Louis van Gaal is now the clear frontrunner to take over as Manchester United manager because of the complications associated with trying to lure Carlo Ancelotti away from Real Madrid. Ed Woodward, the United executive with responsibility for finding a permanent successor to David Moyes, is aware that arranging a deal for Ancelotti will be difficult to the point of improbable and that makes Van Gaal the strong favourite to take over next season.
United’s information is that Van Gaal wants the job, with Patrick Kluivert as his assistant, although the downside of employing the Holland national team manager is that he will not be able to start until after the World Cup and that means Woodward is already pressing ahead with what promises to be an extensive summer of transfer business. High-level sources have confirmed he has held detailed discussions about Edinson Cavani’s potential availability at Paris Saint-Germain, including at least one meeting in France, and it has also emerged that United’s interest in resurrecting a deal for Cesc Fábregas is harder than initially thought. Fábregas has been identified as the player United want the most, having missed out on him last summer when Barcelona turned down bids of £25m and £30m.
Ancelotti has been discussed at length but so has José Mourinho and Pep Guardiola and, in all three cases, United suspect the probability ranges from low to non-existent. That might change in Ancelotti’s case, depending on what happens at Real Madrid between now and the end of the season. United are keeping an open mind in case the Champions League semi-finalists fall short in their attempt to win more silverware. Even then, however, there is nothing to make them believe that Ancelotti’s position will be vulnerable if he finishes the season with only the Copa del Rey.
The shortlist, headed by Van Gaal, also features Antonio Conte of Juventus as well as Diego Simeone, the Atlético Madrid coach. Roberto Mancini is keen to return to English football after struggling to settle in Istanbul with Galatasaray and wants to be considered, despite having previously managed Manchester City. United have denied reports in Holland that Van Gaal has already agreed the deal but the process is under way and it increasingly appears as though his appointment could be finalised in the next couple of weeks.
The delay until a possible mid-July start is not regarded as a deal-breaker and United believe they are already in a strong position transfer-wise because of several months of work behind the scenes involving Woodward, Moyes and their network of agents and scouting staff. Cavani would cost up to £60m, breaking United’s transfer record, and it might need about £40m if they are to stand any chance of succeeding where they failed with Fábregas last summer.
Again, the deal is highly complicated because of the politics of Barcelona selling one of their local players and Fábregas’s apparent reluctance to rock the boat with the club that has been such an important part of his life. However, United’s information is that it is negotiable and, as long as that is the case, they will press ahead to try to see whether Fábregas is as unsettled as they have been informed.
Cavani would suit Woodward’s ambitions to bring in one of the sport’s modern superstars but, equally, there is a recognition behind the scenes that the more urgent need is to strengthen the team’s midfield and defence.
The club have reluctantly accepted that Porto’s Eliaquim Mangala will end up at Manchester City but other players in that position have been identified to replace the departing Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. A £30m deal for Luke Shaw is likely to mean Patrice Evra leaving but United consider the Frenchman such an influential member of the squad there is an option for him to sign a year-long contract extension. “He is almost as important in the dressing room as Ryan Giggs,” one source said.
United have been working on their recruitment programme since the turn of the year and there is more of an understanding this time that it is important to have contingency plans in place in case deals fall through. Behind the scenes, for example, it has been pointed out that Sir Alex Ferguson thought he had transfers arranged for Karim Benzema, Alexis Sánchez and Lucas Moura in recent years. The problem has sometimes been that there has not been a second or even third choice identified. That will not be the case this summer.
There have been enquiries about Nani, Shinji Kagawa and Javier Hernández and United have to decide who they let go. The recent publicity surrounding Danny Welbeck’s apparent unhappiness is not being regarded with great alarm and, potentially, is part of a strategy on the striker’s part to be given a new contract, two years from the end of his current deal.