He’s the successor to Sir Alex Ferguson, he was one of the worst Cardiff managers in recent memory, he needs a lifetime contract, Manchester United need to sack him while Mauricio Pochettino is still available…whatever opinion you have on him, there’s now an increasing sense of permanence about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign at Old Trafford.
It looked as if the Norwegian was losing his grip on the wheel, with the Red Devils slipping as far as eighth place at the beginning of February, but since the restart (with a little bit of help from a certain Portuguese arrival), he has steered United to an FA Cup semi-final and within touching distance of Champions League football.
With the prodigal Paul Pogba miraculously returning to a midfield which is beginning to look increasingly settled, you might say that this side at least appears to be unmistakeably Ole’s, and Solskjaer’s useful habit of protecting and nurturing the investments of his club’s hierarchy has led to reports of more (and more significant) planned investment in the first-team this summer, with the jigsaw puzzle of United’s front three missing a conspicuously Jadon Sancho-shaped piece on the right-hand side.
With the red half of Manchester on red alert for any and all tidbits of Sancho news, when a recent dispatch from The Athletic suggested that Man Utd would be looking at Bayern Munich’s much-decorated French winger Kingsley Coman, the reaction was in some quarters was unsurprisingly one of bemused frustration.
Sancho can be found in third place on the list of Bundesliga top scorers, just behind Timo Werner and Robert Lewandowski. Coman, on the other hand, can be found in 76th, level with former Manchester City centre-back Dedryck Boyata.
To add insult (and injury) to injury, Coman is of course notorious for having been no stranger to the treatment table over the course of his career, and though it was great to see him return to football just two months after horrifically tearing his knee capsule against Spurs in the Champions League, it is undeniably a question mark which lingers over his name.
The other thing that Coman is notorious for? League titles, baby – nine of them in fact.
Yes, I am being slightly disingenuous here – Coman did not exactly do the heavy lifting for any of these, and if I moved from PSG to Juventus to Bayern, as well as having a lot of questions about the transfer policy of those three clubs, I might also have nine titles.
At the same time, history has shown us more than enough times that the side with the best starting XI is not necessarily the team that wins the league.
Pochettino’s 2016/17 Spurs side are a typical example – there was a beautiful balance to their first-team, from the formidable defensive pairing of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, to the flying fullbacks of Danny Rose and Kyle Walker, to the respective grace and aggression of Mousa Dembele and Victor Wanyama. But, because more often than not they could only bring on Vincent Janssen when Harry Kane was tired, or Georges-Kevin Nkoudou when the chips were down, they finished seven points behind the eventual league winners Chelsea.
In this sense, like any other title winning side, PSG, Juve and Bayern were not as dominant as they were because of a formidable, reliable starting lineup alone – they were only as strong as the player they could call upon when legs were getting tired 70 minutes into a challenging away match, or the player who they could turn to when their star forward picked up a freak injury two days before a game.
Coman is that player.
An enormous part of the argument for signing him as a reinforcement is his quality, which has been horrendously undersold in much of the reaction to his prospective signing.
His talent isn’t just noteworthy within the context of the Bayern squad, but also within the context of the Bundesliga. Looking into his numbers shows us that even as a rotation option he has completed the fourth-most dribbles in a Bayern squad stacked with tricksy talent, just one succesful dribble behind Serge Gnabry despite having played nine less games.
By the standards of the league, his dribbling ability is up there with anyone’s, including a certain Englishman abroad – every 90 minutes, Coman is dribbling past a stunning 3.89 players (not literally of course), which is just 0.05 of a footballer away from Sancho’s own per 90 average of 3.94.
If the margins separating Coman and Sancho’s dribbling are infinitesimal, the gulf in trickery between the Frenchman and Man Utd’s own backup wingers is astronomical – the young Mason Greenwood can be forgiven for his own figure of 1.45 defenders dribbled past every 90 minutes, but Daniel James’ own paltry 1.18 players beaten per 90 shows that Coman can offer penetrative dribbling far, far beyond the access of United’s other reinforcements.
In creativity, too, Coman far exceeds Greenwood and James, with his 1.98 key passes / 90 in a different galaxy to Greenwood’s 0.87 and James’ 0.59. If Coman fated to be a sub, he is that most luxurious of subs, and it’s preposterous to argue that he wouldn’t improve the current outlook for United.
Moving away from the stats, the naked eye can tell you something more important – that Coman as a squad option would fit seamlessly into United’s current style.
Just like Martial and Rashford, Coman has frightening reserves of speed on the break, is intelligent with the smaller touches and passes he plays around the edge of the box, and has the smarts to beat even the most studied of offside traps- he even possesses some of the, ahem, ‘cleverness’ that we’ve associated United’s recent good fortune with penalties.
You won’t find a backup option more tailored to the high-octane demands of the Ole era anywhere, and the best bit is, he can play on either wing!
And yet, Coman’s practicality for this United squad is dependent on multiple caveats, as with any deal.
The first of these is injury, and for this reason United would have to proceed cautiously when it came to price, with rumours of an initial loan deal sounding sensible.
But ultimately, to win the title, you do still have to have a pretty damn good first team, and Coman, while gifted, would not have anywhere near the impact of Sancho as a starter at Old Trafford. Arriving as some kind of consolation prize after negotiations fail for the former Manchester City starlet would place undue pressure on Coman, and expectations which he would be unlikely to rise to.
But as the man who a panting left-back nervously watches warm up after a 65 minute grilling by Sancho? There could be nobody better than Coman.