Ole Gunnar Solskjaer ripped into his players after the shameful 2-0 home defeat to Cardiff City on the final day of the Premier League, telling them they were an embarrassment to Manchester United and themselves. He’s right, but it’ll be him that loses his job if things don’t change after a wretched 2018-19 season.
Sixth place and finishing 32 points behind the champions was a disgrace for United, but the Norwegian has a very clear idea about which players he wants to stay and which are a problem. He’s had six months to figure it out and given chances to almost all of them — though several have squandered their opportunities.
Ed Woodward might have put the most optimistic face on it as possible in an investor call to coincide with the third quarter financial results, but the words of the Premier League’s best-paid executive will barely resonate with fans. When one of the four highlights of the third quarter reads: “Announced global partnership and licensing agreement with Maui Jim eyewear” then don’t expect supporters to be in raptures.
Fans want the highlights to come on the field: words mean nothing when they translate into a failing team. So how do United pick themselves up off the floor?
Some have said that it was a mistake to give the job to Solskjaer full-time in March — not that it was being said in the aftermath of the win in Paris two months ago in the Champions League. United have been rotten since then and the manager must take some of the blame, but there’s significant credit left for the Norwegian and the fans are still on his side.
One major advantage of that March appointment was that it allowed Solskjaer to plan for next season. He knew that recruitment was a priority and wanted assistant Mike Phelan to be on his permanent staff, too. His employers agreed and Phelan was offered a deal last week.
All along, Solskjaer has enjoyed a good communication with the scouts and the analysts in United’s much-maligned recruitment department. Some of the people employed there may not have a public profile, but they have excellent CVs and have worked at some of the best clubs in the world.
Manager, scouts and analysts have collaborated to identify the right targets in terms of talent, attitude and style of play. United maintain that there’s no shortage of quality players who want to join the club, though there is concern about the “Alexis Sanchez factor” — that Old Trafford is attractive because the pay rates are so high. Footballers often go where the money is, but there needs to be more than that if United are to bounce back.
United have a plan of which areas the team needs strengthening and the type of players the club want. And they will stick with that plan. Sources have told ESPN that Solskjaer wants the players in early but fans need a lift from at least one early signing which shows them what else could lie in store. There will disquiet if there are no signings by July and trouble on the terraces if United are 10th come November.
Avoiding the mess of last summer will help. Then, the club were surprised to be told relatively late that another central defender was needed. Players (such as £70m-rated Harry Maguire) are hard to get from now-wealthy clubs like Leicester City at the last minute. If Solskjaer doesn’t get it right then United will be slipping behind the likes of Leicester, Everton and Wolves (that’s the impressive Leicester who United beat home and away last season, by the way.)
United’s recruitment is under close scrutiny because it hasn’t convinced. For example: midfield misfit Fred cost £52 million. It will be fairer to judge the Brazilian this coming season rather than last, but let’s not pretend things went any better for him in his first season than they did for Victor Lindelof in his first term at United. The latter was much better in his second, though hardly Virgil van Dijk class, and that’s another problem — United’s rivals Liverpool, City and Spurs are at or close to their peak.
Solskjaer wants his players to be fitter, too, and there have been a couple of changes in the fitness staff in recent months.
On the end of his first batch of serious criticism, Solskjaer is not an idiot or a puppet to be dismissed because of his limited body of work at the highest level. He knows the job will eat him if he doesn’t get the players performing, knows he has to be bold and to get some of the problem players out of the dressing room. He will make those decisions without hesitation.
When he came in it was all about “my team” and sharing glory with the players when United couldn’t stop winning. Now he knows it’s about him: that’s he’s the boss rather than part of a collective.
He also knows that the next couple of transfer windows are vital. In his very first days, United staff were struck by his attention to detail and constant questions. There’s a negative lens over everything United do at the moment because the poor results have seen to that, but it was equally positive only three months ago.
Solskjaer knows his own mind. It was him — well, him and Roy Keane — who were most insistent to Sir Alex Ferguson that United sign Cristiano Ronaldo after that friendly against Sporting Lisbon in 2003.
That was then. Now, United are at a low ebb regardless of their impressive financial figures. This is a club whose Player of the Year, Luke Shaw, didn’t even make the England squad for the UEFA Nations League finals this summer.
However, United are far from finished. This isn’t Ajax, where the club are always trying to work out which players they’ll lose every close season and which are talented enough to step up and replace them. United have the money to buy some of the best players in the world.
That money has not been spent well in the last six years. No club have been more profligate than United and you wonder just how much planning went into some signings, but there’s a determination to get it right now — one set against a backdrop of pessimism and fans still livid at how the season ended.