Callum Holden, Contributor.
Manchester United’s plight is unsurprising, but the board must hold their nerve, writes Callum Holden.
Football is a game of ‘emotions, a different feeling every day.’ So spoke Ronaldinho, the Brazilian footballing great, and last Sunday St James’ Park witnessed the arrant euphoria and dejection that our beautiful game can induce after Matty Longstaff’s gratifyingly smooth drive into the bottom corner of the Manchester United net. Just as the jubilation of producing such a marvellous moment on his Premier League debut was discernibly illustrated across Longstaff’s face as he scampered to the elated rapture of the Gallowgate end, the momentary despondent gazes of Harry Maguire and David De Gea spoke of their disbelief at yet another afternoon where Manchester United would succumb to defeat.
The incredulity of Manchester United’s players was even more demonstrable in De Gea’s post-match interview as his internal forage for words to aptly describe United’s current predicament concluded unsuccessfully. One can understand why De Gea may initially find United’s sorry condition as something of a shock. Having joined United in Sir Alex Ferguson’s penultimate season, De Gea joined the club on the back of a Nineteenth Premier League title win and entered a dressing room that was permeated with not just United but footballing greats. Icons of the Premier League era such as Nemanja Vidic, Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney, each player synonymous with United’s dynastic footballing dominance. A venerated spine that was supplemented by a dependable and resourceful squad, with players such as Antonio Valencia and Darren Fletcher proving invaluable throughout an exigent and protracted Premier League season.
When United fans contrast their memories of the zestful running of Fletcher with the indolent performances of Fred, and Rooney’s bravura with the deficient skill of Jesse Lingard, they may suspect that De Gea is being somewhat chary when he remarks that ‘he doesn’t know what is happening.’ Indeed, a cursory glance at United’s starting eleven for their most disappointing defeats away to West Ham and Newcastle conveys the acute quality shortage that is manifest within this team and makes the latest thespian inquest into United’s performances all the more sensational but insubstantial. For the sizeable potential of the diligent Daniel James and spirited Scott McTominay, they will not restore United to the Premier League summit whilst they are being marshalled by the rapidly declining Ashley Young or aged Juan Mata.
The limitations of the playing personnel is transparent and the inept calibre of the squad lends itself to a style of play that at best can be labelled as unremarkable. Banal in attack and worryingly negligent at the back, United’s matches thus far have followed a common pattern of attrition. Games are often an exhibition of languid and torpid passing which is commonly only interrupted by an amusingly egregious mistake as United fans watch on with the sense of a depressing inevitability of an opposition goal. The insipid nature of United’s attack is perhaps typified by their inability to muster even five shots on target in their past four games against favourable opposition.
Forlorn on the pitch, United’s tribulations can be attributed to a boardroom direction that is consumed with commerciality and revenue streams, accentuating profit above a sustained footballing philosophy. Since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill, United’s footballing strategy has been co-ordinated by Executive Vice-Chairman Ed Woodward, an individual more equipped in the sphere of financial planning than constructing and implementing a football vision.
Elevated from the mergers and acquisitions department of JP. Morgan in the aftermath of the Glazer Families contemptible takeover of the club, Woodward has overseen United’s sustained commercial dominance, but equally has presided over a calamitous six years in which the club has languished and deteriorated to new lows, scarcely threatening to mount even a tentative title challenge.
At the basis of United’s swift decline is Woodward’s incompetence and appalling judgement. His lack of footballing proficiency transparent in the multitude of botched transfer sagas since his ascension to the top of the club’s boardroom hierarchy. His sacking of the three managers that he has appointed in five years further exposing his extensive shortcomings.
United’s floundering performances are even less surprising when it is considered that the club entered this season on the back of a campaign that saw a sixth-placed finish, thirty-two points behind Manchester City with United falling to ignominious defeats against Everton and Cardiff. Defeats that left fans and pundits alike questioning not only the quality of the squad but their character.
Unambiguous in his judgement of the players, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was clear that he was going to be “successful” at United and that some of the players that day “won’t be part of that successful team.”
Such lucid words pointed to an impending summer clear-out of a squad that had been corroded gradually through lavish wages and a toxic culture. Yet, it did not arrive. United moved on only four and brought in three. Discontent amongst fans who expected so much more evolved and prior to the opening weekend of the Premier League season, social media was ablaze with irate hashtags and incensed posts condemning the Glazers for their lack of investment and arcane plan for the club.
Though for all the opprobrium from the online masses, United’s summer transfer business showed a hint of promise that had been otherwise absent in windows past. Of course, United had previously exhilarated fans in transfer windows past with exorbitant fees for the latest eminent player or with extravagant deadline day splurges but this promise was unique.
This was promise in the form of an acknowledged blueprint for prospective players that would not only inspirit a listless dressing room but would fit with the eager and spirited ethos that Solskjaer is intent on generating. Indeed, United’s stance on Paulo Dybala’s potential transfer was another welcome signal that the club was purchasing with purpose, while also going a small way in rectifying the club’s image as the premier destination for those players seeking an excessive payday.
As United replaced seasoned Premier League veterans in Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez with raw youth in James and Mason Greenwood, this Premier League season was always going to be a campaign of transition. United are in the formative stages of a rebuild that must not only radically change the on-pitch personnel but fundamentally alter the culture of a squad that was too willing to bask in mediocrity.
Even with a depleted squad, Solskjaer’s United have exhibited fleeting glimpses of his endeavours to resuscitate the club’s cavaliering counter-attacking identity with an emphasis on breaking with pace and clinical precision. When the strategy works; United thrive. The sharp incision in the creation of United’s third and fourth strikes on the opening Sunday of the season was reminiscent of a vintage United which operated with rapidity, rigour and ruthlessness. Indeed, the polished interplay between Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial for United’s opener against Wolves illustrated the imagination and creativity that Solskjaer has attempted to cultivate amongst his players since his arrival.
Subsequent to the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, United have experienced harrowing days and throughout this season the club will undoubtedly encounter many more. That United have ended up in such a pitiful state is unsurprising but the time for the board to act with courage and competence has come. Through adversity, Woodward must acknowledge the scale of what is required and afford Solskjaer the patience needed. Should this happen, by the logic of Ronaldinho, tomorrow should deliver more positive emotions on Sir Matt Busby way.