Rumours suggest that Erik ten Hag is prioritising the signing of N’Golo Kante from Chelsea - a fine player but one who represents another gamble.
United have not fared well with their signings of veterans. Edinson Cavani has given the club one good half-season, before cutting a frustrated figure unable to properly influence the game. Bastian Schweinsteiger arrived, promptly showing why he was better suited to life playing MLS in Chicago. Nemanja Matic is well liked, it appears, but he offers nothing on the pitch. Alexis Sanchez was an absolute disaster.
You can make an exception, of course, for the exceptional Cristiano Ronaldo. But for the most part players arrive at United and then start or continue their decline. It is not a phenomenon unusual to the club, but under Alex Ferguson, he generally got his guesses right. Robin van Persie’s last hurrah won a Premier League and his new manager’s retirement, Laurent Blanc had a rocky start but a title-winning finish, and Teddy Sheringham helped lead the forward line to secure a treble.
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When things are going well, the mind can transcend the rigours of the body and a new setting can be invigorating, but a club in freefall can exacerbate those who are already physically tired and aching.
The gamble for United’s incoming manager is whether or not he believes he can not just arrest the club’s decline, but if he can improve the atmosphere to the point that he can give Kante a few more years of enthusiasm.
It is not clear how enthusiastic Kante is to remain at Stamford Bridge, after all.
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Kante remains a regular in the first team under Thomas Tuchel, but there are rumours that he could be sacrificed in order to effect a rebuild. There is a logic to putting him up for the chop. He has a year left on his current deal, and the club are not yet able to offer him fresh terms as they are subject to restrictions stemming from Roman Abramovich’s ownership. That could soon be resolved, but the current policy is to offer players over 30 just a single-year extension. Overall, that makes sense in order to end up protected from expensive and aged mistakes, but Kante is a wonderful player. Indeed, he may still be committed to live in London, as Eurosport France’s Julien Pereira says: “RMC said he had refused a transfer to PSG this summer.”
For United, assuming Kante stays fit, it is clear where he would fit in. Matic was brought in as a holding player by Jose Mourinho, and Fred was used by both the Portuguese and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to sit deep until Ralf Rangnick let him show more closer to the goal. Scott McTominay improves from one season to the next, but only a few really expect him to become an essential fixture in a title-winning side. There is a desperate need for a destructive player who can also move the ball quickly. Kante does both of those things.
With Paul Pogba also due to leave, there is a lack of experience in the middle of the park. Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard and Cavani will also be on their way.
However, Pereira hints at the beginning of a potential problem: fitness. “With Les Bleus, he is still essential for Didier Deschamps even if he has missed a lot of matches in recent months due to injuries,” he writes.
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“[Monaco midfielder Aurelien] Tchouameni was impressive when he replaced him, and he is currently the best French midfielder.”
Ultimately, Ten Hag may see it as a risk worth taking. There is a lot of experience walking out of the club this summer, and a lack of players who know what it takes to win. The Premier League, Champions League and World Cup - Kante has them all and was instrumental in winning each of them. He has played for a team with limited means at Leicester, with the resources of Chelsea, and offered essential support to a fluid team with Deschamps’ France. If Chelsea are willing to let him go for a relatively small sum then it may be hard to turn down given reports of £150 million being the limit of United’s transfer budget.
Yes, it is a gamble, but when United have fallen this far they have little choice but to hope one of them finally comes off in their favour.
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