By Richard JollyPerhaps Louis van Gaal was simply being mischievous. Perhaps, as Manchester United are in the process of tying up a record-breaking deal for Angel Di Maria that will take their summer spending to an extraordinary €170 million, he thought he would fuel speculation about a deal that would take it closer to the €250m mark.
But it didn’t feel that way. It felt as though the United manager was using a sizeable television audience to send a message to Ed Woodward and the Glazers. The 63-year-old was communicating his wish to recruit a midfielder for whom United, despite ample opportunity, have yet to bid.
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The feeling at Old Trafford is that much of the chat about Vidal has been driven by the player and his entourage, either in Italy or Chile. Yet while United ruled themselves out of the running to bring in Cesc Fabregas and Toni Kroos and were quick to insist no offers were made to Marco Reus or Thomas Muller, Vidal lingers in limbo. No definitive statement has been made. United talk him down, Van Gaal talks him up. Now, with a week to go before the transfer window closes, it is time to choose.
It seemed a none-too-subtle hint from the manager. Maybe that is the consequence of a game when Tom Cleverley and Adnan Januzaj have ended up paired in the centre of midfield. United had little drive and dynamism in the middle of the park at Sunderland, qualities Vidal could provide and qualities they have long lacked: arguably since Anderson, after an encouraging first two seasons at Old Trafford, deteriorated and then Darren Fletcher’s bowel condition sidelined him.
There was another missive from the manager. "We cannot always sign who we like," Van Gaal added. He cannot sign Messi, for instance. But if he cannot sign Vidal, is it because Juventus will not sell the triple Scudetto winner or because United are reluctant to buy him?
Van Gaal may be testing United. They are testing him, too. This was not the start he envisaged. Their shortcomings are laid bare in front of the new manager, who is labouring with the squad which finished seventh last season. The first newcomer who was unquestionably one of his signings, Marcos Rojo, only formally joined on Wednesday and is not eligible yet. The other two arrivals, Ander Herrera and Luke Shaw, are both injured.
So he already has a centre-back, a central midfielder and a left wing-back. Now we shall finally find out if he really wants a man who is all three. The versatile Daley Blind, a stalwart of his Holland World Cup side, is another who is waiting to discover his fate. Once again, United have not acted while Chelsea and Manchester City concluded their major business weeks ago. Given United’s injury crisis, Ajax’s Blind would have been a first choice in three positions at Sunderland on Sunday.
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But their requirements stretch beyond simply a series of signings. They need to get players fit again, to integrate the new arrivals and to pick players in their proper positions so that Januzaj is picked as neither a wing-back nor a central midfielder.
Before too long, Cleverley, Fletcher, Chris Smalling, Tyler Blackett and Ashley Young may not be starting. Nor, perhaps, will United’s last marquee buy. Because when they have paid a club record fee for Di Maria, they need to determine where he is playing: is he seen simply as an upgrade on Juan Mata? Or does his arrival herald a switch to 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3?
They have to determine who accompanies Rojo in the new-look defence. Perhaps, when the Northern Irishman is fit, Jonny Evans and Phil Jones will make up the trio. Certainly, and crucially, Van Gaal must settle upon the players who suit the shape and who can gel together. It is vital he selects those who have attributes the team lacks: creativity, energy and, above all, pace.
There isn’t enough speed in this side. Now, after the dithering and the delays, they have to act quickly. Decisions have to be made, and fast, if United are to avoid another season of suffering.