It’s safe to say that as far as Manchester United goes, the honeymoon is officially over. Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer is no longer so much at the wheel as underneath them, as his early success begins to look less like the foundations for a new beginning and merely the result of dressing room euphoria after the players had seen off Jose Mourinho.
The rush to give Solskjaer the job full-time is starting to look indecently hasty as United have dropped out of the Champions League, the FA Cup and are only being kept in the race for the top four by virtue of the misadventures of Chelsea and Arsenal. But perhaps we need to look a little deeper for the root causes?
If we take Arsenal as our text for today, then possibly we can see just where Solskjaer’s problems lie. Removing Arsene Wenger from the Emirates has had virtually no impact this term, in the same way that employing Ole at United has, since the shine wore off, done nothing for them. Which brings us to the common denominator at both clubs, the clubs that dominated English football either side of the turn of the century – it’s their players, rather than their managers, that aren’t good enough.
Take this test. Put together a combined XI from Liverpool and Manchester City. Now, having done that, see if you think any player from United or Arsenal, on this season’s form, would get in it. That’s what the Premier League’s players did for the PFA and, in the side announced last week, only Paul Pogba did and that, surely, is down to him having his brief purple patch at around the time the votes were cast. You simply can’t argue with that dismissal of United’s – or Arsenal’s – footballers.
United Not Good Enough
The brutal truth was exposed in a comical exchange after the Manchester derby last week between Roy Keane and Gary Neville on Sky – – where the two were violently agreeing with one another, Keane doing his best not to get up and strangle Neville in the process.
Keane argued that City wouldn’t be able to believe what an easy game it was for them, Neville saying that United’s performance was about as good as they can give at this point. Both are right and that, above all, sums up the scale of the task facing Solskjaer in the months ahead.
He’s got a dressing room full of players who simply aren’t good enough and which, even at their best, is miles behind Manchester City. That’s not to say that they don’t have good players. But if a club sees itself as the biggest and the best in the world – and if that isn’t Manchester United’s self image, then they’ve got even bigger problems than we think – good players aren’t good enough. They need world class players and lots of them.
If you look at the United side that played City last week, it’s a pale shadow of the teams Sir Alex Ferguson had. Darmian, Smalling, Lindelof, Fred, Pereira, none of them Manchester United quality. Young is too old, Shaw has never yet recovered from that horrific leg break. Of those who should be somewhere near the right quality, Pogba and de Gea are performing way below their standard, Sanchez has been a disaster, Rashford, Lukaku and Lingard lack consistency.
Since the end of Fergie’s reign, the problem at United, year in, year out, has been atrocious recruitment, spending too much money on players who aren’t up to the mark. That has to end, and soon, if United are to get back up to the mark, but there seem precious few signs of it under Ed Woodward. Talk of a sporting director coming in is at least a start, but it’s a very, very long way back from here.
How far? Well, as Pep Guardiola said last week, City have raised the bar now to the stage where if you want to win the Premier League, you are going to have to hit the mid-90s at the very least in terms of points. In the post-Fergie era, United have averaged 70 over the last five seasons and, at best, can only better that by a single point this term – maybe Mourinho was right when he talked of last term’s 81 point haul as being one of his greatest achievements. That average leaves them about 25 points short of mounting a credible challenge.
Given that litany of failure, perhaps it’s time to throw some players under the bus rather than one manager after another?