As Wilfried Zaha strolled past Victor Lindelof with ease to secure Crystal Palace’s comfortable win at Old Trafford yesterday, there was a predictable outpouring of anger on social media – an echo chamber at the best of times, but, due to the current global situation, the only place to really assess the mood of Manchester United supporters.
You could reasonably assume the team would have left the field to boos yesterday and you could deduce most of that ire would have been directed at the owners. I myself have a fairly reasonable bunch of fellows that I follow on Twitter so aside from the retweets of the more furious, there was a generally middle-of-the-road reaction. One friend tweeted that all that was missing was Alan Hansen saying you can’t win anything with kids. It made me laugh and then it made me think. It was 25 years ago, the opening league game of the season, when those comments were uttered.
In the summer of 1995 Alex Ferguson pruned his squad and it was largely by choice even if the finer aspects of it weren’t. In a perfect world he would probably not have wanted to let Andrei Kanchelskis or Mark Hughes go. He tried to sign Darren Anderton, and tried to re-sign Keith Gillespie. What I’m saying is that what followed wasn’t all by design and that there is almost always some middle ground to balance out something truly groundbreaking. The rule of necessity is usually involved at some point.
Back in 1995, and I’m aware that I’m writing this with a generation not even old enough to remember likely to read it, the targets of the anger were split. Martin Edwards was building the North Stand and supporters were angry he wasn’t releasing funds. He would have sanctioned the Anderton deal, but it is undeniable that the construction had an effect on player expenditure. Ferguson too received criticism, infamously being target of a MEN poll where it was revealed most wanted him sacked – although there is no telling how many mischievous City fans might have voted.
Red Issue is and was generally known for their vicious depiction of football and current events but at heart it was run by supporters who knew their stuff; they responded to the Villa Park defeat with an editorial that urged support of the young players. It was prescient and not just at the end of the season. By as early as September, United’s pups were playing a fantastic style of football that was different and refreshing to watch. Within a month of that Villa Park setback they won at champions Blackburn and FA Cup winners Everton.
There was the right blend of experience and youth, and that right blend eventually became perfect when Eric Cantona returned from his suspension (though even that, too, took a couple of months to work out).
The most prominent lesson learned in 1995 was the virtue of patience. Patience to see potential develop, patience to see it make mistakes and patience to see those young players establish relationships in the senior side which would help them settle and express themselves.
Which brings us to the exercising of this same quality in the modern situation. I would consider myself to be of patient disposition; I’m certainly supportive of the manager and I can see the talent we obviously have in the team.
On the other hand, investing patience in the supporting cast has become a masochistic exercise and is, as we have seen, unquestionably corrosive. It has reached a stage where it is uncomfortable to criticise. Because we have already seen what happens when Lindelof is given a run of games. We already know Harry Maguire is slow to turn and that we need a partner that will compensate as much as complement – that in itself is of tremendous worry.
We already know Shaw’s skillset and it doesn’t matter how fit he gets now. We already know Scott McTominay is better suited to disrupting the flow of a game rather than establishing it. We already know Paul Pogba, deep in the pitch, will give the ball away and hurt his own team more often than the opponent – whether it is Barnet or Barcelona. We know that Marcus Rashford is still learning, we know Dan James desperately needs a loan move or will see everything good disintegrate and we know that Anthony Martial could score 25 goals in a season and yet still can’t convince that he has that knack of turning no points into some points.
More concerning, we know that some of these players will just look to their left or right and shrug, because the next player isn’t pulling up any trees.
Some of those players mentioned there do have the potential to be in a better United side rather than dragging it down. It does no good continuing to make serious complaints about the above because in the modern climate they are dressed up with the undertone of potential and patience. Maybe they could change. Maybe – it’s just a thought – these are simply the players they are.
Investing in the next three years of Shaw, Lindelof and Pogba for example is to look at the last three and to ask for a repeat. Can you say that it would be good enough?
And good enough for what? A traditional United side challenging at the top? A United side solidly in the top four? A United side challenging for the top four? Or a United side making up the numbers in the top six? The latter seems the likeliest, as it has been for the last few years.
The corrosive side is that it eats away at the good. Maguire’s positive qualities may as well count for nought considering how poor United were at the back and in distribution yesterday. Bruno Fernandes played his poorest game for the club and suddenly you can appreciate why the Cantona comparisons can be so harmful to a player prone to form like most mortals. Fosu-Mensah’s average game might have been a very good game if the team around him were better but his long-term chances – already difficult – will be harmed by what happened. The likes of Martial and Rashford can coast because their place in the team is not at risk and they are not required to be top level strikers because that is not the level United operate at. The complacency with which United have operated in the transfer market has now begun to display a stranglehold on the team.
No, patience is only worth it when you can forecast the benefit of persistence and at United, there is no benefit in that regard. Solskjaer knows that. He knows that ultimately he will pay the price for this bizarre recruitment strategy which has undermined all the good work he has done; I was asked by one tweeter why I gave Ole a free ride in my match reaction yesterday and the truth is that he’s been thrown under the bus by the club and I don’t want to add to that by casting doubt or criticising.
No, he didn’t come out of yesterday with credit, but the bigger point is that we all know that the team has issues and as much as we could break down the tactical failure, some of the players just aren’t good enough and those that are don’t have any genuine pressure on them. Yes, he should probably not have started McTominay – as it turned out, he was probably the best of a poor midfield, though that was not saying much.
Supporters are sympathetic to the party line that the club won’t overpay in the current climate (although they are forced to stomach that whilst they are asked to pay between £70 and £100 each for three new shirts). So that explains Jadon Sancho. There’s no new stand, there’s not even significant maintenance at the stadium. There’s just Swiss Ramble reminding anyone who still needs to be reminded that the reason United won’t spend the money on Jadon Sancho is because it would affect the tens of millions drained out of the club every single year by the owners for their own personal gain.
But it is insulting to any fan to suggest that an improvement couldn’t be made on the squad or team that played yesterday considering how many players have moved this summer or have been available for reasonable fees. Thiago Silva and Willian cost nothing. Thiago and Nathan Ake followed Hakim Ziyech in sensibly priced and logical transfers. Max Aarons and even Lewis Dunk – two players from lower reaches that could have improved United yesterday. James Rodrigues and Gareth Bale have become sensible punts in this market, a speculative risk worth taking.
I’m not saying that all of those players should have been signed by United. It was just a list of eight that came easily to mind, across the spectrum, that in terms of quality would definitely have added something. United are not in the position where they only need to cherry pick the best players in Europe to improve their squad.
United fans are weary because whatever happens next is reactive and it undermines all of the settlement Ole put in place. It undermines the reason for qualifying for the Champions League in the first place.
There is a school of thought that suggests Solskjaer might have been in a stronger position to be backed if they had lost at Leicester on the final day.
Many are fickle and will forget if Sancho is signed at the fee Dortmund want. But Sancho will need time. Patience. And he will have enough to do concentrating on his own job. Signing Sancho doesn’t make Lindelof or Shaw better. It doesn’t change McTominay’s skillset.
And we need to be clear on the objective which has been lost. United need to strengthen in order to maintain where they finished last season. Competing for silverware seriously isn’t a reasonable expectation because of what we saw yesterday. That’s not a knee-jerk reaction – it’s a fair summary of the players.
The way Solskjaer had been building was smart. He was constructing a team. Solskjaer and Ferguson can’t but have noticed what’s happening at Anfield; Ferguson did something similar 15 years ago when he realised he couldn’t match the money of Chelsea so he constructed a team that would be better, at least, than the other eighteen in the league. He realised that they didn’t play Chelsea every week. And so it is at Liverpool; a model United could easily follow. It’s not rocket science. It does, however, require time, patience and investment.
Yes, you can be angry at the players for not being good enough. Yes, you can be angry at the manager for some poor selections and tactics. Is having that anger fair anymore? Is it fair to be frustrated that, for example, Victor Lindelof is Victor Lindelof and not Rio Ferdinand? Is it fair to be frustrated that Solskjaer is forced to pick him only because he’s more reliable over 38 games than the erratic alternatives?
Is it fair to be frustrated with Martial for not having that killer instinct when Solskjaer was encouraged to let Lukaku and Sanchez leave to reduce wages and the only alternative he was given was Ighalo? You could question Solskjaer’s decision in the identity of the player he chose, sure. But it was not like he was offered Robert Lewandowski; he wasn’t even offered a Oliver Giroud.
It is clear that if it were up to Solskjaer he would have continued to build his team accordingly and would have hopefully used the Champions League to attract a higher calibre of player. They are not at the point where they can look at the other seventeen teams and think they could beat all of them – and that is a damning indictment of the way the club has (or hasn’t) backed Ole, considering he finished above seventeen other teams last season.
United will probably respond to these present issues by spending. They can’t not. It will satiate some in the short term and to others it will merely reaffirm the idea that we’re stuck in a perpetual cycle.
This is no Alan Hansen moment. There is no flower waiting to bloom. And it is worth returning to the theme of the top to appreciate the sense in what Hansen was saying; it was only an absurdity, a break of convention, that made him wrong. If this United squad challenged that convention it would be making fools of all of us – but that won’t happen.
So we are doomed to be stuck in that perpetual cycle whatever may come; still, in order for this season to at least have some positive purpose, United are going to need to be proactive rather than reactive. If they aren’t, then Solskjaer is likely to be the one paying the ultimate consequence. That’s the cycle.