For most Manchester United fans the World Cup in Brazil has been an overwhelmingly positive experience. Aside from a general sense of pleasure at the brilliant attacking football on display and the end-to-end nature of many of the games, the tournament has provided an opportunity to see new manager Louis Van Gaal at work prior to him taking up his position at Old Trafford. What most have seen has been entirely positive: the tactical acumen and flexibility, ability to read a game and change it with substitutions and a total conviction in decisions which invariably have been proven to be correct. The latest big call, substituting his goalkeeper immediately prior to penalties against Costa Rica, was another massive gamble, but again his hunch was proven correct. The contrast with the disastrous ten months under David Moyes is stark and was perhaps epitomised by Van Gaal’s instinct to substitute his captain, Robin Van Persie, when a goal down against Mexico. It worked and the Dutch went on to win 2-1. Rewind a few months to the game between Newcastle and United at Old Trafford, the home side trailing by a single goal. An unfit Van Persie was allowed to remain, ineffectually, on the pitch and the score line remained unchanged. David Moyes admitted post-match that he had not substituted his star striker for fear of the reaction of the crowd. One man was more conscious of how he appeared than what he did. The other doesn’t give a toss how others react if he feels a decision needs making. Last year we picked up an infection. Now we have the antidote.
However, this crazy World Cup has had a down side for United and, perhaps, brought on a few headaches in the corridors of power. With no European football next season, two signings already completed and several more being mooted there is a huge pile of deadwood at Old Trafford which will need shifting as quickly as possible. Reports have suggested that Van Gaal has informed his boss that he needs only a small squad to work with. That will mean selling a number of very well paid but limited footballers, trying to extract from potential suitors both reasonable fees and an undertaking to take over significant wage packets. It just so happened that several of those reported to be at risk would be involved in Brazil and United no doubt hoped for promising performances from them to spark interest and raise their values. In reality, the exact opposite has happened. The majority have stunk.
Starting with the most obvious name, Marouane Fellaini, a player who several reliable hacks have said Van Gaal is keen to offload at a huge loss as quickly as possible. United must have been rubbing their hands together as the Belgian came off the bench in his country’s opening match against Algeria and rescued victory from the jaws of defeat. But after that brief game-changing cameo, Fellaini has been nothing short of dreadful, lumbering around Brazil, misplacing simple passes, fouling and proving to be more of an asset to the opposition than his own team. Robbie Savage, whilst not everyone’s cup of tea as a pundit, hit the nail on the head when suggesting that the player was everywhere that the ball had just been. The abiding image of Fellaini’s tournament will be of him slowly trotting back as Lionel Messi surged away beyond him, desperately hacking at the heels of the ball carrier. Reports have suggested that United are looking for a sale for £15m of the £27.5m they threw away acquiring him. I wish them good luck finding a club willing to meet that valuation and pay the player the £80k per week he currently earns at Old Trafford. Normally Sam Allardyce could be relied upon in circumstances like these, but the West Ham manager is under orders from on high to play a more fluid brand of football next season. For that, and much else, Fellaini will be useless.
The story is much the same for others on the periphery of United’s bloated squad who appeared in Brazil. Nani performed to type – flaky, selfish, an individual rather than a team player. If a wrong choice on the ball can be made then the Portuguese winger will make it. The frustration is, as it always has been, that the player has incredible natural ability but has never found a way to harness it. Talent will only get you so far without intelligence on the field. At 27, Nani is no longer ‘potential’. He should be at his peak, but in reality is probably at his worst. There has been longstanding reporting of interest from Italy, particularly from Juventus, but those links have now gone largely quiet save from those desperate for United to lever him in to a deal for Chilean Arturo Vidal. Stranger things have happened, but it appears unlikely that the Turin giants, sweet on Vidal’s international teammate Alexis Sanchez, would see Nani as an obvious fallback option. The ludicrosity of awarding the winger a new five year deal worth £80k per week last summer appears to have backfired. Perhaps Van Gaal is of a mind to attempt to tame the wayward talent. Many fans hope that he can, for they have seen the player’s innate flair. But it looks likely that one wide man will have to be sacrificed. With Antonio Valencia signing a surprise new deal, Adnan Januzaj very much on the rise and Ashley Young earning a scarcely believable £120k a week, Nani appears to be very much the odd man out. If United do wish to shift him then the World Cup can only have depressed the options available to him and his market value.
The same could be said of two other United squad members, Shinji Kagawa and Javier Hernandez, although the feeling is that both are much more likely to be suitable for rehabilitation at other clubs and will maintain a reasonable value. Kagawa’s performances for Japan were the carbon copy of the majority of his appearances in Manchester: anonymous and ineffectual. His defenders have long argued that his contributions in an international shirt have demonstrated the talent hiding within him, but this no-show in Brazil has greatly weakened that hand. It is hard to see a place for the Japanese under Van Gaal, where he finds himself competing for the number ten shirt with Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata, a battle he surely cannot win. Unlike Nani there should still be a market for him, most likely involving German clubs who remember his contribution at Dortmund, but this World Cup will have done little to spur them on or to maintain or boost his value. Reputation can take a player a long way in football (Fernando Torres likes this) but in time many will begin to forget the past. Kagawa needs a move, United need him to move, but Japan’s three games in Brazil will not have helped to facilitate a sale one bit.
Like Kagawa, there will still be a market for Javier Hernandez. Goal-scorers are a valuable commodity in football and clubs are perhaps attracted to the idea of rehabilitating a struggling striker more than any other type of player. Hernandez looks a likely fall-guy at United, a fourth choice, out-of-form player who offers little outside the penalty area and is a passenger if not scoring. Once the golden boy of Mexican football, he found himself playing the role of impact substitute in Brazil, further reinforcing the current belief in his value being from the bench as opposed to as a starter. A typical poacher’s finish in his country’s win over Croatia showcased his main attribute, but much of his pitch time exposed his poor form and natural weaknesses, principally a poor first touch, an uncanny knack of being able to fall over in virtually any on-pitch circumstance and being perpetually offside. As with those above, the World Cup can have served only to reduce interest and deflate his value.
Ed Woodward must thus be watching the World Cup in Brazil with a mixture of satisfaction at having acquired the finest manager in the competition, but also dismay at the way in which some of the assets that he might have hoped to have sold this summer will have depreciated in value, the market for them surely getting smaller as the tournament progressed. However, if there is one thing we know about Woodward it’s that he could sell ice to the Eskimos. Having extracted approximately £5m from Dynamo Moscow for Alex Buttner, it would be foolish to exclude him delivering the unexpected (although this may not extend to finding a buyer for Anderson). It has however, amongst all of the Van Gaal adulation, been a disappointing tournament on the field for United’s players. Only Evra, now possibly on his way to Juventus, and Robin Van Persie have enjoyed relatively successful tournaments. For Messrs Smalling, Jones, Shaw, Rooney, Welbeck, Valencia, Fellaini, Kagawa, Hernandez and Nani it is surely an experience they will be keen to quickly forget. Ed Woodward will no doubt hope that the rest of the footballing world forgets in equally swift fashion.