, Smalling, Lingard, Rashford. Rashford withdrew from international duty through injury and Andreas Pereira, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, and Marcos Rojo reported later than others as they had been quarantining. Sergio Romero, Odion Igahlo, Juan Mata, Nemanja Matic, Fred, and Phil Jones were not spotted arriving for any of the sessions. Harry Maguire was granted additional time off.
Rojo and Smalling are reminders United, with a bloated squad of 31, need to be as proactive with outgoings as much as they are with incomings. The current transfer window is open for four more weeks and last year’s European window was open for almost four weeks longer than the Premier League edition. It was during that period that Smalling, Matteo Darmian, and Alexis Sanchez flew to Italy.
It would be disingenuous to suggest United could end up saddled with Smalling, still one of their best defenders, boasting 10 years of service and the experience to assist some of the rawer defenders. ‘Saddled’ is kind on Rojo, the recipient of an obscene three-year contract two-and-a-half years ago and in that time he has started five Premier League games. The last – his only one last season – only came about as Axel Tuanzebe sustained an injury in the warm-up against Liverpool.
United were without both left-backs at Crystal Palace in July yet Rojo was still in Argentina even though his abysmal loan with Estudiantes had ended. “We’ve been in this bubble and have this squad available until next summer,” Solskjaer said. “He just needs to focus on getting and staying fit and being ready for wherever that takes him.” Unfortunately for United, it has taken him back to Manchester.
Rojo is believed to be on £160,000-a-week and has entered the last year of his contract, which would account for the resistance to desert his comfort zone in Manchester or bubble in Argentina. Not for the first time in his United career, Rojo was filmed smoking whilst away in his homeland.
His daughters have started their school year in Cheshire and suddenly uprooting them is unlikely to appeal, which was why Everton’s interest in Rojo in the last two years was so convenient. Everton are suckers for a United reject but Marco Silva is no longer there and Carlo Antelocci has studied and executed enough catenaccio classes to give Rojo a swerve. Smalling would be more suitable for Everton’s porous defence.
The calendar is so crammed this year United could play nine games in December and eight in January, a taxing period where players are particularly brittle amid the cold snap. In a season that is 35 weeks long – minimum – United are guaranteed to play 46 matches and unless they go out of the League Cup at the first hurdle there is not a free midweek until December. So they need bodies and Rojo actually performed respectably in the draw with Liverpool.
Jones last made a matchday squad in February, started twice in the league last term and missed all of the post-lockdown matches with an(other) injury. Someone at United inexplicably decided to offer him a four-and-a-half year contract midway through their worst defensive top-flight campaign in 40 years and the 28-year-old is tied to the club until 2023.
Andreas Pereira, 24, also signed paper with the same expiry date, has been in Manchester for over eight years and his partner gave birth to their firstborn in the spring, yet he is at the back of the queue for midfielders, playmakers and wingers. United have run out of room to accommodate Jesse Lingard, 28 in November, and Solskjaer was blasé about his goalscoring denouement to the season.
Sergio Romero, 33, shares the same agent as Rojo and there have been early efforts to whip up interest. Dean Henderson, coincidentally attached to the same agency as Romero, will be vying with David de Gea in the upcoming season and Romero has four weeks to settle on his next move.
It is unrealistic for United to permanently shift three contracted centre-backs in one summer and retaining Smalling has merit but he is the most sellable after conquering in the ruins of Rome.
Had the pandemic not swept across Europe Gareth Southgate might have ended Smalling’s England exile in the March internationals. He overlooked Smalling from his squad for this month’s Nations League games and Joe Gomez again looked lost without Virgil van Dijk to hold his hand in Reykjavik.
Eric Dier, now a full-time centre-back, was Gomez’s partner and the bench back-up was Michael Keane, Tyrone Mings and Conor Coady. The last two received maiden call-ups within the last year and the suggestion that Ronald Koeman could reunite with Keane at Barcelona led an Everton fan to chirp: “I’d love it if someone bought him.”
Jones actually started in the third place playoff at the last World Cup. Regular playing time for him and Smalling would force them into the reckoning with a dearth of quality options to partner or supplement Harry Maguire at the European Championship.
Lingard lined up in a World Cup semi-final just over two years ago and has banked enough credits with Southgate to get back into the fold for the Euros. The Copa America, also postponed by a year, is an incentive for Romero and Rojo to convince coach Lionel Scaloni they can help Argentina end their 28-year drought. CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers commence next month and Pereira was capped by incumbent Brazil coach Tite in 2018.