Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has appeared to open the door on a summer move for Nathan Ake during a post-match embrace with the Bournemouth centre-back.
The Red Devils ran out comprehensive victors against the Cherries on Saturday as Solskjaer’s men struck five past Aaron Ramsdale to maintain their current purple patch and keep their top-four aspirations very much alive.
For Eddie Howe it was a familiar tale. Junior Stanislas’ well-executed opener proved a false dawn as a Mason Greenwood-inspired comeback ensured the visitors returned to the South Coast with zilch on the board and still in the thick of relegation trouble.
Fans and pundits alike were leading the eulogies for teenage phenom Greenwood, Bruno Fernandes and the improved form of Paul Pogba, but much of that praise was put on hold as discussions quickly turned to what exactly Solskjaer told Ake in the immediate aftermath of the match at Old Trafford.
As the players, staff and officials went through the usual post-match formalities, Solskjaer was caught in a brief exchange with Ake on BT Sport’s cameras. The sequence was accompanied with subtitles that read: “You need a bit of luck from your centre-backs.”
However, sharp-eared fans weren’t quite convinced with the original caption, believing Solskjaer was actually telling Ake about his plans to sign a ‘left-footed centre-back’. You decide for yourselves…
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Despite Man Utd’s improved form, attributable to their new-look frontline, there remains question marks at the back. As it stands Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof are Solskjaer’s go-to centre-back pairing, while Eric Bailly remains on the fringes having struggled with injuries.
But, all three players are right-footed. Marcos Rojo, a left-footed centre-back by trade, will likely leave Man Utd in the forthcoming transfer window, leaving a gap at the back for a new defender to come in, and that could be in the guise of Ake, regardless of Bournemouth’s fate.
Solskjaer is an advocate of progressive and fluid football, meaning he could look to the blueprint upheld by Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, by identifying and cherry-picking a left-footed centre-back to partner his right-footed counterpart, as we witnessed with the recruitment of Aymeric Laporte.
In that sense the acquisition of Ake would make perfect sense. The Dutchman has posted relatively average metrics this season, but given the current state of Bournemouth and the inconsistencies in their side, owing largely to injury troubles (which Ake has also fallen victim to himself), that is understandable.
It would, in fact, be more appropriate to turn to his 2018/19 stats for a more conclusive idea of what exactly Ake brings to the table. For non-‘Big Six’ centre-backs Ake ranked first for touches made (2243) and second only to Maguire (then at Leicester) for successful passes (1459).
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Solskjaer has been praised for moving away from the scattergun approach that has hampered Man Utd in the post-Ferguson era, instead making acute signings that match his playing style and alleviate weaknesses in his squad. Ake could be the next in line.
But, there will be no shortage of suitors when the window opens. Guardiola is thought to be an admirer and City will be in the market for defensive reinforcements, while Chelsea are thought to still have a gentleman’s agreement in place whereby they can re-sign Ake for £40m.
So, if not Ake then where could Solskjaer turn to for his ‘left-footed centre-back’? With a clear transfer strategy in place, we’ve weighed up a few alternatives for Man Utd…
Villarreal have been in superb form this season, scoring the third-most goals in La Liga (54) and currently sitting in fifth place, just six points outside the Champions League qualification places. Gerard Moreno’s 16-goal haul has naturally kept his presence prominent on the back pages, while a 35-year-old Santi Cazorla continues to mesmerise, but it has arguably been the ball-playing exploits of Torres at the back that have impressed the most.
Only Gerard Pique (2440), Sergio Ramos (1979) and Clement Lenglet (1875) have registered more passes for centre-backs than Torres (1767) this season, which is understandable given that two of those play for Barcelona and the other for Real Madrid, while the Villarreal man has created more chances than any centre-back this term (11).
Those are the kind of stats that will have modern tacticians weak at the knees. Given Torres’ age (23), height (6ft, 3in) and playing style, it is no wonder he is one of the most coveted centre-backs on the market. It is believed Torres has a release clause of around £45m, and Man Utd, along with Barca and Chelsea, have already been linked to his signature.
When Antonio Conte convinced defensive stalwart Diego Godin to relocate to the San Siro last summer, it looked like the Italian found the final piece to his new-look set-up, with the Uruguayan making up one third of Inter’s formidable centre-back triumvirate, alongside Stefan de Vrij and Milan Skriniar.
However, fast forward a year and Godin has lost his place in the pecking order to 21-year-old Bastoni. The towering, yet elegant centre-back has enjoyed a breakthrough season with the Nerazzurri and is now a mainstay in Conte’s starting XI, combining brains and brawn to marshal the backline.
Such has been his rapid rise that Barca have reportedly been monitoring his situation, but Conte will be desperate to retain the ex-Atalanta player’s services. Bastoni fits the profile for Solskjaer: young, left-footed, adept in possession. But, this is a transfer that would require a serious purse and some deep pockets.
Staying in Lombardy, but in the red half of Milan, and there is another left-footed centre-back of ball-playing excellence and defensive resilience: Romagnoli. The 25-year-old club captain has been a near ever-present for the Rossoneri since transferring from Roma in 2015 and has once again excelled this season.
Milan are fighting tooth and nail to secure a European place and that outcome will largely rest on the shoulders of Romagnoli. The Italian has registered more passes than any centre-back in Serie A this season (1791) and has played every single minute of the campaign (the only outfield player to do so).
Once again Barca are thought to be keeping tabs on Romagnoli, while Spanish transfer outlets have linked the Italian with Atletico Madrid. Given Italian football’s lineage of world class centre-backs, Solskjaer won’t find many better in the art of ‘catenaccio’ (a strong emphasis on defence).
The versatile Austrian has been the figurehead of Bayern Munich‘s revitalisation this season and the poster boy of Hansi Flick’s high-octane system. Moving across to centre-back, which has allowed Alphonso Davies to flourish at left-back, Alaba has been revolutionary in a more central role.
Operating as the springboard for attacking moves, Alaba’s elite ball-playing credentials and defensive intelligence allow him to safeguard the backline while also adhering to the Bavarian club’s possession-based mantra, and that is exactly what Solskjaer will be looking for in the coming months.
With Alaba’s contract set to expire next summer, the Austrian could be available when the window reopens. Chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge has already revealed: “We don’t want to lose a player on a free transfer next year – I will be very clear about that.” It would seem the door has been left ajar, if Alaba can be tempted away. However, the prospect of staying at Bayern will surely remain a strong pull given he moved to Bavaria a decade ago.
Lille has been a hotbed for emerging talent over the years and the latest to step off the conveyor belt is Gabriel. The 6ft 3in Sao Paulo native joined the club in 2017 for £1.5m and has really enhanced his reputation this season, drawing covetous eyes from Italy to England, particularly the latter after impressing in the Champions League group stages against Chelsea back in autumn.
The 22-year-old is still young and has plenty of room for growth, but he has looked a mature and composed player this season alongside the experienced Jose Fonte, excelling both aerially and with a progressive passing range. He ranks third for most passes into the final third in Ligue 1 this season for centre-back with a total of 195. Only Pablo Martinez (196) and Hilton (201) are ahead of the young Brazilian.
If it’s proven Premier League quality that Solskjaer is after then he could turn his gaze to another relegation-threatened side in Aston Villa, and more specifically, Mings. A former teammate of Ake at Bournemouth, Mings has been the standout defender for Villa in a season that has spiralled out of control at times and not produced much by the way of success.
The 27-year-old defender has picked up two England caps as a reward for his fine form this term and could come at a cut-price deal depending on the fate of Villa in the coming weeks. Of course, Mings remains a polarising figure at Old Trafford after a certain incident involving Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but all could be forgiven if he comes in and brings a new dimension to the backline.
PSG really need to try and keep hold of their academy gems. The Parisians have recently seen 18-year-old defensive wonderkid Tanguy Kouassi join Bayern Munich and they will be hoping he doesn’t follow in the footsteps of Zagadou, who is just beginning to realise his potential for Borussia Dortmund.
The 21-year-old defender recently suffered ligament damage in his knee, which ruled him out of the Bundesliga’s return to action, but he should be raring to go once the 2020/21 season gets up and running. Despite his height (6ft 5in), Zagadou has the versatility to play at left-back, as shown when he deputised for Marcel Schmelzer during his maiden campaign in the Ruhr district, while he now plays an invaluable role in Lucien Favre’s three-at-the-back system.