It has been a consistent article of faith that Jose Mourinho knows exactly what he is doing in the transfer market. The only criticism of him in this regard has been that he buys great quality but in insufficient quantity.
Recently, though, that reputation has taken a grim turn. When he brought Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Eric Bailly, Mourinho’s acumen was widely praised. Now, though, after a second transfer window, the assessment is less charitable. Ibrahimovic, a very successful short-term signing, has left the club — yet Mkhitaryan has also departed, Bailly is regularly injured and the wildly-talented Pogba still truly has to find his groove and assume the dominant role that many expect of him.
Mourinho’s more recent signings have been an equally mixed bag. Nemanja Matic has been a terrific addition, adding poise, power and elegant distribution to midfield, if occasionally being overwhelmed by both by a heavy schedule and speedier opponents.
Victor Lindelof arrived from Benfica as one of the world’s most heralded young centre-backs and as the apparent solution to United’s long-term problems in the middle of defence, but has struggled to maintain a first-team place either in his preferred position or at right-back, where the much-maligned Matteo Darmian has more often got the nod.
Alexis Sanchez, arriving to substantial fanfare, has largely been underwhelming, scoring a handful of goals in almost 20 appearances and — despite a superb second-half against Manchester City in the 3-2 derby win in the Premier League — still looking as if he is settling into the side. Given how much all of these players have cost, the club’s supporters could reasonably have expected a quicker return on investment. It is notable that Romelu Lukaku — the player emerging as Mourinho’s most impressive addition — has thrived despite his team playing to very few of his core strengths.
The anxieties of United fans will not have been eased by Liverpool’s rapid start in this summer’s transfer market, with an early acquisition that looks to be superb — that of Fabinho from Monaco, a defensive midfielder and right-back who was one of the French league’s leaders in both passing and tackling. Liverpool also look forward to the arrival of Naby Keita from Germany’s RB Leipzig, and perhaps even — if reports are to be believed — Nabil Fekir from Lyon. Should they conclude the signing of Fekir, they will have an outstanding first-choice midfield, and fine strength in depth, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain — so impressive in the later stages of Liverpool’s Champions League campaign — set to return from injury.
Where, then, is the good news for United? Well, first of all, several of their key players will have a summer’s rest, with Bailly, Sanchez and Ander Herrera all missing out on the World Cup. They will form a strong core of players who can welcome any newcomers to the squad. Secondly, Mourinho looks to be making swift moves this summer, pursuing Fred — an all-action midfielder — from Shakhtar Donetsk and Diogo Dalot, considered by some to be the best young right-back in the world, from Porto.
Yet Mourinho needs to be more bold still. Should Matic, Herrera or Pogba succumb to fatigue, he is left with a selection of either Marouane Fellaini — a sometimes effective but extremely limited substitute — or the still-developing Scott McTominay. For a club of United’s abundant resources, that is simply not good enough.
If Mourinho is to persist with his apparent policy of only signing attacking players who require minimal coaching, he must invest heavily in his forward line. Too often United looked pedestrian in the final third last season, with their right flank particularly lacking in pace and creativity.
Following his match-winning turn in the Champions League final against Liverpool, Gareth Bale seemed to signal his availability — and though the the resignation of Zinedine Zidane may have changed matters, United should still press ahead for his signature. A right flank of Bale and Dalot would be significantly faster and more direct than one of Juan Mata and Antonio Valencia, and probably a far greater source of goals too.
If United are to maintain pace in the Premier League next season, they must show similar speed with the chequebook this summer. They cannot rely on David De Gea, currently in an extraordinary period of form, to maintain his present level of heroics and fitness for the foreseeable future — remarkable though De Gea is, to bank an entire strategy on his durability seems unwise.
They must secure another attacker, central defender, and left-back before they can truly begin to think about overhauling Manchester City, let alone keeping Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal at bay. Fred and Diogo Dalot would be a fine start — but, given Mourinho’s disappointments in the market to date, only a start.
Musa Okwonga is one of ESPN FC’s Manchester United bloggers. Follow on Twitter: @Okwonga.