Jose Mourinho “doesn’t know” whether he will be active in the January transfer market but he will know, deep down, that he needs to be.
Defeat to Manchester City and Bristol City, combined with three successive Premier League draws towards the end of 2017, has made adding to the squad – predictably inundated with injury woes following a busy festive period – seem necessary if Manchester United are to avoid drifting during the second part of the season, haunted by the unassailable project being unleashed by Pep Guardiola across town.
But where do they start? Mourinho has always preferred to do business over the summer and will, no doubt, seek to land his main targets in the summer. And yet there is a growing feeling amongst supporters that the board – rightly called out by the 54-year-old in recent times for a lack of ambition – ought to give the manager a chance to add an extra dimension somewhere in his side over January, especially with last summer’s failed bid for Ivan Perisic in mind.
Mourinho needs to sell before he can buy in January, with the club’s wage bill increasing by 13 per cent over the last financial year, and it was thought for some time that the primary casualty would have to be Luke Shaw, seemingly forever consigned to the injury table or fringes of the squad during the early parts of the campaign.
Letting the Englishman go would have naturally pointed Mourinho towards signing a new left-back – a genuine one, such as Alex Sandro or Danny Rose, to share the load with the 32-year-old Ashley Young.
But Shaw, to everyone’s surprise, has changed the complexion of United’s transfer priorities over the past month, making six starts during December – including three in the space of a week – and impressing with a disciplined, energetic, crisp approach on the left hand side. He is starting to enter a groove that we haven’t witnessed for years – the Shaw who turned up every week with Southampton, bombing down the flank and linking up with teammates.
Make no mistake: Man United need a full-back revolution over the summer to match Man City’s splurge on Benjamin Mendy, Kyle Walker and Danilo last year. That Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, two players from Sir Alex Ferguson’s time in charge, are still considered first choice full-backs – whilst not even being full-backs by trade – at Old Trafford is nothing short of startling. But this feels like a big task, and one Mourinho will want to undertake in the summer.
And with Shaw finding his feet this season, he has the opportunity to look elsewhere for now – perhaps moving Henrikh Mkhitaryan along and signing a creative influence on par with the likes of Coutinho, Eden Hazard or Kevin de Bruyne. A genuine spark, but one that doesn’t fizzle out after three good games.
He could also start to think about midfield – an area that, with Marouane Fellaini and Michael Carrick set to leave in June, will need to evolve considerably this year. Julian Weigl, Leander Dendoncker, Jorginho and Lorenzo Pellegrini have all been mentioned as targets, and Mourinho may feel as if signing one of them over January is doable.
Whatever he chooses to do, Mourinho can be glad that he does at least have a choice. Some legroom, if you will, to decide where to splash the cash rather than simply atone for Shaw’s inability to breach the starting XI. Shaw appears to have gained Mourinho’s trust, giving him a real chance to make a statement in the market midway through the season.