The Season So Far
For Manchester United fans, this has been a season of relentless complaining and recrimination. That shouldn’t come as a surprise given that José Mourinho was the manager for most of it, but little has changed even now that the
Special Happy Belligerent One has been sent packing. It’s become clear that Mourinho was a problem, sure, but he wasn’t the problem. The club has been allowed to rot in every department, and United are reaping what they’ve sewn.
The squad is ludicrously expensive yet makes no sense. The wage bill is enormous, yet no-one is proving value for money. In attack, they’re all good players, but they patently can’t play together and increasingly play as a crew of individualists. The midfield is non-existent. The defence is hilariously incompetent and, after years of bailing them out, David De Gea has finally gone to pieces. There are several experienced players capable of acting as leaders in the dressing room, but they’re all so mediocre that they have no authority over more talented youngsters. Recruitment has been so disjointed and based on commercial implications that improving the football team has been an afterthought.
New manager and club legend Ole Gunnar Solskjær, parachuted in from Molde, provided a short-term boost on the pitch and a desperately needed shot of genuine love and goodwill from the fans, but his Ferguson-era nostalgia routine quickly became monotonous and Ole (at the wheel) has, in no time at all, gone from being seen as a possible saviour to being a joke figure, completely unaware of how ridiculous he is. Players and journalists alike seem as bored, disconnected and affronted by their daily lives as they did when Mourinho was boss. After seven defeats in nine, Solskjær is the second-favourite to be the next Premier League manager to leave his job.
In twenty years, this will be the season that Manchester United fans look back on and realise that it was when they became the club Liverpool were in the mid-to-late 90s: full of ego and hot air, bloated and entitled, romanticising a golden history that was built on a solid spine and, above all, work ethic, while abandoning those principles ever more by the day, embracing reactionary big-spending and quick fixes. Six years on from Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, his empire has crumbled.
The Summer Ahead
Where to start? The fans’ attention will always be on the transfer window and there’s talk of Solskjær being handed £200m to spend on new players, but any overhaul has to go further than that. After all, Louis Van Gaal and José Mourinho have already been allowed to spend that kind of money and they only succeeded in setting the club back years, burdening them with a raft of unwanted players on huge wages who are now impossible to sell.
Many observers have noted United’s need for a Technical Director to oversee recruitment and ensure that the club’s internal operations are more closely aligned, but no-one seems to know who should fill that role, or whether the commercially minded Chief Executive Ed Woodward would allow them to freedom to operate as a sporting director should.
Inevitably, Woodward’s position has been called into question — he is, after all, the only constant of the post-Ferguson era, in which Manchester United have lurched from one disaster to another, with no long-term planning in place or ideas beyond doing the opposite of what was done before, all while signing as many famous names as possible. At some point, he must be held accountable for running the club with the acumen of a small child entrusted with a chocolate shop.
On top of this mess is The Paul Pogba Show, with debate over the midfielder’s performance, attitude, social media presence, haircut, contract and value in the transfer market raging constantly. Mourinho made no secret of despising Pogba and there have been reports of a falling out with Solskjær. Financially, it makes sense to cash in on United’s only truly saleable asset, but with so much deadwood to sell, does selling United’s only world-class outfielder really make sense?
A penny for Sir Alex Ferguson’s thoughts…
Solskjær has tweaked United’s system in almost every game so far, playing a variety of formations and strategies, aiming to counter-attack in games against strong opponents and dominate against the smaller teams. The truth is United haven’t really played well at all since that initial burst of thrashings against the Premier League’s whipping boys, and the away wins against Tottenham and Paris Saint-Germain, which got Solskjær the gig permanently, now look more like the highly fortuitous — miraculous, even — smash-and-grab jobs they were. While the analytics community was ridiculed for criticising Solskjær at the time, results since have proven the nerds right.
With Maurizio Sarri certain to play his usual 4-3-3, we can expect United to pack the centre with a 4-4-2 diamond and aim to counter down the flanks as Chelsea’s full-backs push up and leave the channels open. Romelu Lukaku has a long history of success bursting down the right channel, while Rashford is equally handy on the left. Jesse Lingard usually acts as a kind of false number ten in this system, standing off the centre-backs and showing the playmaker’s passes wide, lulling the opposition into advancing and thereby opening themselves up and allowing United to explode at defence-to-attack transitions.
Turnovers in the congested centre of the pitch will see the ball quickly funnelled to Pogba, who will quarterback the ball forward with booming yet precise passes into the paths of the attackers. Marcus Rashford’s best form of the season came running onto such through-balls and his winning goals against Tottenham and Leicester came from exactly these situations. Chelsea can’t say they haven’t been warned.
Apart from their world-class level of attacking talent, there’s not a lot going for this Man Utd team at the moment. Fortunately for them, Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea is exactly the kind of Wengeresque opponent Solskjær’s counter-attacking tactics have skewered this season. If United get the first goal, the mood within Old Trafford will change and they could quite easily run in a few more — let’s be honest, it’s not as though Chelsea’s players will put up a fight either.
They can’t defend, attack, keep the ball or win it back.
Their best player is a rampant egotist who needs a lot of the hard work to be done for him.
Their goalkeeper is enduring a public psychological meltdown.
The manager is a fan who thinks that United can get out of their hole by talking endlessly about past glories and making references to things that happened when most of his squad were children.
If Solskjær does indeed play his reactive 4-4-2 diamond, United’s team more-or-less picks itself.
Chelsea are sweating on the fitness of N’Golo Kanté and Antonio Rüdiger, but both should be available.
Everything depends on the first goal. Whoever gets it will find that the other team downs tools. Modern football, eh?