MANCHESTER did not have a good Champions League this past week, with both City and United tumbling out of the competition. While City’s exit was harsh in many ways, United got no more than they deserved against a Barcelona team that was far too good for Ole Gunar Solksjaer’s charges. The gulf in class was huge, making Solksjaer’s comment, “there’s work to be done” one of the great understatements of the night.
United have the money and the status to get things right eventually, but six years after the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson, the club is still somewhat directionless on the field of play, with a collection of highly-paid hired guns still struggling to live up to the glories of the past. Even Solksjaer has admitted there is a significant gap between City and Liverpool and a United squad that is dire need of an overhaul.
Solksjaer was appointed in December as a caretaker and a few weeks ago, was given the job permanently. This decision seems to have been a little hasty, with the United politburo seduced by the positive bounce of a new face in the dugout. Solskjaer, with his baby face, United credo and gentle persona, provided an antidote to the snarling, lemon-sucking profile of Mourinho, a man who was never going to fit the United bill.
But it could be that United were too quick to rubber-stamp the appointment of their 1999 European hero, rejecting the chance to take stock over the course of the season’s finale to be really certain that this time they had the right man.
Solksjaer’s record is good, make no mistake, but recent weeks have seen the club go out of the FA Cup to Wolves, lose ground in the battle for the top four and, most revealingly, get trounced by Barcelona. What’s more, there is a growing feeling that some players are keen to get away from Old Trafford. The club has a big, expensive squad, but to quote Paul Hirst of the Times, includes a lot of “overpaid dead wood”.
But how do you get rid of playing resources that are earning big money? Take Alexis Sanchez, for example, a disappointing acquisition from Arsenal who has a weekly wage of £ 350,000. Sanchez’s deal creates problems for United in that players like David De Gea and Paul Pogba would expect to be paid on a similar basis. Moreover, United’s wage bill makes their unwanted players seem very unmarketable. Who wants to take on an expensive player who may be underperforming? This was something that irked Mourinho when he was in charge.
De Gea’s contract expires this summer but he looks likely to agree a new deal that brings him closer to Sanchez’s ludicrous pay packet. Pogba’s contract comes to an end in 2021, but there is talk of him being unhappy.
Solksjaer said that the club is in need of rebuilding, not just with new players, but also throughout its coaching system. Scouting, too, has been questioned, promoted by United’s inability to snare some of the continent’s big talents.
Since Ferguson left, the club has had a very patchy record in the transfer market. Over £ 700 million has been spent in six years, but some of the biggest names have not worked out as expected. Angel Di Maria, who cost almost £ 60 million, a record for an English club at the tim, when he arrived from Real Madrid, lasted a season and incurred a £ 15 million loss for United in moving to Paris Saint-Germain.
Memphis Depay of PSV Eindhoven was signed a year later and was seen as a promising young star. At £ 25 million, he was not an excessively big gamble, but two goals in 33 games was below expectations and he joined Lyon in 2017 for just £ 16 million.
Romelu Lukaku cost United £ 90 million when he joined from Everton and although he has scored 28 goals in 63 Premier League games, there seems to be discontent about his contribution. Indeed, it is widely believed that Lukaku does not suit the way Solskjaer wants his United side to play. There are rumours the Belgian international will be moving on in the summer, even though he is contracted until 2022.
Another big signing, the Brazilian forward Fred, who cost some £ 47 million, has yet to make an impact at United, although Solksjaer has commented in the media that he is pleased with his development. But this is a player who is 26 years old, he is not a young, evolving starlet.
With only a few weeks to go in the 2018-19 season, Solksjaer has made it clear that he believes his players are not giving 100%, certainly in the Champions League against Barcelona, they were very lack lustre. He has also said the squad needs a reality check.
The reality is that the honeymoon is over for Solksjaer and if United do not qualify for the UEFA Champions League, the club that was ever present from 1996-97 to 2013-14 in the competition faces another year of frustration. Solksjaer desperately needs to bring top talent to the club and United, ultimately, have to become more competitive in the market once more.
United are in danger of slipping out of contention, not just on the field where they have already declined over the past five years, but as a force in the acquisition of talent either by young player development or in the transfer market. Since Ferguson’s departure, they have tried David Moyes, Luis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and now Ole Gunar Solskjaer. The fact they went for the likeable Norwegian also suggested that the list of possible candidates for the job has diminished, an issue many top clubs have in this world of temporary appointments.
Solksjaer’s job will be to rebuild the United squad, instil a philosophy that is aligned to the United brand of attacking football, and to create the basis for continuity – something which has been sorely missing since the retirement of their most successful manager. If he fails and is replaced, it will merely confirm that United have become like any other big club in Europe – focused on the short-term and impatient for instant gratification.