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The problem for is that they have already bought their Virgil van Dijk. Three of them, in fact.

This window's transfer business at Old Trafford is again considered underwhelming, with a desperate supermarket sweep on the final day — but if United's defence remains a weak point, surely the biggest problem is the investment that has gone into that area already?

Close to £300million has brought scant improvement, so what to do? Continue the expensive pursuit of their own Van Dijk until one clicks? Liverpool got it spectacularly right, while United have tried just as hard, only to be hundreds of millions down.

Manchester United tried to get their own Virgil Van Dijk in captain Harry Maguire (pictured)

tried to get their own Virgil Van Dijk in captain Harry Maguire (pictured)

Eric Bailly, he was Virgil No 1. The first signing of the Jose Mourinho era, 22, and at £30m in 2016, not cheap. Bailly was already a winner of the Africa Cup of Nations with Ivory Coast. He was going to be the rock United needed, beside the smart defensive brain of Daley Blind.

Next came Victor Lindelof, a year later. Another 22-year-old, and the first signing that summer. Lindelof cost in the region of £31m, plus £10m in add-ons, and was intended to be a central defender in the Rio Ferdinand mould, technically proficient, bringing the ball out, feeding midfield. 

Ideally, Bailly and Lindelof would complement each other, but initially Lindelof struggled to get into the side.

Leading to Van Dijk, mark III. Harry Maguire. By now, Liverpool had set the going rate for a top-class, game-changing centre half at £75m, so were forced to top that by Leicester. 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer paid £80m in the hope Maguire would do for his back line what van Dijk did for Liverpool's. He wanted a leader, a cool head, a match-winner, the foundation of the team. 

Phil Jones was going to be that once, too, and Maguire at times looks to be treading a similar path from colossus to klutz.

Eric Bailly (right) and Victor Lindelof (left) have also been brought in as defensive saviours

Eric Bailly (right) and Victor Lindelof (left) have also been brought in as defensive saviours

Losing 6-1 to Tottenham, 's central defensive pairing of Maguire and Bailly cost £110m.

The club have also played their wild card, their joker. That was Paul Pogba, bought in 2016, to be their transformative presence, the driving force in midfield. Pogba cost a world-record fee, £89m, precisely because he was considered the final acquisition that would make title-contenders, driven by Mourinho.

Just as Van Dijk and Alisson were viewed as players who would complete Liverpool, so Pogba was the crowning glory of Mourinho's first transfer window. The problem now, is have played all their trumps without winning enough tricks.

The players who were supposed to have an impact, to shore up frail areas, to kick-start momentum, have not done so. The argument that need a Van Dijk ignores one simple fact: they've paid for one many times over now.

It is easy to blame Ed Woodward's naivety while ignoring the fact that, across three years, £140m has been spent on central defenders alone.

Since Sir Alex Ferguson departed, have invested £279.5m on defence to end up conceding 11 goals in three league games this season, a poorer aggregate than Fulham.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (left) has tried to make Maguire (right) the leader and rock at the back

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (left) has tried to make Maguire (right) the leader and rock at the back 

Yet still everyone implored the club, and Woodward, to go again. Indeed, there is outrage that they have not, with only Alex Telles, a left back from Porto, adding to defence. 

Yet what are United to do? Keep writing them off? Would better recruitment come with a sporting director? Depends. It hasn't exactly helped Manchester City, who have invested £400m on defence under Pep Guardiola, without finding another Vincent Kompany.

One imagines Mourinho and Solskjaer got to pick their defensive targets, too. Solskjaer must have supported the idea that Maguire was the answer.

What few consider now is United's financial outlook. Despite their status as the richest club in the country, United have lost £140m since the Covid-19 lockdown. So it is not as easy as just chucking another £80m defender on the fire.

Players of Van Dijk's quality are not in great supply. What if the next one does not bear comparison either? For United, where does this end?


For an England manager, there is one problem with enforcing a moral code. Players. They'll screw you over every time.

So having left Mason Greenwood and Phil Foden out of his squad, Gareth Southgate is now having to balance their misdemeanours with those of Tammy Abraham, Ben Chilwell and Jadon Sancho.

Greenwood and Foden were out of line while on England duty, so that is one difference, but in terms of risks and foolishness during a pandemic, the cases are quite similar.

Foden and Greenwood invited outsiders into England's bubble; Abraham, Chilwell and Sancho attended a party which flew in the face of current Covid guidelines less than 48 hours before scheduled to join up.

Tammy Abraham is pictured at his surprise party on Saturday night

Fellow England stars Sancho (pictured) and Ben Chilwell were also in attendance

Tammy Abraham (left), Jadon Sancho (right) and Ben Chilwell broke lockdown rules this weekend by attending a party and breaching the 'Rule of Six' in place from the UK government

Neither is the crime of the century but if three remain while two stayed barred it looks more like expediency than ethics.

It was ever thus. In 2003, Alan Smith was stood down by the Football Association pending a police investigation into an incident at a match between Leeds and . It immediately transpired that James Beattie, his replacement, was banned for drink-driving; and that Nicky Butt had played three matches under the same regime — that of former chairman Mark Palios — while awaiting news of charges over a fight outside a nightclub.

So good luck to Southgate in negotiating this moral maze. He was planning a squad meeting to reinforce the regime's principles this week. 

Might be best to do a head count first. He still needs 11 for Wales on Thursday.


In 2019, reflecting on a season that had yielded six goals in 36 Premier League matches, Dominic Calvert-Lewin struck a note of self-pity. 

'There is always going to be something,' he said. 'If I get 15 goals, people will want 20. If I get 20, they will want 25.'

It is to be hoped he now appreciates the less daunting reality. Far from

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