Man Utd missed out on Jean-Clair Todibo in January - but they can sign someone even better this summer

Manchester United couldn't sign the defender they wanted this January - but that might end up being a good thing.
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Manchester United did not, in the end, light up the January transfer window. A combination of the looming shadow of the profit and sustainability rules and delays to Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s purchase of a 28.9% stake of the club – which was approved by shareholders on Monday but still awaits ratification by the Premier League – meant that neither the money nor the will was available to make any grand moves in the market. In particular, they failed to sign the centre-back that they so desperately craved.

Jean-Clair Todibo was the obvious target, not only because of the remarkable quality of his performances for OGC Nice, who are second in Ligue 1 and clinging grimly onto Paris Saint-Germain’s luxurious coat-tails, but also because Ratcliffe’s Ineos group also owns Nice, which would have made a deal much easier to strike had he be confirmed as a minority shareholder more swiftly. They may yet go back in for the 24-year-old, of course, but waiting for the summer may also open up other possibilities, and perhaps even better ones.

Another centre-half widely linked with a move to Old Trafford was Benfica’s António Silva, a lavishly talented Portugal international who has caught the eye of all of Europe’s usual suspects. United had reportedly been interested ahead of January but Benfica made it clear that he would only be allowed to leave if his full release clause was paid – a clause which came in at a colossal £87m. Too rich for United’s blood, in a winter window at least.

That price tag may be softened, however, come the summer. It has been widely reported that Silva wants to leave with so many big clubs interested, and while he remains under contract until 2027 it is very likely that Benfica will cash out at the close of the season if they can. Not that he wouldn’t be expensive, but with a new financial year opening and perhaps some money freed up by the likely departures of players like Raphaël Varane and Casemiro, a deal becomes much more plausible.

Of course, Todibo will still be easier to sign, given that United would essentially be negotiating with themselves, at least assuming that Ratcliffe’s buyout is approved by the relevant authorities, as is more than likely. He would also likely be cheaper, with rumours suggesting that Nice would want something in the region of £45m to sell their star asset. But Silva may be the bigger prize.

As it stands, the two players put up very similar – which is to say, very impressive – stat lines in their respective top flights. You’d need a very fine piece of paper handy to slide anything between their pass completion rates, for instance, or their dribbling success percentages, or the number of times they win aerial duels. But there are gaps, and they tend to come out in Silva’s favour.

The biggest chasm is in their tackling success rates. Todibo has won the ball in 54.3% of his one-on-one situations this year, not a terrible number but a possible concern when you consider how many brilliant ball-carriers he will face in the Premier League. Silva, meanwhile, completes his tackles a massive 82.1% of the time, which is an obscene figure.

Silva also seems, at least as far as the eye test is concerned, to have better positioning and a stronger sense of where to stand in order to manoeuvre opposing attackers away from dangerous areas. Which isn’t to say that he’s better in every regard – Todibo is slightly taller and appreciably faster and stronger, for starters – but Silva comes out on top in a lot of key categories.

But perhaps the biggest divide between the two is simply in terms of age. At just 20 years of age, Silva is still developing and while Todibo is hardly long in the tooth, he is rather closer to his prime years. Silva would cost more, most likely, but may also be a better long-term investment.

He has made mistakes, of course, as any young defender does. He gave away a penalty in a surprise 2-0 defeat to Red Bull Salzburg in the Champions League and was sent off for the tackle – and also received a straight red against Inter Milan a couple of months later. There are gaps in his judgement, and Todibo may be a slightly safer option in the immediate future, but the likelihood remains that Silva will be regarded as one of the best centre-halves in the world in a few years’ time. Todibo will likely still be seen as a very, very good player, but Silva’s ceiling is, in all probability, higher.

Short-termism may win out, as may the practicalities of buying from Nice. United certainly need a centre-half given that Varane is very likely to leave at the end of the season, Lisandro Martínez is persistently injured and Harry Maguire, while enjoying a second coming of sorts this season, is not necessarily reliable in the long haul – but given the chance, it makes a lot of sense for them to shoot for the moon with Silva, rather than settling (somewhat) for Todibo.

Most United fans will have hoped that the dominos fell in such a way that they could buy their centre-back this January. That didn’t happen, but perhaps that will be for the betterment of the club in the long run. If they can land Silva, then they could have a world-class centre-half locked down for a decade or more. Perhaps missing out won’t be such a bad thing after all.