James Cooper provides latest on Man Utd's reaction to coronavirus pandemic and pursuit of Bellingham, while Woodward and Raiola talk over Pogba future
Thursday 26 March 2020 10:52, UK
Sky Sports News reporter James Cooper provides the latest on Manchester United's pursuit of Jude Bellingham, as well as assessing Paul Pogba's future and explaining how the club is helping amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Manchester United, like the rest of the sporting world and most of us around the globe, have never known anything like the current coronavirus pandemic.
While the initial reaction from the club was an attempt to continue as normal, they quickly realised that wasn't going to be possible. The plan had been for the players to report to Carrington last Tuesday March 17, but that plan was abandoned and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's first-team squad have all been based at home, liaising with club staff as they work on their own personal fitness programmes.
The next date on the calendar is Friday April 10, which has been pencilled in as the day the playing staff might return to the Aon Training Complex, but that remains under review as the situation continues to be monitored.
It would be crass and irresponsible to suggest the coronavirus outbreak came at the wrong time for Manchester United, but there was a feeling inside the club that recent results have fostered a new confidence and that recruitment decisions, - both incomings and outgoings - have strengthened the bonds in Solskjaer's squad in a way that hasn't been glimpsed since he returned to Old Trafford.
So much has been written and said about Bruno Fernandes and his impact on the pitch, but the midfielder has also helped to raise standards off it. Fernandes demands the best from those around him, whether that be his team-mates or other staff around the club, and in the slightly surreal atmosphere of the last, behind-closed-doors game in Austria, his desire, determination and ability to galvanise only underlined his leadership credentials.
Solskjaer's interim stint at manager was widely lauded and won him the job on a permanent basis, an 11-game unbeaten run that saw his side win 10 of those matches. If, when football eventually returns, he manages to avoid defeat in his next encounter that would be 12 games unbeaten, a sign that his squad is heading in the right direction - at both ends of the pitch, with 28 goals scored and nine clean sheets in the current 11-game run.
While the schedule ahead remains uncertain and a bit of a guessing game right now, as things stand Manchester United are three points off fourth spot in the Premier League with the chance of proceeding in both the Europa League and the FA Cup.
March is traditionally a time when United, much like their rivals at home and abroad, are assembling their summer shopping list and the current break has presented all parties with plenty of time to think, something that might be of benefit in the pursuit of Birmingham youngster Jude Bellingham.
He's someone Manchester United have earmarked as a prime target for the next window, whenever that might be, and they rolled out the red carpet for him at Carrington when he visited recently with his parents. But this isn't a transfer plan that's been hatched in the last few weeks, it's been months in the making with United staff in constant dialogue with their Birmingham City counterparts.
There's an awful lot of admiration from United for the job Birmingham have done in providing the right coaching and development environment for Bellingham to blossom into a player who's made 25 Championship starts at the age of 16.
The hope is there that the scouting and work that's gone on behind the scenes will convince the youngster that Manchester United is the right place to be, particularly when coupled with the evidence from this season that youngsters have a real pathway into the first-team set-up.
But there's also a recognition that Bellingham is a teenager who'll be in demand from Europe's elite. Borussia Dortmund have already made their intentions clear, other teams are in the hunt too, with Manchester United hoping they've done enough.
Talk of transfers wouldn't be complete without the mention of super-agent Mino Raiola.
The last two windows have involved some discussions and plenty of words, as in the Summer Paul Pogba remained at Manchester United, while only a few weeks ago another one of his players, Erling Haaland, plumped to join Dortmund instead.
Pogba's future remains a live issue, of course. An upturn in fortunes at Old Trafford and the arrival of Bruno Fernandes might make it a more appealing place to stay, but what also remains an issue is the fact the Frenchman hasn't played since Boxing Day - and that's one of just two appearances since the end of September.
He has one year left on his contract when we get to the end of June, plus the option of a further year, and right now with no concrete decisions anywhere on when football might start up again, you'd have to say its difficult to state who has the upper hand here, the player or the club.
It's been suggested elsewhere that there's been a recent thawing in relations between United and Raiola, but it's my understanding that although the relationship has had plenty of strains placed upon it, there's always been a dialogue of sorts between the two parties.
Inevitably some of those conversations may have been very direct in their nature. In the case of Paul Pogba we're talking about a player Manchester United smashed the world transfer record for, and arguably they haven't seen that money consistently repaid in his performances, but Raiola and Ed Woodward do talk and are talking.
While a lot of time was spent in January discussing improved recruitment and the drive to pinpoint players who could make a difference and raise the quality at Old Trafford, it has to be said the signings of Fernandes and Odion Ighalo have only served to underline a more positive trend that seems to be continuing.
Of course, the circumstances of Ighalo's arrival made him something of a gamble but it's one that - after less than a month in the first-team picture - shows signs of paying off, especially when you consider the player would love to remain at United and the club is examining the options of possibly extending his stay.
I started off talking about the impact of the coronavirus on Manchester United and on football in general, and I think it's only fair to put last weekend's gesture with Manchester City into some sort of context.
The joint £100,000 donation to food banks in Manchester received some criticism but was a very quick response to an immediate need, and certainly not the end of efforts from either club to support the community. I know a lot of United fans who found themselves in Austria without a game to watch were grateful that their club paid for the price of their tickets and compensation on top. That's in addition to the sums pledged to casual workers at Old Trafford which will exceed £1m.
Manchester United are involved in discussions with the NHS about aiding their efforts and Saturday's donation was the latest act from a foundation, which alongside City in the Community, supports thousands of people across Manchester and beyond.