It’s been an utterly wretched season for Manchester United but hope resides in the January transfer window. Richard Cann goes shopping. 

It’s been an utterly wretched season for Manchester United. Louis Van Gaal appears to have no clue as to how to arrest his team’s alarming decline and mistakes made in the summer are now coming back to haunt him. The decision to carry a small squad has left United cruelly exposed during the winter months as players, most damagingly defenders, have dropped liked flies. Given the injury records of many of the incumbents this has hardly come as a surprise. The January transfer window is an opportunity for the manager of one of the richest clubs in the world to correct that mistake, and yet neither he nor his superiors seem to be in any rush to invest. The consequences of that intransigence could be enormous, with Champions League football looking more and more unlikely next season. Here I look at where Van Gaal’s focus should be this month as he looks to strengthen his creaking squad.

LEFT BACK: Luke Shaw’s broken leg in Eindhoven was a cruel blow. United’s best player in the opening weeks of the season, he had begun to form a dangerous and effective looking partnership with Memphis Depay. With Shaw likely to be out for at least another two months and his immediate cover, Marcos Rojo, also out medium term the need for cover is great. In recent weeks neither Ashley Young nor Matteo Darmian have adequately filled in. Clearly United wouldn’t want to pay big money for a player likely to be only a back up once Shaw recovers. An experienced pro would be ideal. The romantic in me can see no further than Patrice Evra, who would be cheap and would surely love to return for one last hurrah. The Frenchman is a cult figure at Old Trafford and would immediately lift a dressing room which must be flat right now. Would Juventus sell? If you don’t ask you don’t know.

CENTRE BACK: Of all of the negligent acts perpetrated by Van Gaal and his predecessor David Moyes by far the most heinous is the failure to replace Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic with specialist centre-backs. The current manager signed utility defender Marcos Rojo in his first window and converted Daley Blind to centre back at the start of this season, but for different reasons neither are remotely adequate there. Chris Smalling needs a partner and United’s back four will continue to toil until a solid base is formed. There are a dearth of ready-made centre backs in world football, but this is where scouts earn their coin. Nemanja Vidic was a surprise January signing and the next big thing is always out there somewhere. In an ideal world United would knock on Bill Kenwright’s door with several wheelbarrows full of money for John Stones, but the current TV deal means that few Premier League clubs are under pressure to cash in on their most valuable stars, especially in January. More likely is a left-field purchase from a second-tier European League. Aleksander Dragovic of Dynamo Kiev has been repeatedly linked and may fit the bill.

RIGHT WING: Everybody loves Juan Mata. How could you not? The diminutive culture-vulture is a wonderful technician and an outstanding human being, but his spell on the right is becoming increasingly fruitless. Van Gaal has admitted recently that he does not have the qualities to play there, which makes you wonder why he’s persisted with Mata for so long. Jesse Lingard has been given a shot, but whilst everyone loves the idea of an academy graduate becoming a star he is short of the quality required. Anthony Martial has briefly been tried there, as has Ashley Young. Surprisingly Memphis Depay is yet to be given that opportunity, particularly as his manager has said that the most important quality he needs there is pace. United have repeatedly been linked to Southampton’s Saido Mané, who has excelled at times for Southampton in the last 18 months. But the power of that TV contract again makes a deal unlikely in January. Lazio’s enigmatic Brazillian Felipe Anderson has been strongly linked in recent weeks, but the reported fee of €50m is a staggering sum for a player who enjoyed an incredible breakthrough season last term but who has since struggled and now languishes on the Roman’s bench. Again United may need to be more creative. Schalke’s young wideman Leroy Sané is showing great promise and has the attributes United need, but with Barcelona and City also reportedly interested they would have to move quickly with a giant offer. Riyad Mahrez would be a good option, but not until the summer.

Saido Mane: Beyond reach due to the power of the TV rights.

Saido Mane: Beyond reach due to the power of the TV rights.

CENTRE FORWARD: Wayne Rooney’s performance at Newcastle last Tuesday was a welcome blast from the past but also served as a reminder of what United have been missing. Van Gaal’s decisions to sell Javier Hernandez and Robin Van Persie were not bad ones in isolation, but the failure to replace either has been crippling. Anthony Martial has showed promise up front but is not yet the deadly marksman the club need. Putting his house on Rooney to score his side’s goals may well have doomed Van Gaal at United and without a prolific marksman to finish the rare chances the team create it is hard to see results improving in the medium term. Harry Kane would be an ideal addition, but Spurs have no financial or practical incentive to sell and the player himself is unlikely to want to leave the club at which he grew up for one in arguably a weaker position. Again, United are likely to need to get creative. Aubemayang of Dortmund would offer pace and finishing power, but is unlikely to be available until the summer. Alexandre Lacazette could be pried away from Lyon for the right price. Oh to have a finisher of the quality of Hernandez…..

United have a huge amount of work to do to build a squad capable of challenging at the top of the Premier League. Right now the sad reality is that the priority must be to finish in fourth place once more and gain a place in the Champions League. Without it attracting players of sufficient quality in the summer could become very difficult indeed. Many fans feel that this season may already be a write-off. With the current squad it surely is. But if the club can make 2/3 or astute signings the picture could change quickly. However, Van Gaal has recently played down the idea of bolstering the squad this transfer window. Behind closed doors United are briefing that the defence is the priority. It would be a start, but they need far more than that to achieve their goals.