Manchester United: The Song Remains The Same
The most notable aspect of the current stagnation of Manchester United is how serene so much of it has felt. The howls of anguish haven’t been particularly piercing, and the calls for the manager’s head have been fairly muted. The poisonous atmosphere that descends over a club in a tail-spin hasn’t quite arrived yet. The vultures seem very slow to pick up the scent. Perhaps this is down to the character of the manager himself. Within the club, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is a living legend, the scorer of one of the most important goals in the club’s entire history. Outside Manchester United, he’s perfectly affable. He doesn’t get into half-baked “mind games” with other managers or the press, and he doesn’t carry the baggage around that certain other recent United managers have.
There’s a possibility that it’s as simple as no-one much wanting to do any of this.
This isn’t really the full story either, though. As a football club, Manchester United are rotting from the head down. Rudderless leadership, good money thrown after bad with little attention being paid to infrastructure, and the lack of a joined up strategy seem to have combined to create a fog of inertia that has descended over Old Trafford. Every once in a while, the cheque book will flutter and an improbably large amount of money will be splurged on a player, but this seldom comes with any indication that a new arrival forms part of any plan whatsoever, never mind one that a paying public would actually want to watch.
Right the way through the team, the signs of this inertia are present and correct. David De Gea, not so long ago the jewel in the club’s crown, is starting to pall in comparison with other Premier League goalkeepers like Alisson or Ederson, who essentially seem to play as another defender as well as a goalkeeper. Paul Pogba now seems to wear a perpetual scowl. Marcus Rashford may have jumped an invisible shark. Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez were (rightly) offloaded but (wrongly) weren’t replaced. The defence seems sound enough, but having a reasonable defence isn’t worth a great deal unless the team is scoring goals, and Manchester United have only scored seven goals in all competitions since putting four past Chelsea on the opening weekend of the season.
There have been bright spots. Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James have both started encouragingly, whilst Mason Greenwood has shown signs of life from the substitutes bench. Even with these two, however, there is a degree of concern that going to Old Trafford might yet stunt their growth as players. In a stagnant atmosphere such as this, it may be a valid concern, and that’s before we get onto the small mater of loading such responsibility onto the shoulders of such young players. Part of this has been forced upon Solskjaer by a steadily increasing injury list, but part of it is also structural.
The growth of the belief that Solskjaer simply might not be up to the job of managing the football side of this corporation has been gradual and reluctant, to the point that he is broadly considered a symptom rather than a cause. The Glazers have absolute control. Hating on them is broadly just a state of mind for supporters, these days. It barely needs to be said. The eye of the hurricane is Ed Woodward, the bean-counter’s bean-counter, the man with responsibility for the club on a day-to-day basis, from negotiating noodle partners to overseeing what’s going on regarding, you know, the football team.
Woodward is the ultimate source of the decline, for many. If the decision to hire Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on a full-time basis several months before the end of his probationary period in charge of the team does turn out to have been a mistake, no-one could say they weren’t warned. They still haven’t won an away match since. On Monday night, they played out a tepid one-all draw against Arsenal and springing themselves with some comedic defending for Arsenal’s goal. This used to be a match that bubbled, like a volcano at the point of eruption.
Manchester United have played their last four matches like a facsimile of a Manchester United team, though. They were comfortably beaten by West Ham United. They were taken to penalty kicks by Rochdale and insipid against both Arsenal and last night, Alkmaar. Nobody quite knows how this Arsenal team might turn out, but the rest of that opposition is hardly star-studded, even if West Ham United are in decent form at the moment. They may take succour from the fact that their best performance of the season so far came against Chelsea, one of the “bigger” clubs, even if it is one in transition at present, but broadly speaking it’s more or less impossible to paper over the shortcomings of this season’s team.
After Sunday’s trip to Newcastle United, they are at home against Liverpool. It has to be remembered that Manchester United aren’t just falling short of rivals at the moment. They’re falling short of Manchester City and Liverpool. They cherish Liverpool’s failure to win the Premier League and Manchester City’s to win the Champions League, but either – or both – of these scenarios might yet change. Within this triumvirate, Manchester United are currently and by some (and by an increasing) distance the junior partners. There may be Manchester United supporters who don’t care about the Manchester City rivalry. There may well be some who don’t care that much about the Liverpool rivalry. But there aren’t any who don’t care about either. And that must hurt, specially after a quarter of a century long tsunami of success.
The thing is that money should talk. Manchester United should just be able to steamroller their way back into contention at the very top of the Premier League. The problem, of course, is that money isn’t worth that much without a degree of competence. And money has been thrown around in an uncoordinated and sloppy way. On top of this, Manchester United feel tatty. Old Trafford hasn’t been renovated in years and looks outdated and uncomfortable in comparison with the new Tottenham stadium at White Hart Lane, The Emirates Stadium or even The Etihad Stadium. They have a gaudy gold logo splattered across the middle of their shirts. Last season, for some unfathomable reason, they wore black shorts with their home kit. It’s as though nobody cares. Sometimes, they barely even feel like Manchester United any more.
Or maybe they do. It’s been six years since they last won the Premier League, and they don’t look much like making up any ground on Manchester City or Liverpool for the foreseeable future. It might well be that Manchester United could be set for the sort of drought that Liverpool may be just about to end, that this is what Manchester United are now. The club went into the summer fully aware that there was already a thirty point gap to make up on these two rivals, with the parameters for what is required to win league having changed in such a way that challengers can no longer expect other clubs to slip up. Manchester City dropped sixteen points last season, and Liverpool dropped seventeen. Manchester United have already dropped twelve in their first seven league matches of the season.
There’s no way of sugar-coating numbers like that. Even if Manchester United had set their bar for this season no higher than to keep that gap to “just” the thirty points, they’d be failing, and the vast amounts of money involved means that the notion of a “transitional” season being a justification for continuing inertia in terms of forward planning and strategy is now broadly impossible, even if we discount the fact that Manchester United have seemed to be in “transition” for more than half a decade, now. Altering this trajectory may take a long time and a considerable amount of money. The former isn’t available in a world of hysteria and a demand for instant gratification. The latter exists, but is unlikely to be made available by vulture capitalists who are returning a decent dividend to investors at the moment. The bottom line is the bottom line, but the bottom line that those running the club are interested in simply isn’t the same as that which matters to supporters. Until that fundamentally changes, it’s difficult to see how the fortunes of Manchester United can change for the better, at least to the extent that so many expect.