Today’s game for Manchester United isn’t a Cup Final, and shouldn’t be celebrated like a trophy win if the result goes the right way, but it is the biggest game the club has faced in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era.
Sure, there have been finals. Two FA Cup finals. A League Cup final. A few semi-finals. A Europa League victory. There has even been qualification for the Champions League. There has even been a second-place finish in the league! So why is today so important?
Well, let’s travel to the not-so-distant past to unravel some of those earlier league finishes. Under Louis van Gaal one might argue that a second consecutive Champions League finish would have been something to build on and would have seen a more methodical approach to a transfer policy that seemed erratic to say the least. But they didn’t – and the FA Cup wasn’t enough to save him. The West Ham game at the end of that season was the decisive moment.
Jose Mourinho finished in second with a squad that was probably fourth-best, and maybe even fifth-best, in the league. They had achieved above themselves. One could argue that was justification for Mourinho to be supported in the transfer market in a greater fashion than he was. Already, though, the cracks were beginning to show, and a manager who never really settled into the job he’d coveted for more than ten years was shown the door six months after leading United to their highest post-Ferguson finish.
“Why is today important,” you’ll say, “when United have already shown that they can buy marquee names without Champions League football?”
Yes, that happened twice. We all know what happened in the summer of 2014, and when Jose Mourinho was appointed, there was a genuine lure, maybe under false pretence, maybe even just deciding to dance with the devil in the form of Mino Raiola. Giving Zlatan Ibrahimovic the ego rub of a profile step-up from Paris, and signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan were both favourable enough deals to grease the palm to convince Paul Pogba to be the face of the new project. Those signings, as we know, have all had differing levels of success.
It is clear that United require Champions League football to convince Jadon Sancho to sign, but if not Sancho, any other young player of such profile could fit into that category. If they don’t get it, then the alternative is building as we have done, which is no bad thing, but wingers of Sancho’s quality are at a premium because of their rarity and because of that they are acquired by clubs in the top competition. A player might be able to be convinced to sign for United without the carrot of Champions League football, but the prices could still be prohibitive in this market.
“Well,” you might say, “those players might be mercenaries and we don’t want them.”
Unfortunately, if you are prone to that belief, then the truth is that many players are like that. That’s not a bad thing. Ole has done a fine job of trying to convince us that the players love playing for Manchester United. Some of us still need convincing because sometimes it seems like the players do too.
That is the perpetual cycle United have found themselves in for seven years and it would be easier to have that conversation if the players themselves are used to competing at a higher level. So external recruitment is going to be important and it will be more conducive to quicker progression if we’re able to shop for the best. It is clear, though, that Solskjaer has a plan for building a team, and not just being able to attract better players.
The internal development of the players is just as important. And today will give us a strong answer about the capability and mentality of the players and whether they are mentally equipped to deal with the pressures of playing for Manchester United.
The jury seems to be out on David De Gea, Victor Lindelof, Harry Maguire, Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial, five players in key positions who need a big performance. One of those five, Lindelof, knows that the general perception is that another defender is the biggest emergency situation for this team. The other four all face differing variations of the same question : We know you’re good. Are you good enough?
There have been times this season, and since the restart, where they have answered with a yes. In recent games the answer has seemed to be no. So we enter a crucial ninety minutes for these players. Once they might have been able to hold United to ransom despite the underperformance. And it is still underperformance by the club’s standards, but they are all culpable, and their reputations have been marked as a consequence, as they should be.
For years, David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho all faced accusations of not getting the best out of the players. It is ironic that under the least experienced manager we have had, the players have found less of a hiding place, and there is a sobering experience awaiting them if failure is achieved today.
Their list of suitors will likely narrow, and those who felt they might be able to at least step up to another club might realise that they in fact might not. There is only so long you can be part of a team and be seen as a bright light in it instead of part of the problem.
Defeat might bring it excuses of tiredness but that is all that they are. Other teams have had the same schedule and a smaller squad. Should United fail, then it is because they are not good enough.
But win, and there will be a considerable bounce – a reborn belief that there is a winning mentality within this group of players that isn’t just present in the body of Bruno Fernandes. And a welcome boost for him, too, who might be able to believe that the club aren’t solely dependent on him, as that appears to have been weighing heavily on his mind.
The saying is that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks and it’s true that we won’t see any huge surprises, win, lose or draw. Even moving forward, if we were to get a positive result, the current squad will continue to face questions from observers because of the lows they are capable of. The only way to answer those doubts is as a collective with that winning spirit and attitude. That, of course, is something engineered over time, and goes from the players to the staff and to the manager.
If things don’t go United’s way, there exists a suspicion that this is, frankly, the level of the players we have. That they’re not capable of more. That they show flashes of potential but the actualisation of that potential is a squad that is 5th or 6th placed in terms of real ability. Maybe that positive result could do wonders for the self-belief of the squad. Ah, you might think players have egos about them. That’s true. But having an ego and genuine self-confidence are two different things. The more talented players in the squad need a victory for their self-vindication as much as the club need it when it comes to their short-term stature.
So what of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, then? Win and everything is rosy. The plan that is in place for hopeful qualification to the Champions League can proceed and hopefully it will be smooth sailing (though we’ve learned from our transfer policy that making an investment in trust in this is as dangerous as doing so in the consistency of the team).
Failure to qualify, however, and the manager can’t escape questioning – nor should he. This writer personally believes that it was the right thing to have such a squad shake-up last summer and allow as many as he did to leave. Whatever the consequences may have been.
But, though Solskjaer can’t run on to the field as a late sub and rescue games with his trademark late goals, he is responsible for the composition of the team and the performances and results. Champions League qualification was the goal at the start of the season and it will be a failure of a season if it isn’t attained.
Looking at what has happened elsewhere – four wins over the team above us, Leicester City’s end-of-season mini-collapse – if United fail, it will be because we shot ourselves in the foot from a strong position, where two home wins instead of draws would have already made this day a non-event. It will mean plodding on for another year with the squad one year older, and all of that happened in the previous 37 games would have been for nought. So very Arsenal.
And the manager should face questions about that. In the past the manager has been made accountable – David Moyes and Louis van Gaal were sacked only when Champions League qualification was not possible. Jose Mourinho was dismissed before this fate was a certainty, although it was close to an inevitability.
Again, this writer’s opinion is even in the event of failure, Solskjaer deserves more time, because there are positive aspects which have made United feel more like the team we know than at any point prior to his reign since 2013.
But this is the added element of risk on such a day. Maybe the remit is Champions League qualification and failure to achieve it brings with it the sack.
We don’t know, and can’t predict with Manchester United. David Moyes and Louis van Gaal will tell you that sitting down with Ed Woodward to plan the future in case of Champions League qualification failure is purely an exercise to pass the time.
And if Ed does decide Mauricio Pochettino could still do a better job, we could once more be resetting, preparing for another period of unpredictable instability, hoping that the good things will be built on instead of thrown away.
Because, make no mistake, regardless of how things end up on the back of one individual result this afternoon, United – for all their flaws – are in their strongest position in terms of squad continuity for seven years. And it is the manager who has achieved that.
They have played the best football – as inconsistent as that has been – for seven years. And it is the manager who has achieved that.
Standards have been set. To play the United way. To entertain the fans. To win. The third standard has not been met as regularly as would have been hoped. But two semi-finals, European progress and some good football is acceptable. Champions League qualification is not what the club ought to be aiming for but is it a crucial stepping stone on the journey they hope they’re on, where the destination is to have a squad that is challenging to win the Premier League.
Better to invest in what we have and see where it takes us. That path is only certain – as certain as these things can be in football – if United get the right result today.
So perhaps nothing is certain. Even with a positive result. But a negative result will surely condemn United to the same sort of uncertainty they have faced for the last seven years.
No, today is not a cup final, and should not be celebrated like it is if we win. It is, however, the most important day in the club’s history since Sir Alex Ferguson retired.