Comment: Why Jose Mourinho is so desperate to sign Toby Alderweireld to move forward with his Manchester United vision
As Manchester United began to prepare for this summer’s transfer window, there were more than a few meetings where executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward would offer to pursue a big name – with Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and Gareth Bale among those mentioned – only for Jose Mourinho to turn him down, because he had such a clear vision for how his team should be. Key to that vision are hard-working wingers like Willian over more flamboyant wide attackers like Anthony Martial, but really central to it are granite-hard and experienced central defenders.
His best teams have been characterised by them, from Ricardo Carvalho to John Terry and Lucio through to Sergio Ramos... but no one at that level is currently at United. That is one of a few reasons they are far from one of his best teams.
That is why a very frustrated Mourinho wants to get in such a player in this window, ideally Toby Alderweireld, to go some way to salvaging it.
It is also one area where the Portuguese shouldn’t be questioned, and should really be supported. For all the debate about Mourinho and the modern game, whether what he knows and does is still as effective, there can be no question he knows an effective centre-half.
It is also the one position where he can be said to have real success in developing players, something so often held against him.
Some of this Manchester United squad arguably serve as evidence. It could be fairly debated that all of Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo have performed above themselves for Mourinho. That defence has looked more stable than it otherwise might, even if that’s connected to bigger questions about the old-fashioned more rigid style of football that the United boss plays.
And that’s also connected to the current quandary for United.
One argument put forward by those close to Mourinho is that he can’t yet fully commit to more expansive football because he hasn’t had the defensive framework he fully trusts – because he hasn’t had centre-halves he fully trusts.
One irritation for Mourinho in this window has been United’s inability to sell players such players, and that becomes even greater a problem when the club’s transfer expenditure is now linked to transfer income as is this case, and has played at least some part in the refusal so far to meet Tottenham Hotspur’s valuation of Alderweireld. There is said to be a difference of £10m, with negotiations naturally influenced by the player’s contract clause.
United do currently have five players – Smalling, Jones, Rojo, Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof – whose first position is centre-half, and another two who can play there in Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Axel Tuanzebe.
It’s quite a cast, and it does mean there is a certain sense in having to sell to buy as he’d want, especially when there has been some frustration in the two central defensive purchases Mourinho has made.
Bailly really has looked the real deal, a centre-half with virtually all of the attributes – and especially those physically assured ones that Mourinho idealises – but the fitness issues of last season have caused the manager to lose some faith in how often he can use the Ivorian. Lindelof has meanwhile offered some spark, but there is still doubt over whether he is truly a Mourinho defender, and instead just represents a potential investment for the future.
The manager has never been all that bothered with investments for the future, however, and generally wants players who can do it for him now.
Alderweireld would be this player, and remains top priority in the position, with United sources confident that a deal can eventually be concluded by the end of the window – although it might go right to the wire, and ultimately require meeting Daniel Levy’s valuation. Harry Maguire would offer many of the same attributes and is being considered, but Mourinho has been so exasperated that he has looked to many options, and one under consideration has even been moving Nemanja Matic back to centre-half.
It’s just that wouldn’t quite completely fit the United boss’s vision of the team.