11 months ago I sat at Wembley Stadium having just watched Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United lose in the FA Cup final to Chelsea thinking if Eden Hazard had been in the Red Devils team instead of tearing Phil Jones & co apart that things might have been very different. Last night, under a new manager in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, United were out played by Barcelona in the Nou Camp, but the truth is that one man again was the difference, all be it spurred by a couple of mistake along the way.
Now the quick fix to Manchester United’s argument might be to say “shove Lionel Messi in that team and they’ll do ok” but the truth is, United are a team in turmoil, one that has slowly dwindled as the bridge at the top of the Premier Division has widened and now not just one team, but two, perhaps three or four are better equipped than them to challenge for major honours amongst England’s elite.
Yes United still need that playmaker, that someone special that can provide a spark, but they need that on top of a number of other things. In defence they look vulnerable, in midfield they lack creation, up front they still haven’t found their best mix.
Of the squad that lost their FA Cup final by a single goal to Chelsea last May, all 18 of the players in the squad that day and that finished second with 81 points under Jose Mourinho in last season’s Premier League title race, all 18 still remain at the club. Only two players of any substance were signed in the summer in fact. Fred from Shakhtar Donetsk and Diego Dalot from Porto. Whilst Dalot has proved a shrewd signing with potentially a big future in front of him, Fred has underachieved following a big money move all be it hugely stepping up in class to play Premier League football from the Ukrainian top tier each week.
United though needed more than just a bit part youngster and an unknown, untried Brazilian.. United needed strength not just in depth, but in quality and in substance with experience and skill. United’s defence has been long marshalled by the likes of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling… Good competitors, but not great footballers. United for too long have made do with fill in full backs, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia, good pros, not great defenders. United have gambled on the likes of Eric Bailly and Marcos Rojo, have given time to the likes of Matteo Darmian and Victor Lindelof.. Even Luke Shaw, one of their shining lights this season has taken his time after injury to settle.
A lot of talk in the summer was regarding David de Gea who by many (in England) is considered the world’s best goalkeeper. I don’t particularly share that belief, De Gea had a horrible world cup and last night had a horrible game. Perhaps United could have cashed in and got rid sooner with a more than able back up in Sergio Romero to take the crown, but now they won’t perhaps get the money they have long demanded, in particular from the big two clubs in Spain who I doubt would even consider an approach.
De Gea though is not a problem for Manchester United, he will save more than he lets in and will continue to be a world class goalkeeper that Solskjaer can rely upon 99.9% of the time. United’s problem is what is in front of him in defence, in midfield, even in attack, United need to strengthen at all costs.
This summer United look accepting to lose the popular Ander Herrera and Juan Mata to pastures new. Whilst Nemanja Matic has largely under-performed, in recent weeks through injury his void has been left open (Scott McTominay aside) which perhaps suggests how valuable he still may be to the cause. Paul Pogba, the enigma has blown hot and cold, Jesse Lingard likewise to a lesser degree, United don’t create enough from midfield and although Pogba top scores for the club with 13 league goals 8 of them have come from the spot.
Which leads us to the frontline. United have a love hate relationship with Lukaku who always scores goals, but performances aren’t always up to United scratch. Rashford looks to be one of the few positive stars in the United sky but Anthony Martial has failed to live up to his potential. Some say he’s lazy? The worst of the lot however has been Alexis Sanchez who’s United career so far has been a complete and utter failure.
The coach Solskjaer is now finding out the hard way following an unbelievable honeymoon period winning ten of his first 11 games that United can now win nothing this season. This summer will be a telling tale of where United go from here, I wonder if the Norwegian will even be in charge of the club in a years’ time? He’ll probably take the blame despite working with largely players that are not his own.
If the United board trust Solskjaer I believe United must now act like the big club that they are in signing marquee players and ridding those that simply aren’t good enough no more. Whether it be bringing Gareth Bale back to England or taking a gamble on an Ajax youngster like David Neres? Whether it be offloading has been’s Smalling, Young & Jones to the likes of Everton & Sunderland (again) and replacing them with ready-made replacements like Skriniar, or Koulibaly, Alex Sandro, Thomas Muenier… Whether it be trusting the new crop of youngsters like Mason Greenwood & Tahith Chong to pull them through with some astute acquisitions from around Europe, United must act now and improve their squad before they lag even further behind their domination emerging noisy neighbours from across the city.
Be interesting to see whether the clear out starts soon, because for United to be a success again, they won’t be doing anything until they replace what they’ve currently got.