MANCHESTER UNITED’S latest setback, losing to an unremarkable West Ham United team, has triggered a sense of mild panic and hand-wringing among some Old Trafford regulars. The decision to install Ole Gunnar Solskjær as permanent manager in March 2019 now looks like a hasty, ill-informed decision, but is the blame for United’s continuing frustration really the fault of the popular Norwegian?
To many onlookers, Solskjær is doomed to failure as United still struggle to come to terms with being just “another” club. Nobody was really surprised by their defeat in East London, coming just a couple of days after their 1-0 Europa League win against Astana of Kazakhstan.
Such mediocrity won’t be tolerated for long by the people in the boardroom, but six years after the departure of their most successful – indeed, football’s most decorated – manager, they are still struggling to bring stability and success to the club.
Ferguson’s reign was not just about winning trophies, it was also about continuity, culture and, to some extent, creed. Ferguson, once he had established himself after a shaky start, implemented a way of doing things that kept him going until 2013. He was also aided by a batch of young players – the Class of ’92 – who had been nurtured by United and they would form the core of his team for the best part of a decade.
Once the aura of Ferguson had gone, and the youngsters dried-up, United had to be judged on their prowess and acumen in the transfer market, just like any other club. This has been one of their downfalls in recent years – their record in the market has been very average and the number of really top class players that have arrived at Old Trafford is surprisingly low. Moreover, there have been too many that have not lived up to their billing. Even Paul Pogba, a potentially world-class player, has not consistently wowed his audience in a red shirt, and he’s now 26, so the question is, will he ever?
United’s heritage is one of attacking football that keeps the fans on the edge of their seats. This dates back to the 1950s and the era of Sir Matt Busby and his ill-fated babes. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is one such player who could excite, a character who would have slotted into any great United team, but he joined the club when he was in his mid-30s. A short-term buy if ever there was one, but the fans are calling for his return. Angel Di Maria, almost £ 60 million of under-achievement, came and went and Romelu Lukaku never seemed to be truly accepted, despite a £ 75 million price tag, and joined Inter Milan in the summer. And what of Fred, the 26 year-old signed last year but has still to make his mark, and the perpetual misfit Alexis Sanchez?
United’s close-season spending this year involved £ 100 million-plus being shelled-out on two defenders – good signings, but not the sort that would get the adrenalin racing.
It has been a while since United have been considered true title contenders. The rise of Manchester City has painfully eclipsed the club, even though United’s spending – closing in on a billion pounds since Ferguson left – is only just behind their petro-dollar financed neighbours. Fans claim the current squad is the weakest for some 30 years, but that may be a harsh and reactionary assessment. However, it has to be asked, how many of the current United team would be on anyone’s shopping list?
United need a strong man to drive them out of their current malaise, but is OGS that man?
United’s forwards, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, are still young, 21 and 23 respectively, but neither is a prolific goalscorer. Rashford, for all his promise, looks dreadfully low on confidence at the moment but Solskjær has told both strikers they need to up their scoring rate. It’s not just up front where United are failing to live-up to their name, in midfield there’s a definite lack of creativity and energy. Thankfully, they have David de Gea in goal and big Harry at the back.
If Solskjær is under scrutiny, then the club should also be looking at the strategy further up the food chain at Old Trafford. United’s transfers are masterminded by four people, Solskjær himself, Clive Woodward, Matt Judge (Head of Corporate Development) and Mick Court (Chief Scout). United have missed out on some top names, which has parallels with the post-Busby years when they failed to lure some leading players to the club.
It is something of a mystery why United find themselves with a diminishing reputation and a squad that lacks the popular buzz word of the moment, identity – something that characterised the Ferguson era.
United need a strong man at the helm to drive them out of their current malaise. Is OGS that man? Probably not, but sooner or later, United will wake from their slumbers with or without the “baby-faced assassin”. Money should not be the problem for United – this is England’s richest club, one of the wealthiest in world football. Some poor decision-making around the management of the team and a transfer policy that has seen more misses than hits have both played their part.
Drawing comparisons with the past, it took United 26 years to win the league title from 1967 and the departure of Busby hung over them for years. All football empires come to an end and United’s latest one ceased trading in 2013. Like Busby’s era, Ferguson’s retirement also marked the end of an era and underlined that it was no dynasty. It surely won’t be 26 years before they win another title, but Liverpool have been searching for almost 30 years for their “next championship”, and who would have thought that in 1990?