Manchester United could exploit contract strategy and transfer market in move for second centre back
If Man United are to finance deals for two stellar centre-backs then there is going to have to be a notable outgoing - via a possible swap deal.
Before the transfer window opened and before the season had ended, industry sources suggested the swap deal would become more prevalent this summer.
Swaps in football are touted on a near daily basis but seldom materialise and, if they do, it is usually low level. Haggling is tiring over a straight fee, never mind weighing up the value of two players to avoid a cash supplement.
Manchester United and Arsenal set the nadir for modern swaps with Alexis Sanchez and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, two flaky forwards on staggering salaries moving in the opposite direction in a January window. Both were dropped in the Serie A dumping ground after 18 months.
United's only other memorable swaps were for strikers in club record deals. Keith Gillespie was a makeweight for Andy Cole in 1995 and Frazier Campbell went to Tottenham on loan as part of the torturous Dimitar Berbatov saga in 2008.
The contrast in coverage of both deals was stark. The first anyone heard of the Cole deal was on Teletext and he admitted at his press conference unveiling the move was a 'big shock'. Thirteen years later and in the era of 24-hour rolling news channels, Berbatov was filmed being driven away from Manchester Airport on deadline day and walking through the Old Trafford corridors later that night.
In this upside down world of the pandemic, clubs are short of cash and a compromise is to suggest a swap. The revelation United are trying to recruit two centre halves suggests they are prepared to sanction the permanent sale of a defender.
Axel Tuanzebe and teenager Teden Mengi are scheduled for season-long loans, Phil Jones is not a sellable asset but Eric Bailly is. Bailly only signed a new contract in April but perhaps United are about to finally exploit an asset by selling them.
The method in United doling out incongruous contracts is to increase the asset sheet. Financially, it is better value for United's owners, the Glazers, that Bailly is tied down on a three-year deal, his representatives are paid commission and the player's value increases. A sale with a year left on his previous deal would have entailed a loyalty bonus, a fee on a replacement, wages, a signing-on fee and image rights.
So Bailly is a convenient makeweight should United be insistent on signing Pau Torres from Villarreal, as well as Raphael Varane. Villarreal are believed to be interested in their former player Bailly and accept that Torres's €60million release clause is too steep in the current market.
Villarreal's cachet is high: they are the Europa League winners, offer Champions League football and will be seeded in the August group stage draw. Bailly is a fluent Spanish-speaker and his representatives are based in Spain.
Bailly is only three years older than Torres, has mustered 106 appearances in five years and been injured too often . Both Bailly and Torres are contracted to their clubs until 2024.
It is a doable player-plus-cash deal - provided both players agree. Torres would not be a first-teamer at United if or when they sign Varane, a four-times Champions League winner and World Cup winner and the ideal foil for Harry Maguire. Yet Torres is genuinely flattered by United's interest and a quicker defender than Maguire and Victor Lindelof.
Maguire and Lindelof are the only centre-backs with secure futures at United. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is a different talker when the cameras are off and he could scarcely believe United had agreed a new contract with Jones in February 2019. Neither could Jones' representatives, who thought United would just trigger his extension. The club could have released him two years ago.
Solskjaer will have also taken a dim view of Bailly's interview on the eve of the Europa League final, when he effectively issued an ultimatum that he start or he would seek a transfer. Solskjaer should have asserted his authority and dropped Bailly, who required treatment the night before the game in Gdansk and failed to complete the 120 minutes.
Bailly was publicly disgruntled and Tuanzebe has been, privately, over his lack of playing time and what he perceives to be an inconsistent selection policy at centre-back. Even when fit, Jones was too thin-skinned to ever be compared with John O'Shea, never mind Duncan Edwards.