Assessing the state of various emergencies at Manchester United – Wayne Barton

If you were placated by the signings made by Manchester United on transfer deadline day, then firstly I admire your calm disposition, and secondly, I would have to ask if I could share whatever you’re on.

This is nothing against the new players we’ll be watching ply their trade in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team in the coming weeks.

We’ll all have to give them a chance and hope that they perform better than what is expected. That expectation is based on what has happened before and a gradual reshaping of our ambition to realism. We’ve signed experienced forwards for a short term stint before. We’ve signed defenders from Portugal before. It’s hit and miss to be fair.

So we’ll have to hope that Alex Telles is a significant upgrade on Luke Shaw and not express concern about the fact Porto were happy to let him go for a modest fee. I’d at least rather do that than continue criticising, as some are doing, regarding the player United were supposedly interested in if that deal didn’t come off. We’ll have to hope Cavani is more Zlatan than Sanchez.

Patience has become a key trait for United supporters. You’ve either got it or you haven’t. If you listen to the Talking Devils podcast you might be familiar with a conversation I’ll often return to with Paul Parker – the ‘emergencies’ at Manchester United.

I thought, now we know what the composition of the squad is, we’d look at how that currently sits.

I will use a simple system to give my assessment. Red denotes a major emergency at the club – an issue that needs immediate redress and is holding the club back from progression. Amber is close to emergency – there is either concern over form, time is an issue, or maybe another factor. Yellow is fine for the moment – could be better, this situation could be healthier, but there are probably one or two external factors happening around this to consider as well. Green is good health, nothing needs to change.

Ownership

Of course this is the biggest emergency at the club. There has been a clear demonstration over the last five years that the ambition is to consolidate in the Champions League spots and not to challenge as the club are historically used to doing. That’s just the footballing side.

It ought to be a crime to do what the owners have done – it should not be the case that anyone is able to take almost £2bn out of a club and not reinvest a penny.

So yes, it’s an emergency. United fans are confronted with the hypothetical political quandary of supporting a regime like the City owners, or, watching the club be ravaged from the inside. They have no choice either way. So, what will convince the owners to sell up?

Sad to say that the best case scenario for this is a quick and rapid descent. Worse than now. It would probably take a turnover of two more managers and more expensive mistakes, it would take an established top six that doesn’t include United and also an admission that it would be unlikely for United to break into it for three or four years. If there was no prospect of greater revenue to make the club appealing only then would the owners be tempted to sell, realistically.

So if they won’t go, what about Woodward? He’s effectively part of the family – as unlikely to be removed as they are. Matt Judge, on the other hand, might pay the public price for the failures above him if they want to be seen as doing something.

But if Judge goes, will anything really change? Hand on heart I can’t say that it would.

The matter of grave concern in the immediate moment is the last two days of the transfer window. All talk of placing faith in the process and building a stable club, all talk of how the coronavirus impacted the club – all proven to be nonsense by a depressingly familiar random transfer foray. It seems as if Woodward has reverted to type, and when that’s the case, you should strap in for another two years of uncertainty.

Obviously, in this category, it’s a “red” emergency, but it has been this way for years and is a condition the playing side of the club has to deal with.

Manager

I’ve written on these pages before that it really doesn’t matter who the manager is, really. Some will like him. Some won’t. Some will want to give him time. Others won’t. It depends both on the identity of the manager and the personality of the supporter.

For instance, there are those who think you either support Solskjaer or you supported Jose. There’s no and, in the eyes of those people – but I was in the ‘and’ category and I know plenty of fans who were. They also supported Van Gaal until he was dismissed.

It doesn’t mean you can’t see the faults. That you can’t have concern. Over the years I’ve seen two identical arguments – it’s not Jose’s fault about the defence and it’s not Ole’s fault. Those in the separate camps blame the other and defend their favourite! Luke Shaw was technically brought in under Van Gaal, so too Rojo, Bailly and Lindelof were signed by Jose, Maguire obviously by Ole. Just because there’s blame to go around doesn’t mean that the problems don’t need fixing.

That then leads us to ‘is Ole the man to fix it’ and the theme of this piece is – is the managerial situation an emergency that United need to address. It’s a head versus heart scenario, possibly manipulated in this way by Woodward when he hired Solskjaer to minimise dissent. The heart wants him to come good. The head looks at it and thinks the worm has turned. But the head also looks at the man hiring and firing and understands he doesn’t know what’s best for the club.

Would another man – let’s say Pochettino – do better? Would he have got higher than third last season? We can say no. Would he be better tactically than Ole? Probably on balance, although let’s not pretend Pochettino was renowned as a mastermind at Spurs.

Solskjaer is choosing the players. He’s overseen the turnover. He’s now at least partly responsible for the squad he selects from. If he doesn’t see the errors that we all see to strengthen them in the transfer market that’s one thing. If he isn’t able to use his nous to construct a team where the stronger part protects the weaker parts then that is going to count against him now.

Is it an emergency? Yes, it is. Ole is fighting to keep his job – the start of the season has shown that. United have been the poorer team in all of their league games.

They conceded 14 chances against Palace, 18 to Brighton and 22 to Spurs to average it out at 18 a game. They could easily have conceded six goals in each of them and could not have argued. Solskjaer would already have gone if that had happened. It’s close to untenable – but how close is a matter for interpretation for Woodward, who has never had timing as his strong point.

As we are with many of the players, we’re in a situation (well, most of us are) hoping for a turnaround but knowing in reality it is not likely.

Solskjaer’s register on the emergency scale? Despite the concern over the defeats it’s not as bad as the last Christmas under Van Gaal or the last three months under Jose. But it’s one or two damaging defeats away from that, and considering the way the club didn’t back him properly, it’s easy to see them coming. Amber.

Squad

Defence

Another topic on this week’s Talking Devils podcast was – how many of these players could you envisage being here in three years, if we all agree that three years is a reasonable time to expect United to be challenging again from this position. That’s not exactly the same as describing a position as an ‘emergency’. For example, Nemanja Matic – now there is a player who can divide opinion. But whether you think he should be replaced now or not, it’s unrealistic to say that he would be playing that crucial role in the midfield in three years, so it’s pretty close to an emergency.

So, let’s start with the goalkeepers. De Gea’s best years – are they behind him? You would argue so, on his form this year, even if he’s relatively blameless for what’s been going on. Dean Henderson has looked safe in his cameos. No emergency here, but the goalkeeping situation at a club is always fluid. This is a yellow on the scale.

The defence – well, where do you begin? It’s not so much an emergency as it is a wildfire that’s been burning for two years.

At right-back there’s Aaron Wan-Bissaka. It’s not been a great start to the season. Defensively he’s been pulled around though there is never any telling how much of that is down to the poor positioning of others around him. Last season he was defensively brilliant so you have to give him the benefit of the doubt. He also improved as the year went on offensively. His contribution in that area would be appreciated more if it was seen as a bonus, as it should be in a team doing its job in all areas.

When there is a right-back in a rival team who is a main creative outlet, he’s bound to suffer from comparison – especially when the shortcomings in the team elsewhere create more pressure on the right-back (!!!) to create. Telles on the other side looks to have a decent cross. It could create a better balance.

Wan-Bissaka needs to improve but it’s not an emergency. He is worth extra investment. Could he be a centre-back? I asked Richard Shaw, his youth team coach at Palace and he says no. Maybe the right sider on a 3? A yellow for AWB.

That’s a poser for Ole although the indication is there is no safety in numbers when it comes to United’s defence. None seem to complement the other. The right-side of centre-half is the biggest emergency at the club. Victor Lindelof is more assured than Eric Bailly on the ball and Bailly has more presence and authority defending, but neither will be able to push on from their current position.

Another phrase I use in the podcast – it will come up again in this piece – looking at the next three years you either have to look at the last three or hope for potential to develop. Bailly and Lindelof are old enough for us to look back at the last three. Bailly can’t be trusted for a long run and Lindelof’s consistent run alongside Maguire has only eroded in terms of stability. This area is obviously red.

Maguire, then. He was named captain by Ole as he was his signing and at the time it seemed like it might turn around a dip in form that was allegedly caused by a hip injury. Maguire played on until the enforced break. It hasn’t been great since. Teams are targeting him and United’s management and/or defence isn’t intelligent enough to combat or compensate. He is pulled out of position into areas where he is forced to turn and by then it’s always too late.

The jury is out – there’s a talented defender in there but it’s deeply concerning that he requires others to compensate for his shortcomings instead of his ability raising others around him. Game-by-game, it feels as if the problem is worsening, and with no senior central defender signed in the window, we’re hoping for Tuanzebe or Mengi to come in and fix the problem. With Maguire there is the mitigating circumstance that the positioning sense of the players either side of him has been so poor that he’s always been exposed. So really, through the concern over others, Maguire earns the benefit of the doubt – but, as an emergency, let’s just say we’ve pressed 9, 9, and hovering the finger over the other. Amber.

Ole has addressed what has happened at left-back. Alex Telles arrives with a lot of hope. It was an emergency – as great as the other hole in defence – and we’ll have to wait and see. The feeling is that Telles is a bandaid rather than an Evra. Yellow.

Midfield

The Matic issue has been discussed. It’s close to an emergency here. We’ll go with yellow only because there are areas around Matic which are contributing to his lack of pace being exposed. Neither Fred or Scott McTominay have the positional intelligence and discipline to act in the same role as Matic. You could argue that a better defence wouldn’t need that – but it’s not a better defence, so there you go. Still, there remains hope and plenty of raw talent there to hopefully find a succession plan within what we have. Yellow, with flickers of amber.

And it’s amber with flickers of red for general feel of the central midfield. Going back to the theme of the last three to the next three – a re-run of the last three years of Paul Pogba is not anything anyone at Manchester United wants to see. A run of two games consecutively in which he was impressive doesn’t come instantly to mind, much less a run of form consistently. There remains one nagging thing which stops this being a red – a strong defence makes everything better. Paul Pogba’s casual giveaways in midfield are all the more frustrating because the defence almost always concedes a chance.

But a solid midfield also makes a hell of a difference. And United are always bullied – whether it’s Brighton or Spurs. One can appreciate the individual qualities of each of the players but they do not ever seem to make a nice combination. As a collective it’s definitely an amber.

Attacking midfield

You could put Pogba in here. Certainly it’s the area of Bruno Fernandes and Juan Mata. And maybe of Van De Beek. There is some concern – Fernandes had such a strong early impact but can disappear from games. Mata seems much too slow to effect big games but when he is playing feels like the most technically gifted player on the books. It’s a green/yellow, the healthiest area in the club, but still needs to be better.

Wingers

Investment was made to sign Pellestri and Diallo, the latter of which will arrive in January with expectations to match the fee that was spent. United need a greater impact than that made by Dan James – otherwise what’s the point? They have to be held to high standards – again, otherwise, what’s the point? They are players for the future but are the players the club has decided to say are suitable for fixing one of the big problem areas at the club.

The right wing was a red – the signings have made it an amber/yellow. Marcus Rashford on the left owns that role and is a certified green – but that doesn’t mean he can afford to sit easy. His form has not always been great. United need him to use last year’s developmental season as a big breakthrough now.

Strikers

Anthony Martial enjoyed his best ever season in front of goal last year and still managed to carry with him all the valid criticisms of how he goes missing, doesn’t really make something out of nothing and is not a pure number 9. He gets a yellow – as does Edinson Cavani, because we just don’t know what to make of it. It could be green. It could be amber. As poor as Martial has sometimes been, it’s never been as dire as a red, although one could argue that is the striker’s luck due to errors not being as costly as further back in the side.

Odion Ighalo – well, it feels unfair to rank him, as he had a great start, suffered from not being used often after the enforced break, and now just looks like a former Watford striker on loan at Manchester United.

United’s attack is therefore yellow on the scale – and is clearly dependent on other elements of the team improving.

And that’s United’s issue, as much as the ‘red’ areas – the yellows could easily become more pressing the more we learn. Sometimes the yellows feel perilously close to ambers and reds.

It’s hoped that with a better left back and a better partner, Harry Maguire will improve drastically – but the nagging doubt is that he is now a part of the problem too. Solskjaer’s signings remain, probably, the greatest source of hope – and that is just as much hope placed in the unknown quantity than it is realistic expectation, using arguments like the above.

Then again, we are stuck in the ‘red’ cycle, let no-one be fooled otherwise; deadline day ought to have given a short sharp shock to those of us complacent enough to believe that the club were planning for the future, an alert that said “We’ve been here before.” And unfortunately here isn’t a place of comfort – it is indeed an emergency.

Wayne Barton

Wayne is a writer and producer. His numerous books on Manchester United include the authorised biography of Jimmy Murphy. He wrote and produced the BT Sport film 'Too Good To Go Down'. In 2015 he was described by the Independent as the 'leading writer on Manchester United' and former club chairman Martin Edwards has described him as 'the pre-eminent writer on the club'.

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