Every year since 2013, terms like ‘rebuilding’, ‘transition’, and ‘revival’ echo around Old Trafford before the start of the season as the red half of Manchester seeks redemption with an odd mixture of idealism and naivety.
But what transpires over the next nine months leaves fans thinking: Are Manchester United really a big club on the field?
By the end of the season, these optimistic chants are replaced by a slew of questions, aimed at the board’s incompetence, false promises and lack of ambition.
England’s most successful team is stuck in a never-ending loop. Six years into the transition phase, United enter the 2019-20 season unequipped yet again despite facing the music last season.
Was David Moyes a perfect fit for United? Okay, then what about Louis van Gaal? Oh, and what then of Jose Mourinho? Did United make the wrong move by not luring Mauricio Pochettino? It’s a frustrating game of could-haves and should-haves at Old Trafford — The Theatre of Dreams… or memes?
Back in March, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was promoted from caretaker to permanent manager. Reports in the British media indicated that a massive overhaul was just around the corner. It was music to the ears of the Old Trafford faithful.
What’s more, after the agonising 0-4 defeat to Everton on Easter Sunday, a perplexed Solskjaer made a statement of intent. “I’m going to be successful here and there are players there who won’t be part of that successful team.” Clearly, it was time for the underachieving squad to find the right balance.
Four months later, on the eve of United’s opening game of the new Premier League season, only one member of that match-day squad at Everton has left the club. Midfielder Ander Herrera left for Ligue 1 champions PSG, while Romelu Lukaku, who was not replaced either, was sold to Inter Milan.
United’s incompetence has left Solskjaer at the wheel but without the assurance that they’ll be travelling with the same passengers. However, there were major summer signings – Daniel James, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire. Despite the additions, the rebuild still remains “under construction”.
Ed Woodward: Specialist in failure?
Ever since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013, United have only made the Premier League top-four twice. This shows just how far they’ve fallen from grace.
Meanwhile, club chief Ed Woodward isn’t quite a football man, is he? Under him, the business side of the club has witnessed immense growth, but the football side of it remains equally shambolic. In the last five years, the club has sacked three managers (Moyes, Van Gaal and Mourinho) he appointed.
Another surprising move unfolded when Solskjaer was afforded roughly half the funds given to Mourinho and Louis van Gaal in their first windows. Also, Woodward saved millions by not hiring yet another proven manager.
Things are not yet streamlined. If Woodward can answer the stock market and investors, why can’t he face the fans? No ambition, hardly any challenge for the Premier League and Champions League. The bar has dropped so low that nobody is surprised. Paul Pogba has the task of steering Solskjaer’s wheel in the right direction. It’s a tough task but he has all the tools to pull off an unforgettable season unless Real Madrid and his agent Mino Raiola lure him away from United.
Meanwhile, the club has failed to offload Marcos Rojo, Matteo Darmian and the below-average defensive pair Chris Smalling and Phil Jones — players who are still a liability to the club. Alexis Sanchez’s case is a complicated one. Many believe the Chilean could revive his lost form this season, but United fans remain unperturbed about his situation. There are bigger problems.
It’s baffling to see a club of United’s stature function without a Director of Football, especially in times when nearly every top club has one. A director would probably take responsibility of streamlining the footballing side of the club. Yet, Woodward and the board struggle.
Ole’s wheel heading the Busby Way
Also, at a time when Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool board members are on the same wavelength as their managers, who make swift and decisive incursions into the transfer market, United are still cleaning the mess left behind by their previous gaffers.
That said, Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino will be ready to rule the roost with their unrivalled experience this season. Meanwhile Solskjaer, still a rookie, will have to first address the chinks in his team’s armour before dreaming about a top-four finish.
However, the board and fans laud the baby-faced assassin’s investment in youth.
United are officially the kings of developing youth. Credit where it is due, there have been significant changes at the under-23 level with Solskjaer at the helm. After all, the Norwegian has learned how to gamble with youth under Ferguson, taking 18-year-old midfielders James Garner and Angel Gomes and the forwards Mason Greenwood (17) and Tahith Chong (19) on the pre-season tour of Australia, Singapore and China. Axel Tuanzebe (21), who was at Aston Villa on loan, has proved his worth with intelligent defending and robustness on the pitch.
Under Solskjaer’s mentorship, United will continue their development in an under-23 set-up shepherded by Neil Wood, assisted by former striker Quinton Fortune and with the head of the academy, Nicky Butt.
Despite the swift progress, the club still has to deal with instability on the senior level. With Lukaku off to Inter, teenager Greenwood will be tasked to fill the deep void alongside Anthony Martial and United’s very own Marcus Rashford.
Rashford has 27 league goals in 111 appearances and it’s clear that he needs to up his ante. Solskjær may redeploy Anthony Martial at centre-forward, a place where Martial has performed best for United: under Van Gaal in 2015-16 he scored 17 times.
Notably, they have no specialist right-winger, no credible number 10. Their midfield cannot control games; neither can they shield the defence. Jesse Lingard, Scott McTominay, Fred and Nemanja Matic look average in comparison with the quality City, Spurs, Liverpool, Arsenal and even Everton have.
United approached Juventus duo Paulo Dybala, Mario Mandzukic and Spurs’ Christian Eriksen during the summer but pulled out of potential deals over concerns they were not sure about moving to Old Trafford. There is no doubt that United still attract top players despite being at their lowest ebb, however, Solskjaer has made it clear that he only wants to work with players who are willing to play for the Old Trafford outfit. Solskjaer would rather play with his young bunch over expensive players who basically do nothing.
Zero movements in the final days of the window prompted a backlash on social media but Solskjaer said he has the squad to compete and is keen to change the mood with a positive result against Chelsea to kickstart the new campaign.
Should fans be angry after all these years? They’re instead apathetic. The optimism around the club is dwindling. Progressive results and realistic goals are in demand, of course. With a young squad and with Solskjaer’s pragmatic approach, United need to start winning again. Be it the Europa League or the less fancy Carabao Cup. Now would be a good time to start.