Are Manchester United really in crisis, or are the press and their fans in hyper-negative mode despite the reality of the situation?
When Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013, there was criticism that he was leaving behind an ageing, albeit successful, squad. David Moyes inherited a job everyone knew would be enormous, replacing an institution who reportedly had a measure of control over all aspects of the club.
Behind the scenes, Manchester United were also about to replace David Gill with Ed Woodward as CEO. Perhaps one of those changes were a good idea but history tells us that making both changes at the same time is a mistake or at least a misstep, that the club has not recovered from.
A lot of money has been spent since and some of the finest managers in the recent history of the game (and David Moyes) have held the top job. Without obtaining a level of success the fans and media, including former players, have been expecting and/or hoping for. But is the current situation a crisis?
Arguably, anything that happened to Manchester United after 2013 was going to be a step down from not being outside the top 3 of the Premier League since its exception in 1992. Sustaining that level was always going to be a challenge and history tells us that clubs tend to struggle to replace a successful manager.
Liverpool were a long way clear of Manchester United in terms of League Titles when they won the old First Division in the 1989/1990 season. It would take them 30 years to win the league again. Multiple managers, multiple players and a good few CEOs came and went and plenty of former Liverpool players made the rounds on TV to question the football operations.
When Jurgen Klopp took over in October 2015, he inherited a squad a long way short of the Premier League winning squad he would assemble within his 4 full seasons. Players such as Nathaniel Clyne (England International), Christian Benteke (Belgium International), Lucas Leiva (Brazil International) and Martin Skrtel (Slovakia International) were all key players in the first team and all had International pedigree but they were not the required standard.
All were managed out along with multiple other players who were sold to fund reinvestment into the squad. With time they built a new squad in the Manager’s image but there were dissenting voices at various times. There was doubt if Klopp was building a team good enough to bridge the gap to the top of the league.
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As there is with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. As there was when Burnley won 2-0 at Old Trafford in January 2020. Rio Ferdinand on BT Sport in the aftermath had something of a meltdown, not dissimilar to Patrice Evra’s stunning implosion at half time of Manchester United’s 6 (Six) – 1 home defeat to Tottenham. It was only 4 at the time, but the writing was on the wall. Evra himself was blamed by Sir Alex Ferguson the only other time they have been so heavily defeated at Old Trafford.
The punditry from both Ferdinand and Evra was passionate, desperate and extremely unnecessary. Their reactions ramped up the pressure on the football club and you could argue in both cases it prompted the Board/Ed Woodward to act in the transfer market. But you could also argue that it was hyperbole for the sake of it. Riling up the supporters to shout and scream on social media about the perceived failings of the football club.
There have been failings. A lot of players have come in for a lot of money and have underperformed. The club have found themselves lumbered with a number of (with all respect to them all!) Phil Jones, Chris (Mike?) Smalling, Jesse Lingard, Marcos Rojo and Sergio Romero. Conservatively, you’d assume those players are costing something like £500,000 per week in wages. Phil Jones, incredibly, has a contract until 2023. It seems unlikely he’ll be removed from the payroll any time soon and, like Alexis Sanchez, when he does it will be heavily subsidised by Manchester United.
Returning to the Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool comparison, the player sales aspect of squad building needs a lot of immediate attention. Manchester United seem to have no plan for the future and seem to rely on increasingly desperate solutions as transfer windows come to an end. Short term planning is not the long-term solution and neither is replacing the manager. The club needs to retain a focus on building a competitive squad which has a similar type of player to be a certain style of football.
Manchester United were always associated with attacking football with such greats as George Best and Eric Cantona. It’s fair to say that Solskjaer has the ambition to bring that style back to Old Trafford. The signing of Fernandes complemented the squad well and with the emergences of Rashford and Greenwood from the youth system and the expensive addition of Anthony Martial under Louis Van Gaal, there is a clear framework for a squad.
Where there is a significant problem is in the defence. It isn’t through lack of investment, Harry Maguire cost a mindboggling and scarcely believable £80million. It was a statement signing, but it wasn’t a statement of quality. He has been partnered at various times by Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly (both reportedly costing approximately £30million). Although the Maguire – Lindelof partnership seemed settled and effective toward the end of the 2019/2020 season it was clear that they could be attacked.
The other defensive options are not experienced enough to offer real competition so you have to question the wisdom of the decision to sell Mr Mike Smalling (apart from the 10/10 dive against Arsenal, surely Louis Van Gaal’s most memorable contribution to the club? Unless you don’t support them, in which case it’s probably the 4-0 thrashing at the Might MK Dons in the League Cup) to Roma after a season where, by all accounts, he didn’t disgrace himself.
Liverpool had defensive problems too and it was only the signature signing of Virgil Van Dijk which solved them. They followed him up 6 months later with the signing of a professional goalkeeper to replace the gloriously tragic Loris Karius and they were in business. Manchester United have the best goalkeeper in the last 10 years (arguably) in De Gea, plus Dean Henderson coming through.
That is one position they are settled for, but like Liverpool, they need a(nother) statement centre back because Maguire, although not Karius tragic, has been underwhelming. There is no doubt there are funds to be spent in every window for Manchester United but they need to be spent with more of a cohesive plan of action informing their activity and not a last minute desperation signing to appease the fans, pundits and Jim White on Deadline Day.
In conclusion, are Manchester United really in the type of crisis the media and hysterical former players would have you believe they are? No. This hysteria last season was blown away with a magnificent finish to the season, roaring into 3rd place in the league after Leicester and Chelsea fluffed their lines. A Europa League semi-final was no disgrace in losing to the eventual (and perennial) winners Sevilla and a second leg win at The Etihad in the League Cup semi-final, although not enough in the tie, showed that the team does have promise.
The fans need to have the patience that Liverpool fans had in Klopp. Whether Solskjaer deserves the time and respect that the vastly more experienced Klopp received is another debate, but for the time being their manager is Solskjaer and his squad is taking shape. The doom and the gloom only exists if you listen to the pundits and former players taking swipes at the club, or you read the comments section on any post about Manchester United. Turn it all off and think about the progress of the squad in the last year and you might just find yourself thinking, they’re not that far off after all.