Eduardo Camavinga and Aurelien Tchouameni were names on the lips of Manchester United staff last year, albeit for differing reasons.
United were genuinely interested in Camavinga, touched base with his representatives and discovered early in the close season his preference was to move to Spain. Camavinga signed for Real Madrid on deadline day.
Tchouameni, another French central midfielder, was spuriously linked with United and the club quickly confirmed they had no interest in signing him. One staff member – not a scout – had not even heard of Tchouameni.
Less than two months later, Tchouemani was starting alongside Paul Pogba in France’s Nations League final victory over Spain. Last week, Tchouameni joined Camavinga in Madrid.
For a club with a reputation for recruiting for the here and now, Madrid’s succession planning is underrated: Thibaut Courtois is an upgrade on Keylor Navas, Karim Benzema – not Eden Hazard – is the heir to Cristiano Ronaldo’s throne, Raphael Varane was replaced by David Alaba – a converted centre-back – and Madrid won La Liga and the Champions League, Camavinga and Tchouameni will accept the baton when father time catches up with the evergreen Luka Modric and Toni Kroos.
United were linked with several players with a similar playing profile to Pogba and never close to signing any of them. Denis Zakaria switched from Borussia Monchengladbach to Juventus mid-season, Boubacar Kamara has ended up at Aston Villa and Yves Bissouma is now at Tottenham.
There has been the usual outcry at United’s hitherto inactivity in the transfer window. Some of it is justified. Bissouma and his brief Brighton teammate, Moises Caicedo, claimed the scalps of Arsenal, Tottenham and United within four weeks earlier this year.
Caicedo, wanted by United at the start of last year, already appears destined to make a steep step up with his next move. Zakaria might have been a goer for United had there been a permanent manager in post for the winter transfer window.
Camavinga and Tchouameni are additional exhibits that Real Madrid have an unrivalled clout in the game. United also tried to turn Antonio Rudiger’s head but were never serious competition for Madrid, while Modric and Kroos opted for Madrid amid firm interest from United.
Almost every serious elite player favours Madrid over United. Pogba did in 2016 but was advised to rejoin United by Mino Raiola, a mistake he never undid. Madrid won two more Champions Leagues under Pogba’s boyhood idol, Zinedine Zidane, and Raiola failed to engineer a transfer to Madrid in 2019, brazenly expressing his sorrow some months later.
Raiola pocketed €41million in commission from Pogba’s world-record transfer to United, announced with a hashtag and a trailer as though it was a blockbuster. Like many motion pictures released in the summer, Pogba was all style and little substance.
“Pogba is something we built,” Raiola’s lawyer Rafaela Pimienta says. “It’s a brand. It has emojis, it has Pogmojis, it has cups, he has shows, he has haircuts and we hope to entertain people with that.” The brand came before the football, rather in keeping with United’s modus operandi during the Ed Woodward era.
United’s stock is not as low as it was in 2019 as they have a coach who may entice a 25-year-old starting Barcelona midfielder and Netherlands international. Erik ten Hag’s cachet starts and ends with Frenkie de Jong and United are otherwise targeting players familiar to their manager whom they should have little issue in signing.
De Jong and Christian Eriksen are more aligned with Ten Hag’s approach than sitting midfielders. Edson Alvarez – an out-and-out defensive midfielder – held the fort for Ajax last season behind two playmaking midfielders and it would be utterly remiss of United to end the window without a defensive-minded addition.
Kalvin Phillips is a logical target United worked on a deal for before last season ended but he would command a similar fee to De Jong while Leeds United’s survival and Manchester City’s interest are ominous.
Earlier this month, De Jong said he relishes being the closest midfielder to the defence but he needs a minder as much as the United defence. Scott McTominay was trialed, tried and did not succeed in front of a back four and Fred is more effective further forward. James Garner, like De Jong, operates from a defensive third but is forward-thinking.
United have not mastered a controlling style since Michael Carrick was at the base of the triangle during their best runs of form under Jose Mourinho and Louis van Gaal. Sir Alex Ferguson favoured silk over steel in his latter years yet entrusting Carrick and Paul Scholes was foolish rather than foolproof during the horror trilogy of Anfield defeats between 2008-11. Ferguson’s midfield blind spot cost them in both Champions League final surrenders to Barcelona.
Carrick had the combative Ander Herrera beside him in Van Gaal and Mourinho’s versions of 4-3-3. Fred is no shrinking violet; nor is he a defensive shield for the most porous United defence since Dave Sexton’s second season. Fred is a regular for Brazil and has the safety net of the steely Casemiro behind him.
Casemiro now has Tchouameni and Camavinga to mentor in Madrid.