Manchester United have all the components needed to compete for trophies – they just need to perform on and off the pitch.
It should not be forgotten that they finished second in the Premier League last season, but in the quest to get even better, they have moved away from what made them successful. I think there has been a lack of identity and structure throughout the club that seeped into the squad. This season, the players under Ole Gunnar Solskjær didn’t know whether they were a pressing side or a defensive side going on the counter-attack.
I love Solskjær and he has been great for the culture of the club and building a connection with the fans that has been missing since Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down, but the top managers are tacticians and that’s where the Norwegian fell short. It ended in a sad affair at Watford, culminating in the negative comments from the players. I think firing him was right because it didn’t work and there could only be one outcome in the end.
Summer recruitment hampered the team. It remains to be seen if they recruited the right type of players, and it seems like a real mismatch. Cristiano Ronaldo has clearly changed the dynamics of the squad, but it’s not just him; he arrived late and on short notice and it would take a strong personality at United to reject the return of a club legend who continues to perform at such a high level.
Ronaldo has not let the team down – he continues to score and prove he is still one of the best. The problem is that his signing changed tactical plans after the season started and no adjustments were made to make up for his shortcomings. If the staff had known he was coming, they could have brought in a midfielder or really captured the identity of the player’s philosophy, especially the defender of the team up front.
Solskjær has also been unlucky with Raphael Varane’s injuries, as he could be a key player at the heart of United’s defence. The sooner they get him back, the better, to relieve Harry Maguire of the pressure. The backline needs a refresh so Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who are out of form, don’t have to play every week. In the modern game, fullbacks win matches for teams, as Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City prove. Likewise, the back line can be helped by the attackers, who don’t do their job when it comes to pressure and pursuit – because defending starts up front.
Many United fans will want the team to be more positive. Under Solskjær they would more often than not work with two tenacious midfielders. He will have had his reasons, but the formation could be tweaked to use just one and allow Donny van de Beek to come in and bring a more dynamic threat to the center of the field.
Paul Pogba flew at the start of the season – I looked at him and thought he was brilliant. He played on the left and ended up in central midfield where he caused a lot of problems. Then suddenly he was taken out of that position. I feel for him because he works hard and follows back, and that can go unnoticed. Can he play in midfield without the protection? No, but we’ve known that for a long time. It’s not just Pogba, who has missed the last three games and won’t be back for weeks due to injury; there are others at United who do much less.
When it comes to the attackers having to work harder, that’s not an opinion, it’s a fact. Their running stats going back are nowhere near that forward. Those players can do it, but they have to take responsibility and be held accountable. Liverpool and Manchester City work so much harder from possession to win the ball back, keep opponents in their own half and protect their backline. United have all the talent, but they need direction and authority to make sure that happens. They need a new manager with a strong personality who will tell them that if they don’t bother they are gone.
The right permanent manager must come as soon as possible. They may have an interim, but if that person starts working out ideas that are not long-term, they will have to start over in the summer, putting the team further behind the opposition. The best solution would have been to get started right away so that a new manager would have the January window, a full summer and a pre-season of their own ideas to revive the club.
But United have seemingly concluded that a coach is unavailable, which is why they are in advanced talks with Ralf Rangnick to temporarily take over the job. Now they have to see who’s available in the summer and which way they want to go, that’s been the problem all along. Unfortunately for United, the best tactical managers have jobs at rival clubs, making it quite difficult to appoint someone who can compete with Pep Guardiola, Thomas Tuchel and Jurgen Klopp. At the very least, the players need to make a significant shift in intensity and desire from now on. They have top quality players, but those players have a lot more to offer.