For Manchester United and Arsenal supporters, the first half of the Premier League season has been frustratingly predictable. Looking at the two squads early in the campaign, the strengths and weaknesses were crystal clear. Both teams had a glut of attacking stars, but glaring holes at the other end of the pitch – and both teams largely choose to ignore those holes. Manchester United opted to plough on with injury-prone trio Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, while Arsenal did not make a move to replace centre-back Thomas Vermaelen and continue to rely on a past-his-prime Mathieu Flamini as their anchor man.
They have each paid the price. With a title challenge no longer realistic for either team, Louis van Gaal and Arsene Wenger are instead looking a little vulnerable, with question marks lingering over whether their teams are even capable of securing a spot in the top four.
And that adds spice to the January transfer window. Both managers have funds available should the right player become available and rumours are already swirling. Inside Futbol takes a look at some of the potential defensive reinforcements for Manchester United and Arsenal.
Mats Hummels (Borussia Dortmund): Hummels is a long-term Manchester United target – there were constant rumours last summer – but could also creep onto Arsenal’s radar too depending on the price tag. Dominant in the air and comfortable on the deck, the big German is a World Cup winner and while he is loyal to Jurgen Klopp, he is enduring a miserable season with Borussia Dortmund and is thought to be seeking a fresh start.
Benedikt Howedes (Schalke): Both Manchester United and Arsenal have been linked with Howedes, another member of Germany’s triumphant squad in Brazil. His versatility is a major advantage and he has admitted to wanting an adventure abroad at some point, but Schalke rely heavily upon him. His relationship with compatriot Per Mertesacker could give Arsenal the inside track, if they are willing to spend £15m-20m.
Diego Godin (Atletico Madrid): The Uruguayan has become a star in Spain, subduing the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo while guiding Diego Simeone’s men to La Liga last term. He reads the game well, thrives under pressure and is just the type of enforcer that both Manchester United and Arsenal have been craving. Godin also has an eye for goal from set pieces. Manchester United are the likeliest suitors for the Atletico Madrid man, but might have to wait until the summer to get their man. And it might cost them close to £30m.
Pepe (Real Madrid): The Portuguese is a long shot at this point, but Manchester United are rumoured to be keeping an eye on him. His physical – and at times rash – style of play is a red flag, but he is a towering presence and comfortable in possession. He would also be an upgrade for the Gunners, given Per Mertesacker’s disappointing form this season and his ability to slot in as a holding midfielder too.
Raphael Varane (Real Madrid): Varane is another long shot, but there are rumblings that he could be available for the right price. Even if Real Madrid are unlikely to part with the Frenchman, Manchester United should be making enquiries. He would be a better fit for the fast pace of Premier League action than Pepe.
Ron Vlaar (Aston Villa): The Dutchman would be a cheaper alternative to Hummels, Godin et al, and Van Gaal coached Vlaar at the World Cup. He brings an imposing physical presence, keeps things simple and could form a strong partnership with a quicker, more athletic partner like Smalling. That said, Manchester United might have missed their chance, with reports linking Vlaar with a move to Napoli. Arsenal have been linked too.
Virgil van Dijk (Celtic): Both Manchester United and Arsenal are rumoured to be monitoring the Celtic defender, with Wenger thought to be in pole position. The Scottish giants are standing firmly behind their statement that van Dijk is not for sale – but a big offer would test their resolve. Van Dijk, 23, is still learning the game and makes less sense for Manchester United, who need experienced defenders proven on the biggest stages.
Nathaniel Clyne (Southampton): Manchester United have struggled to fill the right-back spot ever since Gary Neville’s retirement. Rafael has had countless chances to make that position his own, but inconsistency remains an issue for the Brazilian. Clyne, meanwhile, has developed into one of the best full-backs in the country. Southampton would likely push for a large fee though.
Seamus Coleman (Everton): Everton say he is not for sale, but Manchester United might be tempted to test the Toffees’ resolve with a bid upwards of £20m. Coleman’s ability to push forward may be attractive to Van Gaal, but there are likely other options that would provide better protection for David de Gea.
Morgan Schneiderlin (Southampton): Arguably one of the Premier League’s most underrated performers, Schneiderlin is the complete midfielder. He is an expert at breaking up play and shielding the back four. But he has also impressed with his passing and link up play in the final third. He could be the perfect complement to Aaron Ramsey and Wenger’s other attacking stars.
William Carvalho (Sporting Lisbon): The sooner Wenger realises that Flamini cannot match the type of influence that Nemanja Matic offers in Chelsea’s midfield, the better. Carvalho brings a physical presence, tough tackling and a relentless work rate. He would allow Arsenal’s legion of smaller, skilful attackers to play with more freedom. Extensively scouted by Manchester United under David Moyes, it is unclear whether the club's interest has continued under Van Gaal.
January is, of course, a notoriously difficult month to sign players at a fair price – and so the smart money is on limited activity for both Manchester United and Arsenal. But, make no mistake, they will be trying. The league table confirms that neither team can rest on their laurels, with several clubs capable of challenging them for a top four berth. It should be an interesting transfer window.