Ironically, Manchester United’s January transfer window makes them ready to fight for fourth place
Written by Chris Winterburn
Much has been made of the relative chaos that Manchester United’s January transfer window dealings represented, however there is a degree of irony in the fact that in signing Bruno Fernandes and Odion Ighalo, the club are probably ready to fight for fourth spot.
With Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United all in the battle for the final Champions League qualification spot, results have shown none of these four teams are anywhere near the level required to be a force in the competition.
However, with three out of four of those clubs all spending the January window looking for a centre-forward, only Manchester United, despite Ed Woodward’s incompetence, ended up adding one.
Ighalo is not a signing made by a club with a coherent transfer strategy, yet injuries have dictated that United move to bring in a short-term measure.
Marcus Rashford is unlikely to play again this season, despite the initial prognosis of his back injury, and United desperately needed to add some support for Anthony Martial.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his coaching staff, for all their tactical deficiencies, have actually done a good job of reshaping the squad at Old Trafford.
A lot of high-earning players who didn’t particularly want to be at Old Trafford have been moved on, whilst young, hungry players have been added. Whether the quality is there is another debate entirely, but at least United’s football people have some semblance of a plan.
Yet, it’s not all plain sailing for the Reds, simply due to the fact Woodward and his cohorts are still in crucial football positions at the club, despite none being qualified. Solskjaer wanted to end January by adding two players who would form his future team: Bruno Fernandes and Erling Haaland.
Haaland appeared set to join United, with the Norwegian coach having done a lot of the leg work prior to the window opening, in an unusual example of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson United being organised.
Yet, Woodward would intervene and get his hands on the deal, with a disagreement with both Mino Raiola and Erling’s father, Alf-Inge Haaland, regarding bonus payments and release clauses.
This sudden shift of not wanting to do business with Raiola is admirable in a way, only it has ended up costing United the player closest to Ruud van Nistelrooy since the Dutchman arrived in Manchester.
Had Manchester United ended up signing both Fernandes and Haaland it would have represented a second successive impressive transfer window, yet the incompetence of people involved in transfer matters left Solskjaer needing to find a panic replacement in attack: enter Ighalo.
For all the Nigerian’s faults, neither Chelsea or Spurs were able to find a centre-forward and United are perhaps best equipped to take the fourth spot by the time May arrives. Yet, there are deficiencies within all four teams which suggest the eventual team which qualifies for the Champions League may simply be the team which gets the most luck.
Sheffield United can’t be discounted, although you’d expect their relative lack of quality to catch up with them at some point this season. Sander Berge’s arrival though is a signing of the highest order, with the midfielder having previously been on the radars of Roma and Liverpool before his injury.
Below Liverpool, Manchester City and Leicester City there is a relative lack of quality in the Premier League this season. Teams at the bottom of the table are probably stronger than their counterparts of 5-10 years ago, yet the teams at the upper end of the table are far weaker.
There are a multitude of reasons for this, yet it will make for an interesting, if a little frustrating, race for fourth place.
Every time Frank Lampard’s Chelsea team has dropped points, Manchester United have failed to take advantage in their subsequent fixture. It’s hoped that Ighalo’s physical style of play combined with his eye for goal will help the team take advantage of these slips, as he may have done in the recent 0-0 draw with Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Ighalo’s debut for the club could actually come at Stamford Bridge, in a match that in normal seasons would be classed as a six-pointer in the top-four battle. Yet, this season it’s pointless labelling it as such because it’s highly likely that whichever team wins that match could quite conceivably drop points in their next two matches after that.
Solskjaer and United have added quality and a little depth to their squad, and on paper that should give them the advantage of their rivals. However, the form book shows us that none of these teams can be relied upon, so despite being best stocked to finish fourth, United could perhaps end the season anywhere between fourth and eighth. It’s a sign of the times.