It is not unreasonable to suggest that five years is a lifetime in football. Furthermore, when arguably out of his depth as manager of Cardiff City it would have seemed more than inconceivable for an Ole Gunnar Solskjaer team, half a decade later, being put to the sword on the last day of the Premier League season by the already relegated Bluebirds. That the team in question just so happened to be Manchester United in effect squares the least predicable full circle journey in top flight football’s modern era.
Initially hired as a safe pair of hands who knows every corner of Old Trafford Solskjaer’s official interim status was a stunning success, seemingly binding together fans, staff, and players alike in the wake of Jose Mourinho’s fractious, divisive time in the hot seat. Swept along on a wave of emotion and a tangible sense that the shackles were off the team responded accordingly, somewhat overachieving against the likes of Liverpool and Paris St. Germain.
The initial euphoria did though have to end at some point; this was, after all, the same chimeric squad assembled by David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Mourinho himself. Recruited along differing tactical ideals it resembles a confusing jumble of the over-rated, never-will-bes, and those whose talent is being stymied by the inferiority all around them. An extremely poor end to the season has provoked the questioning of the wisdom of transitioning Solskjaer’s contract from interim to permanent, although it must be remembered that the former Molde manager has inherited a group of players by far and away below the standard of what is expected at Manchester United. Only after the next two, perhaps three transfer windows can the Norwegian be fairly judged, but it still remains highly debatable if his limited exposure to top flight football’s coalface justifies a longer stint at the helm, and if he will be afforded such a length of time.
Decisions aplenty are piled high in the manager’s in-tray. To overhaul the squad to the extent of which is required would require hundreds of millions of inward investment, on top of what can be raised through player sales. The few top tier assets at Manchester United would best serve the club by being retained, although the sale of the likes of David de Gea and Marcus Rashford would garner in excess of £120 million. Whilst such an amount of money would be useful attempting to replace the aforementioned duo would create more headaches than their sale would solve.
I would argue that Manchester United need an entirely new defence; not just the go-to back four/five but almost the entire rear-guard element of its squad. The likes of Victor Lindelof, Phil Jones, Eric Bailly, and Marcos Rojo have long outstayed their welcome. Comparisons against the outstanding defences at Liverpool and Manchester City show how far United are now behind the Premier League’s two stellar sides, effectively taking their eye off the ball by locking substandard players into long-term deals whilst Virgil van Dijk, Andy Robertson, Aymeric Laporte and John Stones were recruited by their rivals. It is assumed that Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young will be moved on after long, distinguished careers at Old Trafford; their worth, and loss to the squad, cannot be underestimated.
Sixteen goals from midfield would normally be seen as a fine season’s work for most players operating in a team’s engine room. For Paul Pogba this doesn’t though tell the whole story. Embarrassingly, and expensively, reacquired from Juventus the enigmatic Frenchman divides opinion of his worth and ability like no other player in the current era. It isn’t of course the fault of Pogba that his transfer fee was so steep, nor can he be entirely blamed for Manchester United letting him leave in 2012 for Turin, effectively on a free. A transfer fee’s size is understandably linked to ability, as well as future potential and in some cases of garnering a resale profit. Pogba was never worth £89 million but I felt at the time a significant portion of the cost to secure the now World Cup winner amounted to a punitive surcharge, penalizing the red half of Manchester for their debatable decision-making in the past. It is though fair to say that the monied image attached to the club will always encourage selling clubs to ‘try it on’, often with some success.
Much is therefore expected of Pogba. Has he delivered or failed? Such a transfer fee can never really be lived up to, nor can it be realistically quantified what success would mean if the team around Pogba is substandard or failing to live up to its individual component parts. My view is that Pogba is a good, perhaps very good Premier League player but is over-rated, thanks to his inflated transfer fee and wages. Seen as the fulcrum of the side he is no Roy Keane or Bryan Robson, but in mitigation much has been placed on shoulders too young to carry the burden of unrealistic expectations, and the failings of his teammates. It wouldn’t be a shock should the 26-year old move on this summer, although he certainly isn’t the panacea to the current ills of Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Aside from Pogba the Reds’ midfield is light in both numbers and quality; the expensively recruited Fred being an ideal poster boy candidate for Manchester United’s calamitous transfer policy. With the likely departure of Ander Herrera to Paris St. Germain United have little quality to call upon aside from Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata, the latter whose future at the club looks to be uncertain. Without significant additions to central areas an unfair burden will be placed upon both Scott McTominay and Andreas Pereira, a far cry from when any four from of Andrei Kanchelskis, Paul Scholes, Roy Keane, David Beckham, Bryan Robson, Ryan Giggs, and Nicky Butt ruled the waves.
Manchester United’s four strikers would grace most European club sides, many of whom would look on with envy at an apparent embarrassment of riches. Just as an example Bayern Munich can count Robert Lewandowski as their only out and out striker but have still spluttered their way to the brink of another Bundesliga title. A quartet of Romelu Lukaku, Marcus Rashford, Alexis Sanchez and Anthony Martial should be adequate for United to compete with the very best but without a high quality supply line the expensively acquired Lukaku, Sanchez, and Martial have frequently had to create their own chances and as such, have been regarded in various degrees as failures. Homegrown Rashford is undoubtedly an asset around which the team should be built, not one whose financial value should be realized. Chilean Sanchez ranks alongside Fred as one of United’s worst signings since William Prunier, if only for the king’s ransom paid each week to the former Gunner. Lukaku remains an enigma, with all the physical attributes to succeed as a classic number 9 but doubts persist of his quality to perform at the very highest level. Although without doubt in need of assistance from accurate deliveries from the flanks, Lukaku cannot be bracketed with Mo Salah and countryman Kevin de Bruyne as one of several who ‘got away’ from Chelsea. As perhaps the best finisher at the club Martial often cuts a frustrated, if albeit sulky figure whose finest work can only be extricated by a Sir Alex Ferguson-type personality. For all the things Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can be credited, his hairdryer is several hundred watts lower in power than the combustible Scot’s.
Fondly remembered for his devastating cameos, none more so than a final-minute winner in the 1999 Champions’ League final, Solskjaer still has significant credit in the bank with the majority of Manchester United’s knowledgeable followers. After the relative ignominy of not only finishing sixth but also over thirty points behind bitter rivals Liverpool and Manchester City the period of grace afforded the Norwegian is now time restricted. If the manager and chief executive Ed Woodward can deliver the required personnel in the summer, there will be few excuses to which Solskjaer can retreat if results are less than positive. It will not only be a tall order to move on high-earning – Fred is locked into a five-year deal – but limited players; the need to replace them with higher tier recruits is potentially constrained by finances and a lack of instantly deliverable Champions’ League action. Sixth place will again be the absolute maximum unless a new era of United heroes is brought in to complement the finer points of the current squad below:
David de Gea | Luke Shaw | Jesse Lingard |Marcus Rashford
There is therefore much work to do and many mistakes from the last three regimes to correct. Those expecting an instant return to the all-conquering ways of Manchester United of yesteryear will be disappointed, but the errors committed since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson must be learned from, not continually repeated. Therein lies the challenge.