The Season Just Gone
After several seasons of aimless post-Fergie drift, Manchester United’s 2018-19 needed to be much better than it was. Now firmly entrenched in the kind of malaise that afflicted Liverpool until Jürgen Klopp arrived — and, indeed, United until Alex Ferguson came in — the Red Devils’ season could barely have gone any worse and it feels like it’ll be a long time before they’ll challenge for football’s highest honours.
The campaign was characterised by chaos. José Mourinho burned all of his bridges and was sent packing much later than he deserved. Star players Paul Pogba, David De Gea and Romelu Lukaku endured inconsistent and at times nightmarish seasons and the speculation over their United futures became cacophonous. Results improved immeasurably when Ole Gunnar Solskjær took the reins, culminating in an epic comeback against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League, but United once again collapsed when Solskjær was handed a permanent deal.
They finished the season sixth and even that flattered them. Going into the summer, major surgery was required.
The Transfer Window
With glaring weaknesses at centre-back, right-back and in the centre of midfield, United wasted little time in buying Aaron Wan-Bissaka and then wasted lots and lots of time making Harry Maguire the world’s most expensive defender. Daniel James arrived from Swansea to plug a gap that didn’t especially need plugging and the problem area of midfield was left unaddressed.
At least De Gea and Pogba didn’t go, although opinion remains divided as to how positive a presence the World Cup winner is, and by the time Lukaku’s move to Inter was finalised, nobody wanted him to stay. It was by no means a bad window for United, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that not enough deadwood was shifted and that a dominating midfielder to complement Pogba really should have been signed.
The Season Ahead
Since his first seconds in the United hot seat, Solskjær has repeatedly — monotously — used nostalgia to evoke the feeling that Manchester United is bigger and better than every other club in the world. It would be foolish to expect them to reclaim that perch this season but it is Solskjær’s long-term plan to get them there and everything they do this season will be based on achieving that goal.
It is therefore necessary to reach the top four and to do so with significantly more swagger and adventure than Mourinho’s teams ever looked like having. As Solskjær will repeatedly state, being at the top level should be the bare minimum for a club of Man Utd’s size, but it’s hard to square such ambitions with the players they have at their disposal.
De Gea, Pogba and Alexis Sánchez are among the best players in the world in their respective roles, but their form hasn’t shown that for a long time. There are huge question marks over the likes of Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial, who seem to have all the natural talent required and yet disappoint on a regular basis. Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Ashley Young — club captain Ashley Young! — have no business playing for a club that aims to be the world’s biggest.
Frankly, no one would be surprised if this all crashed and burned and Solskjær was back in Norway before Christmas.
Solskjær: mention Sir Alex Ferguson as often as possible; talk about late goals and comebacks; tell the players long stories about what Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes did every day in training.
Ed Woodward: start every day by checking the papers; leak conflicting but self-aggrandising stories to every outlet depending on what their leads for the day are; check emerging markets for potential Official Steak Knife Partners.
Mike Phelan: remember how it used to be and weep.
To be fair, United’s best players could be among the best in the league were they to achieve their potential. If you were playing FIFA or Football Manager with this squad, you’d fancy your chances of winning the league. It would be naive and silly of Chelsea to assume that because this giant is asleep right now, it’ll never wake up.
More specifically, Solskjær has spoken of his desire to build a side with pace to burn and confidence and creativity in abundance. Frank Lampard will have to get his side’s balance spot on to avoid being opened up on the counter and Kepa should expect the unexpected.
Morale has been bolstered by the arrival of Harry Maguire and if Aaron Wan-Bissaka has the chance to lay a marker down early on: he should bring assurance and style to a backline which had neither last season. That said, morale remains fragile and the Old Trafford crowd has sat through too many years of mediocrity to tolerate much more underachievement. If Chelsea score first, heads could go down and the Blues could find their afternoon to be surprisingly comfortable.
The last time these sides met in a season opener, David Moyes and José Mourinho parked their respective buses and opted not to lose face in a game that could have shaped perceptions of their fledgling sides.
This is a new era, though, and one expects Solskjær and Lampard to send their teams out with attack in mind.
Anything could happen here. Chelsea’s vulnerability in central defence could be the decisive factor. 3-2 United.