FOR some, the truest signs of summer are warmer weather, longer days and holidays in the sun. For Manchester United fans, summer has only really arrived once their club has become embroiled in a drawn-out and all-too-often-doomed transfer saga.

This year, the object of United’s off-season desire is Frenkie De Jong. The Dutch midfielder is new manager Erik ten Hag’s top target and they have already spent months trying to prise the playmaker away from Barcelona.

It’s a move complicated by many factors, most notably an issue of deferred wages, Barcelona’s reportedly contradictory public and private sentiments over whether or not they actually want to sell the player, and De Jong’s apparent desire to remain in the Catalan capital.

United are showing no signs of giving up on De Jong, but if their pursuit is ultimately fruitless, they will go into yet another season with holes in their midfield. Here are five alternatives to De Jong to whom United should consider switching their attention.

 

Ibrahim Sangare – PSV

A player who will be familiar to former Ajax boss Ten Hag, PSV’s Ibrahim Sangare has developed into one of the most promising defensive midfielders in Europe over the last two seasons.

The Ivory Coast international’s potential was evident from the moment he broke into the Toulouse first team as a teenager. PSV pounced in 2020 and Sangare has rounded out his game in Eindhoven, further refining his positional sense at the base of midfield, improving as a passer and adding an ability to play through pressure in the middle third to his physical prowess at 6ft 3ins.

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“I know from Sangare that he really wants to stay, PSV is absolutely no punishment for him,” former United striker and new PSV manager Ruud van Nistelrooy said of the 24-year-old in June. “But of course we also know how the market works. If clubs come with the right financial resources, it could be difficult to keep these players.”

 

Konrad Laimer – RB Leipzig

Austrian international Konrad Laimer has walked a well-trodden path to establishing himself as one of the Bundesliga’s most impressive midfielders, having begun with Red Bull-owned FC Liefering, then to Red Bull Salzburg before a switch to RB Leipzig in 2017.

Laimer’s boundless energy and aggressive pursuit of the ball when out of possession is perfectly suited to Ten Hag’s pressing style. He also possesses a strong strike from range and, as his four assists last term evidence, the ability to create from the middle third.

The 25-year-old only has one year remaining on his Leipzig contract and is believed to be available for a relatively modest £20m fee.

 

Ismael Bennacer – AC Milan

One of De Jong’s rarest and most valuable traits as a deep-lying central midfielder is his ability to break the lines of the opposition with both passing and dribbling. These qualities are also abundant in AC Milan’s Ismael Bennacer.

Indeed, Bennacer’s average of 2.1 successful dribblers per 90 minutes last season eclipses De Jong’s 1.6 for Barcelona last term and is comparable to the career-high mark of 2.5 the Dutchman set when playing under Ten Hag at Ajax in the 2018-19 season.

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Bennacer was an Arsenal player between 2015 and 2017, but he left to join Empoli without ever making a Premier League appearance for the Gunners. The France-born Algeria international has shone since moving to Italy and helped Milan claim a first Serie A title in a decade last season. Arsenal are reportedly targeting an Emirates return for he 24-year-old, who is valued at around £34m.

 

Matheus Nunes – Sporting CP

“Matheus Nunes is one of the best players in the world today,” Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola enthused of the Sporting CP midfielder after the English champions overcame the Portuguese side in the Champions League last season.

The Brazil-born eight-cap Portugal international helped Sporting complete a domestic league and cup double in 2020-21, and he has continued to shine despite the Lisbon side’s inability to retain their title last term. Best suited to a box-to-box midfield role, the 23-year-old is combative and has the anticipation to break up play while also acting as a driving force with dribbles (2.8 per 90) from deep and line-breaking passes.

Nunes, who is reportedly attracting firm interest from Liverpool, has a £51m release clause written into his Sporting contract.

MAN UNITED SEASON SPECIALS

 

Fabian Ruiz – Napoli

Arsenal, Newcastle and West Ham have all been linked with moves for Fabian Ruiz this summer, but if United decide to abandon their Frenkie De Jong pursuit, the Red Devils should bustle their way to the front of the queue for the Napoli midfielder.

As a deep-lying playmaker, Ruiz is the full package. He has a complete range of passes in his locker, the subtlety of movement to find space when it’s in short supply and the intelligence to conduct play from the base of midfield.

At 6ft 3ins, he also has the physicality to thrive in the Premier League and, as his return of seven goals and four assists last term demonstrates, he can pose a direct threat to the opposition goal.

Reports in Italy claim Napoli would look to recoup £43m if they were to sell the 26-year-old Spain star.

 

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