Evertonians joked there were six stages in David Moyes’s scouting strategy: Track. Mull. Ponder. Consider. Plot. Dither.
‘Dithering Davey’ lived up to his moniker atManchester United, where the sole signing in that amateurish 2013 summer transfer window was Marouane Fellaini on deadline day – for £4.5million more than he was available for the previous month.
Phil Neville, Fellaini’s neighbour and on Moyes’ coaching staff, ferried Fellaini and his father in a two-passenger sports car to Carrington.
Finally, United are in the driving seat. Jadon Sancho is effectively a United player and he is expected to share a dressing room with Raphael Varane. Two statement signings and a statement of intent: United intend to challenge for the title.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his staff concluded some time ago a midfielder was needed if they were to successfully switch to a more front-footed approach. Eduardo Camavinga and Declan Rice are players of interest and the overhyped Harry Winks was considered in the past.
Of all the positions to recruit for, midfield is the toughest. There is not an attainable, top-drawer defensive midfielder aligned with United’s profile. Solskjaer, like his predecessor, settled on a midfield axis amid reservations over the defence but a world-class partnership of Varane and Harry Maguire would not necessitate two guards to hold the fort.
Neville was sitting next to a United-supporting English journalist living in Spain and the story of United’s interest emerged. The following week, Saul was culpable for Elche’s second goal in a 2-0 win over Vallecano.
Saul, now 26, has not developed into the Spain midfield mainstay he seemed destined to become. He has not been selected in La Roja‘s squad since November 2019 and Pedri, the latest Masia maestro, was supplemented by Sergio Busquets and Saul’s club colleague Koke in the absorbing European Championship semi-final with Italy.
Marcos Llorente has also usurped Saul, a starter in 28 of Atletico’s 46 games in La Liga and the Champions League last term. Saul signed a ludicrously long nine-year contract in 2017 with a £130million release clause. Atletico would consider a quarter of that figure to sell Saul this summer.
Saul switched to the Stellar Agency two-and-a-half years ago and a move to the Premier League has always felt inevitable. He is one of a number of their clients, Jack Grealish and Camavinga among them, Stellar are keen to shift this summer and Saul ticks plenty of boxes for United.
If Saul’s role was more definitive and defensive, if he was more Rodri than Pedri, he would be a no-brainer. Yet you have to scroll back to January for the last game he is recorded as starting as a defensive midfielder for Atletico and Diego Simeone has seldom played him there. It is also unrealistic to expect United to pay Atletico for two players in the same summer, with Kieran Trippier of greater interest.
Solskjaer already has ‘holding midfielders’ in Scott McTominay and Fred, his protective pivot. Entrusting either on their tod is fraught with risk as Solskjaer has so successfully coaxed the sense of adventure out of McTominay he outperformed Paul Pogba in the Europa League final. Fred has the silk of Fabinho but not the steel. Neither are recognised as out-and-out defensive midfielders.
McTominay has improved in the final third under Solskjaer but his finest performance was as a ‘destroyer’ against Tottenham in December 2019, when Jose Mourinho lauded McTominay’s ‘dominance’.
McTominay stayed in the United first-team squad on the strength of his risk-aversive discipline and Solskjaer has finessed that, encouraging him to take risks. He’s not another dithering Scot.