Football Features

The key problems plaguing Man Utd’s progress – and how to solve them

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 15:45, 6 May 2019

So after sacking José Mourinho and all those months of optimism, Manchester United are going to finish sixth.

United have won just two of the 11 games they have played since beating PSG two months ago. In that time they have eaten up seven defeats, been knocked out of two cup competitions and lost the fourth-place spot that seemed destined to be theirs – meaning next season they will have to settle for Europa League football.

In essence, the last three seasons (split between Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer) have been a massive waste of time and United are right back where they started in 2016 when they first appointed the Portuguese. Not that everything is his fault, and he did win the club two trophies, but there is something so fitting that Mourinho literally took United nowhere during his time in charge.

It’s not that the club is bad, lots of teams are bad – it’s that they are trying so desperately to be good. But they’re trying in all the wrong ways. Clubs can sometime spin their wheels (i.e. Arsenal 2010-2018) but to spend hundreds of millions to bring in new players and end up basically back where you started just three years later is true absurdism.

But what the hell is wrong with Manchester United? What are the problems at hand, and is there anything that Solskjaer can do to solve them? Obviously the ownership of the Glazer family is the inciting incident for all problems United are suffering, but that is an ill with no cure, so we have had a look at things United can change.

1. Inconsistent Star Men

First thing’s first, Manchester United’s big name players aren’t getting it done. The initial burst of brilliance under Solskjaer was a thrilling jolt to life from a once-great club. It seemed miraculous that Solskjaer could get United to play such enthralling stuff so quickly, but in actuality all he did was put trust in United’s one genuinely great unit: the attack.

Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, even Romelu Lukaku. These men roared into form with Ole at the wheel and carried United up the table and into the hearts of fans again. Paul Pogba became Mr. Everything, Rashford was scoring key goals, Lingard was a ceaseless engine of movement and when they needed an old-school No. 9 to drag them through tough times, Lukaku obliged.

But just as quickly as it all began, it faded away. The injury-hit disaster of the Liverpool game seems to have been the turning point, with the effects not being felt for a couple weeks after. That game took Lingard (and Anthony Martial) out of commission through injury, and it hobbled Rashford that limited his movement in such a way that all his sharpness fell away.

Players have all been out and come back, but none of them have found anything like their previous level. The fact that it’s all of them indicates a problem in general; United are a side full of streaky players, and that is something Solskjaer must address if he is to turn things around.

How can he do that? The first obvious answer is fitness. A raft of muscle injuries are what precipitated the loss in form, and Solskjaer lamented his players’ lack of fitness as he sought to take United’s pace of play from leisurely Sunday strolls in the garden to full-on Friday night sprints for the last bus.

So a good summer of rest and a thorough pre-season should get all the players in the right frame of mind to focus on delivering for the club. Oh, and he could even ship out anyone who doesn’t fancy being United – that’s the second answer. There will no doubt be players that aren’t too hyped for 2019/20 at Old Trafford, and getting such men out and bringing motivated men in is huge.

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2. Abysmal Squad Quality

United will have to be careful who they get rid of, though, because this is not a club that can afford to lose any quality it has on the pitch. That said, there’s not much of that to go around if we’re being perfectly honest. Alright, attack is kinda great, albeit there’s no natural winger in the squad, nor someone who plays right-wing to a high level. So that’s a need.

But they have serious issues deeper on the field. In midfield they have Pogba, who is great – Scott McTominay, who is good – and Fred, who is talented but needs confidence. There’s also Andreas Pereira who is varying degrees of useful but everyone else is either rubbish or, like Ander Herrera, about to depart. And in defence everyone bar Victor Lindelof and Luke Shaw is a shambles and Shaw is only barely not a shambles as well. It’s pretty ugly.

Solskjaer’s solution? Hit the transfer market. As a matter of urgency United need to sign a centre-back, a right-back and a defensive midfielder and they’ve all got to be top-class starter level. They also probably need a left-back, a right-winger and a centre midfielder.

Kalidou Koulibaly is the obvious choice for defence. Physically, technically and mentally dominant he’s also the organising force United crave at the back. Aaron Wan-Bissaka is a no-brainer at right-back too. The young Englishman is a duel master and would give United so much security down the right. On the left you have to look at someone like Junior Firpo, a player who could come in and compete with Shaw.

The back-up/alternative central midfielder to Herrera could be anyone. Adrien Rabiot is available on a free transfer from PSG and would be a breath of fresh air, but equally United could look at someone like Declan Rice. In terms of right-wing, Jadon Sancho is the standout name and whilst Ed Woodward would love to recruit the England superstar he would take-up a hefty chunk of the transfer budget and it is arguably the least important reinforcement United need to make.

The defensive midfielder, however, is the key of keys. Without this, nothing gets done. United need someone who can control games securely from the base of midfield, allowing Fred and McTominay to play more box-to-box roles alongside Pogba, adding real drive to United’s midfield. But also someone who can adequately shield the United defence from counter-attacks.

The obvious answer here is Ivan Rakitic. A man about to win his fourth La Liga title in five years with Barcelona. The Croatian is a masterful midfielder, pure world-class. He can defend at the base of midfield, keeping things secure – but is also able to launch attacks with an impressive range of passing and get forward to score goals.

His only weakness is that he doesn’t perfectly fit Barça’s style of play whilst new signing Frenkie de Jong very much does. If the Blaugrana board are looking to move Rakitic on, and rumours indicate they’d be open to the idea, then United should try and bring him in. He’d add quality and leadership instantly.

3. No Sporting Director

United have basically not improved since Mourinho took over. They’ve signed players and won trophies but are back where they started. Except now they’ve got a positive young manager who loves the club and attacking football, but so many of the difficulties he has faced have come from trying to mid-season course-correct from a talented but monstrously misguided managerial appointment in Mourinho.

If Solskjaer was a reaction to Mourinho, then Mourinho was a reaction to Louis van Gaal, who was a long-term project coach whose endgame wasn’t really supported by the club as they signed flashy short-term players that didn’t fit his system. And even Van Gaal’s brilliance came as a reaction to the completely and utterly out-of-his-depth David Moyes; a man whose middle name may as well be mediocrity.

Flip-flapping between different managers like this results in a chaotic squad. A squad that is assembled patchwork style by a whole host of different coaches, each of whom have different ideas and philosophies about what to do and how to do it. Angel Di Maria was awful under Van Gaal but would have thrived under Mourinho. It’s so odd that Henrikh Mkhitaryan joined under Mourinho because he was much more suited to Van Gaal and even Solskjaer.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe recently concluded a 22-film Infinity Saga with Avengers: Endgame. It was a masterful feat in film-making because they really did tell one large narrative over 22 films, each of them very different with their own creators who were free to do whatever they wanted within their own adventure. There was a degree of homogeneity, sure, but that led to a consistency of quality that literally no one in the entertainment industry can even come close to matching.

Why is that? The leadership of Kevin Feige. The producer is the one who hires (and sometimes fires) the directors of every Marvel film. He is the one in control of the overall vision, which is why that vision remained consistent in the process of telling that one large narrative. This is somewhat reminiscent of the best years under Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, where the great Scot would let his assistants take training whilst he (and David Gill) oversaw the larger focus and mission. But it’s not true of United today.

No, United today are more like the DC slate of films. Lurching wildly from one stupid bit of nonsense to another. Sure some of their ideas are good, great even (though a lot are very, very bad). And the vision is bold, but it’s also incoherent. They change films based on negative fan reaction to previous ones, and all that ends up doing is damning the new film because it’s not being allowed to be itself.

Why? Because DC lack a Kevin Feige. Just like Manchester United lack a Ferguson. Not a manager, Ferguson was never that in a conventional sense and besides, football has changed enormously since his heydey. A sporting director, that’s what United need. One man who can remain in place to ensure that managers are hired because their individual vision fit the club’s overall philosophy. Who can decide which players are signed, again, based on how well they fit the club.

All Solskjaer can do to solve this problem, sadly, is lobby the Glazers and Ed Woodward (who is technically in that role now but who lacks any and all understanding of football needed to make this role work) to sort it out as soon as possible. That he has to lobby for Woodward – his boss – to have less control doesn’t bode well, but he has to do it.

The fact that they appointed Solskjaer (permanently) before getting a sporting director is ludicrous. Even if the fans loved the appointment of Solskjaer, the simple act of not putting a sporting director in place before making it official just seemed so odd and almost undermined the position for whoever takes it now. But they do need someone to take it.

“It would be nice if the club got an experienced sporting director and recruit team to help him,” Gary Neville said on Sky Sports, furious at United capitulating to Huddersfield at the weekend. “Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has had enough, ‘I’ll just stick a kid on, I might as well'” he said, referring to Solskjaer taking off the club’s highest earner and worst performer Alexis Sánchez to bring on a youngster, Tahith Chong, even before the hour mark at the John Smith’s Stadium.

Manchester United have been in a malaise ever since Ferguson left the club in 2013, but it’s now a malaise that appears to be repeating itself in a loop à la Groundhog Day. And if United don’t act soon to remedy these key problems, then what was initially seen as a blip could turn into years and years in the footballing wilderness.