Manchester United just about managed to finished 2021 on a high with an improved performance in a 3-1 win over Burnley, but there is still plenty of work left to do.
Interim manager Ralf Rangnick is busy trying to put his stamp on a squad that was beginning to unravel in the final weeks of predecessor Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign and the coming weeks will provide an important opportunity to help that process along.
Here’s a rundown of five things United need to do during the January transfer window…
Phil Jones is wasted at United. It has been nearly two years since his last first-team appearance, largely because of a long-term knee injury, but there seems no way he will force his way back into the picture.
The 29-year-old is probably United’s sixth choice centre-back when everyone is available. Injury has ruled out the chance of him previously leaving in search of playing time, but he was fit enough to take a place on the bench for five of the last six Premier League games at the end of 2021.
Jones needs a club that can offer him playing time because it isn’t too late to save his career if he makes that move now. He still has another 18 months left on his contract, so a promising loan in the second half of the season could even help United secure a transfer fee in the summer.
One of the main problems that Rangnick has inherited from Solskjaer is a group players discontent with their role in the first half of the season.
Dean Henderson has been unfortunate in that a bout of Covid-19 and its lasting fatigue wrecked his pre-season at the same time as David de Gea was returning to his best form, but Jesse Lingard and Donny van de Beek have been treated quite poorly since the summer.
Solskjaer is rumoured to have shied away from potential confrontation by offering assurances about playing time that then didn’t materialise.
It isn’t Rangnick’s fault but it is something he needs to sort out, either by finding a role for them or making it clear they are free to leave.
The sooner United definitively know whether or not Paul Pogba will still be at the club beyond the end of the season, the better.
The Frenchman is now formally eligible to sign a pre-contract agreement with an overseas suitors should he so wish and has been waiting for this moment in order to fully assess all of the option available to him.
As of November, Pogba had not decided what he wanted to do and the likes of Real Madrid, Juventus and PSG were none the wiser as to his intentions.
Staying at United by signing a new contract also hasn’t been ruled out, although Ralf Rangnick has already said that he won’t try and persuade the player otherwise if his heart is not fully at Old Trafford.
Left unresolved much longer, the uncertainty of the situation has the potential to become unsettling for the rest of the squad.
Despite poor performances throughout the first half of the season, United still have the makings of a good squad if Rangnick can find a way to bring the group together and nurture a stronger mentality.
That being said, the squad isn’t the finished product just yet. And while the January transfer window at the elite level is notorious for a lack of value or indeed available players that will improve a team in the long-term, there could still be opportunity for United to inject some fresh energy.
It worked in 2020 when Bruno Fernandes arrived, although he has been one of the main underperforming culprits in the recent slump.
Amadou Haidara is a player United have recently been linked with and has the skillset to bring energy to midfield, which has remained the weakest part of the team. The 23-year-old has potential and is well known to Rangnick, having joined Red Bull Salzburg in 2016, before moving on to Leipzig.
Haidara has a £32m release clause that, while not thought to be active until summer, might be enough to prompt a January sale. The only downside is he wouldn’t be able to make an instant impact as a result of being on international duty with Mali at the Africa Cup of Nations.
Ultimately, while there may be an opportunity to get Haidara now, the bulk of United’s next batch of recruitment will come in the summer transfer window.
The planning phase for that should already be well underway and laying the groundwork ahead of time is an important step.
Full-backs and a ‘number nine’ will be a priority for summer and whether that means greasing the wheels with Erling Haaland and Mino Raiola, or identifying other targets in key areas, United should be continually addressing it between now and the end of the season to ensure that summer is only about submitting the paperwork rather than starting fresh.