Manchester United’s reported interest in Borussia Dortmund star Jadon Sancho has dominated the back pages over the past few weeks, but the Red Devils’ recruitment strategy is going to have to be more extensive this summer if they’re to challenge for the title once again.
Sancho would undoubtedly add star quality and dynamism to a team that has at times looked flat in attack. Focusing entirely on the England winger’s potential arrival at Old Trafford ignores the bigger issue. United are some way off being able to mix it with the Premier League’s best sides and need surgery in a number of areas in order to close the gap on Liverpool and Manchester City.
A few months ago the chasm between Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s men and their North-West rivals felt particularly vast. As Liverpool went on an incredible 27 match unbeaten run that included only one draw, Red Devils fans were suffering the ignominy of home defeats to Crystal Palace and Burnley.
But things feel like they’re slowly improving Old Trafford. Despite the much talked about lack of a director of football, last summer’s expensive recruitment drive has got to be considered a success. Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire have improved United’s backline and 21-year-old Daniel James now looks like outstanding value after signing for just £15million from Swansea City.
Sporting star Bruno Fernandes was next to arrive in January for close to £50million and early signs suggest that he’s been another astute acquisition, with the midfielder contributing three goals and four assists in just nine matches.
Progress is certainly being made then, even before we factor in the youngsters like Mason Greenwood and Brandon Williams who have broken into the first team under Solskjær’s tutelage. But United can’t stand still and need to continue in the same vein if they’re to make up for years of questionable decisions in the transfer market following Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.
That’s something the Old Trafford hierarchy appear to be acutely aware of, with Real Valladolid defender Mohammed Salisu the latest name being linked with the ongoing rebuild in the red half of Manchester.
Upon first impressions, the centre of defence doesn’t seem like an obvious place to prioritise. Current starter Victor Lindelöf and his more aerially dominant partner Maguire appear to complement each other, while Eric Bailly offers a solid alternative. When you factor in the presence of Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo (on loan at Estudiantes), Chris Smalling (on loan at Roma) and prospects Axel Tuanzebe and Timothy Fosu-Mensah, the list of options is a sizable one.
But there is perhaps more to this than initially meets the eye. Bailly has suffered from injury issues and played only five matches this season, while Smalling’s impressive form at Roma may tempt the Italian giants into a bid for the 30-year-old. With the possibility of Rojo and Jones departing on a permanent basis too, a young centre-back to challenge for Maguire or Lindelöf’s starting spot could be just what United need this summer.
If that’s the case then Salisu looks like the man for the job – at just 21, the Ghanian is far from the finished article. But he could be polished into a gem at Old Trafford while initially playing second fiddle to his more established team-mates.
With a reported release clause of just €12million, the Valladolid star is available at the kind of knock-down price that feels appropriate for a squad rotation option, leaving United with plenty in the bank to strengthen other positions like the wide areas and upfront.
It’s been a meteoric rise to fame for Salisu, who is only in his first season as a starting centre-back at Estadio José Zorrilla. The man from Accra has made just 30 senior appearances for Pucela, which makes a potential move to Manchester United seem somewhat extraordinary at such an early stage of his career.
But perhaps Valladolid’s defenders were always likely to attract attention after conceding just 23 goals in 27 games this season, a record that represents the lowest total in LaLiga’s bottom half.
Salisu’s presence has been a major factor in the club’s resolute defensive displays, as indicated by his impressive statistics from the 2019/20 campaign so far. The youngster’s positional ability has seen him block an average of 0.87 shots per 90 (the tenth-best record in Spain’s top flight) and his 5.17 completed clearances per 90 are only bettered by six players.
Of course, those numbers are partly a reflection of the pressure that Valladolid’s defence has been under throughout the season, but Salisu has been up to the task. He’s also been imperious in the air, completing a more than respectable 2.55 headed clearances per 90 during the current campaign.
Predominantly playing on the left side of a centre-back pairing with the more experienced Kiko Olivas, Salisu has shown more than enough to be worth a gamble at such a low price. United will fancy their chances of securing his signature too after it emerged that he is represented by JM10 Sport, the agency run by Juan Mata’s father.
Going by the same name as his son, Juan Mata Snr. has been sowing the seeds of a potential move to a bigger club for his client.
“Salisu is another very young African discovery, who this year is being the sensation of LaLiga because at only 20 years old (now 21), 1.90m, left-footed, and playing centre-back in this category is not easy,” he said.
“The truth is that I think this may be his window (to leave), because interests have arisen from many clubs, and he deserves it.”
The Red Devils may have bigger priorities this summer, but this is a signing that would seem prudent, low risk and in keeping with the long-term recruitment strategy currently being employed at Old Trafford.
If Salisu is ready for a move in the next transfer window, it would be unwise to bet against United being at the front of the queue.