COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
The last four games have seen Manchester United go some way toward repairing a brand and identity which had taken a beating for over two years, and all it took was cutting Jose Mourinho loose.
Excising the malignancy has seen an immediate uptick, and suddenly the Red Devils are in rude health. Sure, the opposition has not been the absolute highest quality – none of Cardiff City, Huddersfield Town, Bournemouth or Newcastle United will be challenging for anything lofty – but there is something to be said for the efficiency with which they were swatted aside.
There is also something to be said for clean sheets. The Toon obliged with the first of the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer era, and if that does not seem immediately impressive, consider that Rafa Benitez's side, for all their struggles, have scored against four of the top five this season.
There will, however, be sterner examinations of United's soft underbelly as the league season reaches its climax. While it is apparent that the forwards, enjoying a new lease on life, are capable of causing havoc with their movement and passing, it remains to be seen just how much the defence can prop up Solskjaer's commitment to getting numbers forward.
The concern is that all that adventure leaves the Red Devils a lot more open in defensive transitions, and exposes a fragile, below-par backline even more than is necessary.
Mourinho's approach was to almost completely rein in the attacking instincts of the team in order to cover this vulnerability, the polar opposite ideology to that which Solskjaer seems to espouse: score more than you concede. However, there must necessarily be a happy medium, especially as tougher opposition comes calling.
In lieu of neutering what has worked so well so far, defenders who can, in some ways, handle themselves and be effective in open spaces and in duels, must be right at the top of United's wishlist. As such, it is no surprise that Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis confirmed an offer for stalwart Kalidou Koulibaly.
Success's ultimate compliment is mimicry, and it has become clear, with Liverpool's transformation under the unfussy but dominant leadership of Virgil Van Dijk, just how much a defender in that mould can do for the top sides.
That goes some way toward explaining just how it has taken so long for the Senegal international to attract the attention and interest he has deserved for nigh-on three years now. Mooted interest from Manchester City some time ago never materialized, and their loss – or reticence – could prove to be United's gain if he makes his way to Old Trafford.
The circumstances are certainly opportune for Manchester United, what with the reprehensible racist behaviour of Inter fans in their Serie A meeting with Napoli last month, culminating in a sending-off for Koulibaly. It would be only natural for him to then consider his options, to muse whether the asault to his humanity is worth it for a continued stay.
However, even beyond that, there is the knowledge that, having moved to Naples in 2014, there is little scope for continued improvement or silverware.
Juventus' domestic dominance is as inscrutable and inexorable as ever; it seems as though, however much Napoli push, the reigning champions will never suffer the sort of dip that will allow them in.
Might not a move to the Premier League be the way to go, even if only for the entropy and uncertainty it offers?
The 27-year-old would be, for United, a completing of the puzzle, the crucial missing piece in a bid to reclaim pride of place at the top of the English football.
He is that good, and while the Red Devils needed new management to begin to suggest their potential, with Koulibaly there is the here and now, the platform of accomplishment and experience needed to allow their young, florid attack to continue to riff in advanced areas.
Revealed: @Goal Africa Team of the Year 2018: https://t.co/Pq4Ki94y51— Ed Dove (@EddyDove) December 31, 2018
Congrats to all nominees and the final XI: @andreyonana, @AchrafHakimi, @kkoulibaly26, @MedhiBenatia, @Thomaspartey22, @MoSalah, @Aubameyang7, @NicolasPepe19, @Bounedjahbaghda pic.twitter.com/TER51gZpNR
If the newfound resolve and steel of Liverpool has once again stirred envy in Manchester United as it did in the 80s, then it is entirely in keeping with their status and financial muscle that they get their own version of that solid, boulder-like presence at the back.
Koulibaly – quick, powerful, technically supreme in the manner that modern football now demands – is the perfect riposte, and is an absolute must at Old Trafford.