United, for all their criticism, have a rather complete and strong squad. So much so, that if every team in the league had to field a fully changed, 'second XI', United's would almost certainly represent the strongest (I'm sure City fans would debate that). Various signings in the past few seasons have helped to build the squad - Jones, Young, Valencia, Smalling, Hernandez etc, meaning that this summer may represent a chance to finally add a much needed spark.
Rightly so, Alex Ferguson has been questioned by fans and the press for not signing a central midfielder, let alone one who can create and entertain. With limited funds though, Fergie has chosen to strengthen the squad rather than spend big money on a guaranteed starter. After all, he knows better than anyone that it's a squad that wins titles and an individual.
And, it's likely that he'll be proven right again this year. United have been riddled with injuries and used 32 different players in the league - a real squad effort. In fact, he's so comfortable with his squad that he'll be able to afford to let a couple of players go - Berbatov, Kuszczak and probably at least one of Park or Owen will follow Gibson out the door. The one area that'll need strengthening, at fullback, seems to already have been added to with Clyne likely to join from Crystal Palace.
Evra's form has seen his future questioned but realistically there are few better left backs available in world football right now and faith in Fabio along with the surprising emergence of Fryers should provide cover. Maybe a striker could be signed to replace Berbatov but he's never been needed ths year and therefore United should be able to get away with Welbeck, Rooney, Hernandez with back up provided by any of Will Keane (a loan's probably the better option), Joshua King (impressing on loan at Hull), Macheda (another unfortunate loan going wrong) or Owen (who?).
The lack of necessity to therefore have another summer investing in the squad could mean that funds that are made available may at long last go on someone to improve the starting XI. The capitulation in Europe only serves to emphasise that it's needed - the squad is fine for the league but (and injuries and unnecessary rotation certainly didn't help) can't compete with Europe's elite, yet.
Links to Lucas Moura, Hazard and Gaitan are intriguing and certainly they fit the style of player that would excite the club and its fans. Fergie's had something of a blind-spot for central midfielders with Michael Carrick being the only successful central midfield signing since Roy Keane, nearly 20 years ago. (Unless you consider Ronny Johnsen a central midfielder). You can, to some extent, understand why Fergie may have been cautious when looking at central players. The best central midfielders cost a lot and are invariably abroad - United don't necessarily want to spend big on one player and prefer to sign players who already know the league.
Maybe more telling, has been the reluctance to move away from a 4-4-2, United's classic and favoured system. Two efficient central players, flanked by flair, creativity and pace out wide - it's a proven formula but one that doesn't allow for a free roaming creator. Spurs, Chelsea, Arsenal, Inter, Barcelona and other sides all play a variation of 4-2-3-1 to allow for interchanging and roaming, creative players. However, Fergie has often been fascinated by opposition teams getting 'men between the lines' when they face United. The nature of a 4-2-3-1 means players pop up in unorthodox positions - something United witnessed closely when Bilbao dismantled them twice.
There is a lesson to be learnt. The last hefty investment in a creative foreign central midfielder didn't end well (Anderson doesn't count given he was used, to the bemusement of the Brazilian press, as a more box-to-box midfielder). Veron was unfortunately a failure; not because he was a bad player, but because Fergie was naïve and presumed he'd slot seamlessly into a very English and classic 4-4-2 system. Veron did have his moments though, particularly in Europe when a three man central midfield would often be employed. You can't necessarily change a system to accommodate just one player, but right now, United have the right personnel to try and move away from a 4-4-2.
Fergie's mismanagement of Veron means any midfield signing this summer should be met with caution but will no doubt be a big sign that he is moving the squad on. Michael Carrick, despite splitting fan's opinion until recently was a 'safe' signing, as was Hargreaves, in terms of style of play. A new, dynamic United has been witnessed in patches this season though - at the start of the campaign it was built around Cleverley; and more recently the interchanging front trio of Welbeck, Rooney and Hernandez.
One could certainly argue that a new United can be built on the talent coming through - Pogba's been involved lately and others are impressing out on loan and at Reserve level. Cleverley's unfairly expected to be a revelation but has been predominately injured. Anderson may be given one more year but can no longer be trusted to stay fit whilst Scholes may and should be kept on for another seaon. Carrick has been an ever present and Giggs can still positively contribute. Fletcher's targeting a return, although no hopes should be pinned on him. So why sign another central player?
Given how often a player has had to play out of position and cover in the middle, there is probably a necessity for one more midfielder, but not just a squad player - someone who can scare opponents. A player who can run with the ball, beat men, play the right 'Hollywood pass', and enable United to play a 4-2-3-1 with ease. Competition often brings the best out of players so someone like Anderson may even rise to the challenge and become a better player too.
Maybe more importantly for the team, it needs to be someone who Rooney trusts. Too often he's found dropping deep, not just because he wants time on the ball, but because he's frustrated due to his lack of service and wants to try to make things happen. With the right player behind him doing that job, there'd be no need for him to join the midfield and he can play as a proper striker - arguably his best position. Rooney's finishing is somewhat underrated because he's such an all rounder but as we've seen this season and saw two years ago, when playing as a striker, he's guaranteeing you close to 25 league goals.
The identity of this ideal signing is unknown. Modric may well be the choice of the fans but Spurs' stance is that he's not for sale and given that United have never bid for him before, it seems as though he'd be an unlikely mover. United are reported to have a first option agreement with Benfica for Gaitan, something sources inside the club have confirmed (despite The Times denying this is true). Hazard has allegedly been watched but then no one's sure because it may have been a different player in the same game who was getting Ferguson's attention. Lucas Moura has been linked for a while but it's thought the Spanish giants like him too. As we know, identifying and then buying this kind of talent is not easy, especially when funds may be limited.
With United hopefully closing in on another title, it's been a victorious season for the squad and proof to Fergie that this group of players are good enough for the league. Taking them up a step in Europe though needs someone special and this may well be the best chance he's had in a while to not only finally buy a top class central midfielder, but take the team both in quality and system to the next level.