As any semi-conscious Premier League fan would be well aware, Manchester United are struggling for goals this season.
Louis van Gaal’s side travel to the Britannia Stadium to face Stoke City this afternoon having netted only 22 goals in 17 Premier League fixtures – the same number as Bournemouth and fewer than Everton, West Ham and Crystal Palace – and United have only managed to score four times in their last seven matches at Old Trafford.
Indeed, the Manchester club’s first-choice striker Wayne Rooney has scored only seven times in 20 starts (two in the league) this season and the captain admitted on Wednesday that he is performing far below his normal level. Beyond Rooney, French teenager Anthony Martial has scored six goals in 17 starts, Memphis Depay has managed five in 18, and Juan Mata has netted five in 24.
Hardly the most inspiring of figures.
In this context, United fans could feel buoyed to read Daniel Taylor’s report in the Guardian this morning, which claims that the Old Trafford club are seeking to remedy their striking troubles by recruiting one or both of Sadio Mane and Yoshinori Muto during the January transfer window.
Mane, of course, will already be familiar to many Reds fans given that he has plied his trade in the Premier League since joining Southampton from Red Bull Salzburg in a £10 million deal in the summer of 2014. The Senegal international was targeted by Van Gaal in August after registering 10 goals and three assists in 32 appearances in his first season on the South Coast, helping Saints to a surprise seventh place finish in the Premier League.
The Senegalese forward’s positional versatility (he has played on both wings, at number 10 and as a center-forward for Southampton), direct dribbling style, and breakneck acceleration would clearly benefit a United attack that Van Gaal himself has admitted is lacking in speed and invention. Indeed, the Guardian’s tactics columnist Michael Cox argued that Mane possesses all of the attributes that United lack in a playmaker in the aftermath of the Manchester club’s narrow 2-3 win at St. Mary’s in September.
“Mane arrived in the Premier League as a winger, but has shown great ability in this central, withdrawn forward role”, Cox observed.
“From there he can sprint behind the defence, a useful quality because [Southampton forward] Graziano Pelle lacks speed. But he is also excellent at finding pockets of space towards his natural home on the touchlines. In the opening moments, his movement into inside-right positions repeatedly unlocked United’s defence.”
The fact that Southampton rejected United’s approach for Mane at the start of the season, however, makes the prospect of Van Gaal landing his target in January seem remote and the long-standing enmity between the United boss and his counterpart in the Southampton dugout, Ronald Koeman, will hardly help to ease negotiations, particularly when both Luke Shaw and Morgan Schneiderlin have swapped St. Mary’s for Old Trafford in the last two years.
Any deal for Mainz striker Muto might prove similarly difficult to complete in mid-season at a time when selling clubs will struggle to find reasonably priced replacements. The Japan international only arrived in the Bundesliga from FC Tokyo for a fee in the region of £3 million at the start of the summer having netted 24 goals in 54 games in the J1 League and 10 in 17 in the 2015 top-flight season in Japan.
Since joining Mainz, Muto has scored seven goals in 16 starts and has won great acclaim from Bundesliga commentators such as ESPN’s Nick Dorrington who have praised the 23-year-old’s relentless work ethic, pace, positional intelligence and technical quality.
“Muto is a bright, quick and persistent forward who consistently looks to unbalance opposition defences with his incisive dribbling, movement and combination play”, Dorrington wrote after the Japan forward hit a hat-trick in a 3–3 draw against FC Augsburg at the end of October.
“He has a good knack of getting himself into goalscoring positions inside the penalty area and displays a competitive edge. Indeed, there are shades of Barcelona’s Luis Suarez in his relentless pursuit of penetration.”
Again, it is obvious that these attributes would benefit a static and unimaginative United attack, but while Mainz might be less well placed than Southampton to resist a big bid for their prized attacking asset, there are no guarantees that Muto would be prepared to relocate to Manchester in January.
The forward turned down the opportunity to join Chelsea last summer in order to guarantee himself first-team football in Germany and time to acclimatize to Europe away from the pressure of the Premier League. Inevitably this decision would have necessitated Muto taking a pay cut and it seems is clear, therefore, that the player is well advised and confident enough in his ability to offset financial gain in the short-term in the interests of maximizing his potential as a footballer.
If Muto continues to develop as he has done since breaking into the FC Tokyo first-team, one can be sure that he will never have to worry about money for the rest of his life and it seems conceivable that the forward might prefer to put off any move to England, at least until the end of the season in order to gain more experience at Mainz and repay the club for the faith that they showed in putting him straight into the first team.
Both Mane and Muto will be hard gets for United in January, and while both are footballers of huge potential, neither is the finished product. It is difficult, therefore, to envisage either player kick-starting Van Gaal’s title push in the middle of difficult season, especially when the Manchester club’s attacking setup mitigates against the kind of freedom of movement that Mane and Muto thrive on.
[Photo by Boris Streubel/Getty Images]