Precarious fit of Sneijder, Man United

Despite Sir Alex Ferguson’s repeated denials, the story simply refused to go away. No matter what he said reports kept linking Manchester United with Wesley Sneijder.

“I keep reading about this, there’s absolutely nothing at all to that,” he insisted in July. This still led many to question whether Ferguson was indeed bluffing? After all, in the very same press conference he had also said: “First of all I don’t think Inter are prepared to sell him.”

How had that opinion been based? Could it have been on a negative response to an inquiry about the player? Or was he actually telling the truth when he added that “you get conjecture and speculation every week in newspapers unfortunately and we have to answer these for some reason.” Was he implying that the retirement of Paul Scholes had led a section of the media to project their desire to see United sign a big name replacement? Maybe.

Well, amid the fog of the transfer window, it’s difficult to tell, but when it closed, one fact remained incontrovertible: Sneijder was still an Inter player.

That of course didn’t mean United hadn’t at some point expressed an interest. Sneijder did later reveal during an in-depth interview with La Gazzetta dello Sport in October that, contrary to Ferguson’s stated belief, Inter were considering offers for his signature.

“I had never thought about leaving,” he revealed. “I don’t know about other people. As a matter of fact, I do know. I had left for my holidays with the idea that I’d be coming back, then my agent called and said: ‘Come, we have to talk with Inter’ and Inter told me that they might sell me if there was a possibility: It wasn’t a technical question, I really don’t believe that… It was a question of money. Something had changed, and then I changed my mind too. Then I arrived at [Inter’s pre-season training camp] Pinzolo, I found more or less the same team again, I spoke with [Massimo] Moratti, who for me is a very important person, with [Marco] Branca and [Piero] Ausilio, and they all said that I would be very important for Inter.”

As it turned out, Samuel Eto’o was sold to Anzhi Makhachkala instead. “One of us two had to leave,” Sneijder added. “I understood on the day of Eto’o’s goodbye that I would be staying and was very happy to do so.”

Prior to that there were claims that United had entered into serious discussions with Sneijder’s entourage, but were ultimately discouraged by his alleged wage demands. Indeed, since Eto’o’s departure, he has become Inter’s highest paid player, earning €6m net per season.

Yet when Ferguson visited Rome in September to receive an award from Tor Vergata University, he provided Il Corriere dello Sport with a different and more compelling reason. “Sneijder is not the ideal replacement for Scholes,” he noted. “He’s a fantastic player but he was not who we were looking for to replace Scholes. Only Xavi and [Andres] Iniesta are comparable to Scholes.”

That wasn’t a slight on Sneijder, more a recognition that, in addition to Michael Carrick, United require another creative central midfielder, not necessarily a deep-lying playmaker, nor a classic No 10.

Unlike his ability, Wesley Sneijder’s durability is always a concern (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)  

With that in mind Tottenham’s Luka Modric has always seemed a better fit for United’s midfield than Sneijder, who made no secret of where his preferred position lies on the pitch following the dismissal of Gian Piero Gasperini. “I told him immediately: ‘I don’t like playing in central midfield at all’. I am an attacking player not a central midfielder… I always had the ball, it’s true, but I like to be further forward closer to goal… Better a second striker than a central midfielder. But in all I prefer to be behind two strikers.”

Unless United were prepared to abandon the 4-4-2 with which they won the Premier League last season and dust off the 4-2-3-1 of 2008, which saw Wayne Rooney out on the left, Carlos Tevez on the right, Cristiano Ronaldo as a false 9, and Anderson often at the tip of a midfield diamond then it seems unlikely Sneijder would slot in without any significant tinkering or alteration.

Enough issues, however, remain with United’s midfield that the subject is still to be put to bed. Tom Cleverley’s performances earlier in the season, such as the one he put in against Manchester City in the Charity Shield back in August, indicated that an heir to the ‘Scholes inheritance’ had been found. Then he suffered a knock to his ankle and is yet to return to full fitness.

Anderson has spent much of the season on the sidelines and Darren Fletcher is taking an indefinite break from football to fight a serious bowel condition. Injuries in general have exasperated United. No sooner has a solution been found, like the partnership between the polyvalent Phil Jones and the resurgent Carrick than another problem arises.

Take Saturday’s shock 3-2 defeat to Blackburn as a case in point. With four centre-backs in the treatment room, Carrick was drafted into defense while wide players Park Ji-Sung and Rafael were also deployed out of position in central midfield. To borrow Ferguson’s phrase, it was a ‘disaster’ even if Manchester City’s 1-0 loss to Sunderland on Sunday mitigated its impact.

Even so, there have been calls from some quarters for United to move and address their midfield quandary now that the transfer window is open again. Listening to Ferguson in December, however, it seems that the club’s checkbook will remain closed.

“It is very difficult to buy players in January,” he said. “You don’t just want to buy any player simply because it gives you another player. If you are going to buy, you want to buy someone who can make a difference. We have only had maybe four or five signings in my time here in January: Louis Saha, Andy Cole, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra [and Diego Forlan]. It is not a consistent route for us to buy in January, simply because of all the disadvantages. There are a lot of issues there and there is nothing in my mind at the moment.”

Reports linking United with Sneijder again appear to be wide of the mark for the reasons that have been mentioned above but also because of his own recent struggles at Inter, which has led some to argue that he should have been sold and not Eto’o, especially after the Cameroon international’s 37-goal season.

Blighted by a series of frustrating muscle injuries, he has made only 10 appearances this season – one in the Italian Super Cup, six in Serie A and three in the Champions League. He hasn’t played for his club since November 2.

What’s more there is also a sense that, even when fit, he has not been consistently on top form since José Mourinho left after winning the treble in 2010. That can be said, to some extent, of the rest of the team in the 18 months thereafter but particularly of Sneijder.

Think of his highlights in an Inter shirt: his debut in the derby against Milan, his last gasp winning goal against Dynamo Kyiv which kept Inter in the Champions League, his assist for Eto’o which led to them knocking out Chelsea in the Last 16 and his part in a comeback from 3-2 down to win 4-3 against Siena at a crucial juncture in the title race.

All that happened in his memorable and quite brilliant first season at Inter. From then onwards, though, he has arguably been a touch less decisive at club level, perhaps because of the physical and mental toll taken by the treble-winning season and the run to the final of the 2010 World Cup with Holland that followed shortly afterwards. Sneijder, lest we forget, went more than a year without scoring for Inter between January 9 2010 and February 3 2011.

Change of scenery? The Dutch midfielder is at the center of most transfer rumor cirlces. (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)

Admittedly goals aren’t his strong-point – he has scored four in each of his two Serie A campaigns – but considering he managed five from open play at the World Cup in South Africa alone, more is expected of the Dutch international in that area if not from open play then perhaps from set-pieces. He scored two free-kicks in 2011, the fourth best record in Serie A behind Catania’s Francesco Lodi [5], Udinese’s Antonio Di Natale [3] and Palermo’s Fabrizio Miccoli [3].

Perhaps buoyed by his rather incredible goal-scoring exploits at the World Cup, Sneijder became more trigger-happy under Rafael Benitez and Leonardo last season than under Mourinho. Opta stats show how the number of shots he attempted rose from 52 in 2009-10 [an average of 2.42 per 90 minutes] to 75 in 2010-11 [an average of 3.38 per 90 minutes]. Although his accuracy climbed [from 42.31% to 44.00%], his chance conversion rate actually fell [from 7.69% to 5.33%]. Incidentally the average number of chances he created declined too, albeit only marginally [from 3.58 to 3.24].

That’s hardly a collapse and it’s worth bearing in mind that, though he doesn’t compete with the leading assist providers in Serie A [Sneijder laid on six in 2009-10 and five in 2010-11] only three players have created more goalscoring chances than him in Italy since he joined Inter in 2009. Still, it does perhaps indicate how a change in his playing style, no matter how subtle, might have provoked a dip in his effectiveness.

Interviewed by La Gazzetta dello Sport on Monday, Inter striker Giampaolo Pazzini was asked who he misses most when they’re out of the team: Douglas Maicon or Sneijder? His answer was intriguing: “Maic, Maic,” he replied. “I told him every morning when he was out with injury. ‘When are you coming back because I feel all alone up there without your crosses? Wes is more fundamental to the team. Maicon is the perfect player for me.”

Sneijder attempts his fair share of crosses too of course. But his completion rate is down from 33.10% in 2009-10 to 18.83% in 2010-11. What Pazzini is alluding to, though, is how Sneijder’s greatest quality is his ability to make teams tick. Inter coach Claudio Ranieri is hoping to regain that after the winter break and, more importantly, ahead of the derby with Milan on January 15. “Sneijder is the feather in our cap,” he explained to Mediaset before New Year. “He has to give us 120%. He can’t be a squad player. He has to be our conductor, our leader, the one who takes us by the hand and takes us far.”

That was taken in press circles to mean Inter can’t afford a player like Sneijder to become a passenger, and an expensive one at that, especially after a historically bad start to the season, which has left the club with a lot of ground to make up in the race to qualify for next year’s Champions League, otherwise, Sneijder’s status as one of Inter’s ‘untouchables’ will apparently come under review at the end of the campaign, and another big sale after Mario Balotelli in 2010 and Eto’o in 2011 will be on the cards.

United might come calling. Then again they might not. At 27, Sneijder should be approaching his peak, so there’s every reason to believe that once he’s overcome his physical frailties and put a string of games together he will rediscover the form that contributed to his reputation as one of the best playmakers of his generation. If that were to be the case, Inter’s reported soft line on Sneijder’s availability would harden again, even amid the pressures of their becoming financial fair-play compliant.

Either way, a lot of it, as Ranieri suggests, will be down to him.