In a summer where Man United were looking to sign Kalvin Phillips, they ended it with Casemiro.
Usually, it is the other way round. Manchester City flirt with a signing only for United to earwig and make the proposal.
Alexis Sanchez, Fred, Harry Maguire and Cristiano Ronaldo all had their heads turned and changed course from the Etihad to Old Trafford. It has happened so often and ended so abruptly or acrimoniously you have to wonder if City have done it purposely.
With Kalvin Phillips, the boot is on the other foot. “He’s not injured. He arrived overweight,” Pep Guardiola said of Phillips on Thursday night. “I don’t know [why]. He didn’t arrive in the condition to do training sessions and to play.”
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Phillips has played 54 minutes for City and is still yet to start since his £42million transfer from Leeds United. Aaron Wan-Bissaka has had more playing time this season four miles away.
For all the carping over Maguire’s inclusion, he turned up in Qatar and Phillips, one of the more fortunate inclusions in Gareth Southgate’s England squad, had a couple of unmemorable cameos.
United held exploratory discussions about signing Phillips that were more advanced than they or the Yorkshire-born Phillips would ever care to admit. Erik ten Hag had stressed to the United hierarchy of a preference for English targets with acceptable valuations.
Leeds’ Premier League survival and City’s interest ended the possibility of Phillips following the same path as McQueen, Jordan, Cantona, Ferdinand and Smith.
Phillips missed four months last season with a hamstring injury and City were aware of the shoulder problem that has made him unavailable for 11 of their games this term. Phillips is understood to have been amazed City bought him with all the wear and tear he had incurred.
United underestimated Sanchez’s durability. “I can tell you that United have overspent,” a high-ranking Arsenal member said three months after the deal. They had watched Sanchez train on a daily basis at London Colney and knew how exhausted he was after four successive summers spent competing in a World Cup, Copa Americas and the Confederations Cup.
The evening before City briefed they had admitted defeat in signing Sanchez, a well-placed source at the club told the Manchester Evening News Sanchez “must decide whether to put trophies before money”. A second City source insisted the club was “not desperate” to buy Sanchez and supporters should expect a ‘”big signing”. That has aged well: City bought Riyad Mahrez, who has three more Premier League medals to hang on his Christmas tree.
Missing pre-season was the death knell for Ronaldo’s United career and he was more hindrance than help in his 16 club appearances before he threw the toys and the pram. Maguire’s immobility has been exploited countless times and he flew to Qatar as the fourth-choice centre-back at United.
Fred has been a decent addition and, of the aforementioned quartet, is possibly the most aligned with Guardiola, himself a vocal admirer. United extended Fred’s contract by a year last week.
In August, an agency source flagged Casemiro’s running stats were worse than Scott McTominay’s. A reasonable point at the time, in retrospect it was needless nit-picking that underestimated the desire of the old warhorse. United’s midfield has been transformed since Erik ten Hag dropped the limited McTominay for Casemiro in early October.
It was easy to be dismissive of the Casemiro move. Information emerged late in the transfer window, Real Madrid demanded an inflated fee for a 30-year-old and Casemiro’s salary was not far shy of Sanchez’s £400,000-a-week.
United had actually touched base with Casemiro around three months before he was greeted by a magnanimous Roy Keane on the Old Trafford pitch. His last appearance in the Champions League final victory over Liverpool was the last hurrah and United’s FaceTime conversations confirmed Casemiro was genuinely seeking an invigorating challenge elsewhere.
As discussions progressed, Casemiro told the United football director John Murtough he only wanted to know three things: where he lived, where he trained and where he played. United were convinced they were signing a leader.
Phillips joined City before they had left for their pre-season tour, swift and seemingly shrewd business. United were still following Frenkie de Jong down the garden path and had not made a single signing.
Almost six months on, Casemiro remains a world-class asset and Ten Hag has not closed the door on welcoming De Jong, once of interest to City, to Carrington. Guardiola has taken a leaf out of Louis van Gaal’s playbook. “He needs to be fit and is not very fit and fit enough to do what I want,” the Dutchman said of Luke Shaw.
Shaw is now in such fine fettle he offered to play at centre half in midweek.