One wonders how Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took the news. The Manchester United boss has spent months trailing compatriot Erling Haaland with a view to the Norwegian striker being a major addition to his squad. Haaland, Europe’s most sought after striker following a number of sparkling performances for Red Bull Salzburg in the Champions League this season, opted to sign for Borussia Dortmund instead.
Solskjaer was surely left disappointed by the news that broke on Sunday, but the failure to sign Haaland must now focus Man Utd’s minds as they head into a crucial January transfer window. While the Norwegian striker could have given them a centre forward to build around, they always needed other players more. Namely, midfielders.
United’s need for players in the centre of the pitch is desperate. While Solskjaer has led his team to impressive results against Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham, he has lacked the personnel to break down teams of a lower calibre that employ a low defensive block. They lack someone like James Maddison. He is the difference between a lowly finish and a top four challenge (Man Utd are 11/4 to finish fourth or higher this season).
Maddison is indeed believed to be on Man Utd’s radar with the Leicester City man also thought to be a fan of the Old Trafford club (he is 11/2 to join United in January). He possesses the skill set and personality to succeed at a club like United, although prising the 23-year-old from Leicester’s grips midway through a season which has the Foxes in second place in the Premier League table might prove impossible.
Kai Havertz is another who has been strongly linked with a switch to Old Trafford. The Bayer Leverkusen midfielder would be a costly addition, though, with the Bundesliga club reportedly demanding a fee in excess of €100 million for their prize asset. This is the sort of money United will need to spend to address their deficiency, though.
Even if Havertz and Maddison are unavailable this January, Solskjaer must find someone to aid his side’s push for a top four place. Todd Cantwell would fit the bill as a young, homegrown player with a very bright future ahead of him. John McGinn is another who would improve the squad currently at Old Trafford.
It’s not just in the attacking midfield position that Man Utd are desperate for reinforcements, but in the anchoring role too. Scott McTominay was once believed to occupy this position, but the Scotland international has shown himself to be more of a number eight than a number six this season, frequently driving United forward from the halfway line.
Finding the right player here will prove just as difficult. Wilfred N’Didi could see United once again looking to the King Power Stadium, but in targeting the Nigerian they would encounter the same issues that would complicate a move for Maddison. Lille’s Boubakary Soumare has been mentioned, but isn’t quite of the mould Solskjaer needs.
In years gone by, Man Utd have been distracted and led astray in the transfer market. Their desperate need for midfielders has been evident for years and yet it’s a position they have failed addressed even going back to the final years of Ferguson’s tenure. When they needed a holding midfielder, they signed Angel di Maria. When they needed a playmaker, they signed Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
If the midfield is the engine room of a football team, Man Utd are currently without pistons. The return of Paul Pogba has given them more quality in that area, but the Frenchman is like Dan James, Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford in that he thrives against opponents who impose their own game rather than react to United’s. Solskjaer can’t wait any longer to solve this problem and the loss of Haaland must be used to focus their strategy.