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Man United’s struggles show lack of success now and limited hope

Manchester United's Struggles

Photo by Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images

Manchester United’s struggles draw traces since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson from Old Trafford. David Moyes and Louis van Gaal disappointed in their two-year tenures. However, recent dilemmas show lack of challenging today while simultaneously pretending there is a future in sight.

José Mourinho inexplicably left top-scoring Belgian international center forward Romelu Lukaku out of the 2018 FA Cup Final squad. United lost that game, 1-0, to Chelsea courtesy of a 22nd-minute penalty from Eden Hazard.team that lost, 0-1, to Chelsea, and that 22nd minute Eden Hazard penalty in the FA Cup Final of 2018.

The loss signaled the continuation of a rot surrounding the most domestically successful club in English history. In fact, Manchester United went without a trophy that season. Then, United dismissed the Special One halfway through his third season at the helm.

An uninspired group

Ole Gunnar Solskjær is a Manchester United legend. The Norwegian scored the last-minute, game-winning goal to beat Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League Final. Perhaps, his appointment came as an inspirational one.

Malcom Glazer’s family, the American owners, propped up Manchester United to be one of the most valuable sport entities in the world. There is a thought that Manchester United’s struggles did not come at the forefront of his agenda. Regardless, Solskjær’s appointment as manager showed a commitment to the success of yesteryear.

Moreover, the Glazer family also owns the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Tampa Bay won the 2021 Super Bowl, Therefore, when committed, the Glazer group can provide a template for success. Undoubtedly, it is near impossible to compare European soccer and the NFL, but the results are there.

READ MORE: Glazers promise greater fan input at Manchester United decision making.

While Malcolm Glazer oversees the Buccaneers, his sons, Joel and Avram, own a majority stake of Manchester United.

Managerial change

Manchester United’s immediate success following Solskjær’s takeover demonstrated a reversal of club fortunes. Using a team created by his predecessor, Solskjær’s Manchester United accomplished an unprecedented feat in the Champions League.

For one, the club reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League. That, in itself, is not a remarkable achievement. But, the manner in which the club reached that spot is remarkable.

Solskjær, who took over just before Christmas in 2018, inherited Mourinho’s squad. Manchester United then lost at home, 2-0, at the hands of one of the Champions League favorites, PSG. For the first time in the history of that competition, a team overturned a 2-0 home defeat in the first leg to win on aggregate. Marcus Rashford’s 94th-minute penalty shocked the Parisian crowd to win 3-1 on the night. United advanced via away goals following a 3-3 tie on aggregate.

Then, FC Barcelona manhandled United with a 4-0 demolition over two legs. Pundits, and the Glazers, reserved criticism. Rather, everyone wanted to see how the Norwegian could do in one full term.

José Mourinho’s legacy

We cannot understate Mourinho’s legacy at Old Trafford. For example, the Portuguese did bring some success. A dramatic League Cup win over Southampton preceded a Europa League victory against Ajax. Moreover, this all came in his first season in 2016-17.

The aura of Mourinho combined with the prestige of United of the previous 25 years pulled in a phenomenal supporting cast for that first season.

Zlatan Ibrahimović, the inspirational free transfer from PSG, aged 34, brought life to the stands with his ineffable goal-scoring talent. Paul Pogba, who left under the reign of Sir Alex Ferguson, returned to Old Trafford. At his departure, he was just an 18-year-old talent with exorbitant potential. He returned with a price tag of $115 million with his four Serie A titles and a selection to the UEFA Team of the Year in 2015.

However, José lacked patience and passion with these players. Ibrahimović had a nagging cruciate ligament injury that sidelined him for much of the 2017-18 campaign. Eventually, the forward transferred on a free to the MLS’s LA Galaxy. The Swede confounded doubters about his fitness. In the U.S., he scored 22 and 30 goals in consecutive terms. Then, he returned to Europe with AC Milan, bagging 25 goals over two seasons.

Back at Old Trafford, Mourinho’s replacement for Ibrahimović was Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian came over from Everton for a fee of roughly $93 million. Lukaku scored 16 league goals in 2017-18 to lead the Red Devils. Even then, he did not make the FA Cup Final squad.

Solskjær overhauls Mourinho’s roster

Eventually, Lukaku found the exit door, this time under Solskjær’s control. Lukaku’s 12 goals did not stop his $81 million transfer to Inter Milan. Similarly, talents acquired during Mourinho’s time departed. Alexis Sanchez, Matteo Darmian and longtime United fullback Ashley Young all departed Old Trafford following Mourinho’s dismissal.

Next, a pair of players acquired even before Mourinho left the club. Marouane Fellaini and Daley Blind, brought in by Moyes and van Gaal respectively, played integral roles in Manchester United’s Europa League victory under Mourinho. Both also featured in the team that won Manchester United’s FA Cup trophy in 2016.

Therefore, six players that featured heavily prior to Solskjær’s arrival no longer played at Old Trafford.Even then, some players obviously stayed to work under the Norwegian. Paul Pogba still dons the famous red kit. Fred, who Mourinho bought in his last transfer window before his ousting, frequently joins Pogba in patrolling the midfield.

However, Manchester United’s struggles did not necessarily evaporate with their depature. Once again, the Mancunians failed to win a trophy. Once again, the club’s best attempt came in the lower European competition. Villarreal took Manchester United to penalties. There, it went all the way to the goalkeepers without a miss. David de Gea, Manchester United’s goalkeeper and longest-tenured player currently, had his spot kick saved. He was the only player of the 22 to take a penalty that did not score. 

Arrivals and development with new management

Marcus Rashford broke onto the scene under Louis van Gaal. Despite a Manchester United’s struggles under the Dutchman, he actively promoted the youth and gave a number of players, including Rashford, opportunities. Rashford grew on his own, but continued his goal-scoring development with a former striker at the helm.

Solskjær aided his academy product by bringing in a midfield maestro. Bruno Fernandes arrived in Manchester in the middle of Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s first full season. He came with a price tag of almost $70 million. The Portuguese is worth that amount and likely much more. Upon his arrival, Bruno Fernandes created an instant impact in creating chances and all-around scoring.

Harry Maguire

Ole attempted to resolve defensive issues with the arrival of Harry Maguire from Leicester City on August 5, 2019, for $95 million. Consequently, Maguire now holds the United captaincy.

Offensively, a number of plays have come and gone. Daniel James came over from Swansea as one of Solskjær’s first arrivals. Relatively speaking, he underperformed. Prior to the 2021/22 season, he transferred over to Leeds United. Similar to Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood burst onto the scene in recent seasons. Currently, the now-20-year-old Englishman has 35 goals in his just-over-two seasons as a first-team player. Next, Edinson Cavani arrived on a free from PSG ahead of the 2020/21 season. Cavani took on the honor and burden of donning the No. 7 shirt in his first season. His 17 goals in 39 appearances in his first season was a decent return.

The prodigal son returns

Finally, the major acquisition under Solskjær is surely the return of Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese magnifico last played for Manchester United in a Champions League Final loss to Barcelona. His fee of $16.5 million to return to Old Trafford could not be passed up. In seven appearances, he has five goals for the Red Devils.

READ MORE: Cristiano Ronaldo’s transfer to Manchester United.

Prior to Ronaldo, Manchester United made big moves. For example, the club acquired Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund and Raphael Varane from Real Madrid. Combined, the transfer fees for just those two players exceeded $135 million.

Essentially, there was an aura of success on the horizon for the red side of Manchester. After all, the club finished second in the 2020/21 Premier League table. Albeit, they sat 12 points adrift of their in-town rivals.

Manchester United’s struggles despite spending

Let’s start by saying success is relative. For example, success for a club like Norwich would be to finish in the top-half of the Premier League. That would spell a great season for the Canaries. Manchester United’s indicator of success is trophies. Domestic via the Premier League and continental with the Champions League.

Recently, Manchester United’s struggles put them out of the running for either despite major arrivals to the club.

Solskjaer’s first full season in charge, 2019-20, ended with a third-place finish in the Premier League. Additionally, the club reached, but did not exceed, the semifinals of each cup competition. First off, a 3-1 home loss to rivals Manchester City left too tall of a mountain to climb. Then, in the FA Cup, Chelsea knocked off the Red Devils, 1-0. Finally, in a one-leg edition of the Europa League due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sevilla bested Manchester United, 2-1, in the Cologne.

A top-four finish in the league is good, but not to United standards. Similarly, many clubs would be content with semifinals appearances in three competitions in the same season. Still, United walked away with zero trophies.

A season later, Manchester United improved slightly. They reached the Europa League final but lost. Moreover, the club’s appearance in that competition came on the heels of an embarassing third-place finish in their group in the Champions League. Notably, United fell to İstanbul Başakşehir, 2-1, setting the club behind the pace of RB Leipzig and PSG, both of which advanced. Yet, as stated previously, United finished second in the league.

Questionable Selection and Substitutions

Often criticized for his team selection, Solskjær’s squad created some turmoil at specific positions. The attacking threats at Manchester United are all solid talents, but it is impossible to play them all together. For example, Jadon Sancho and Cristiano Ronaldo both arrived in the Summer 2021 transfer window. Both players are wingers, creating a nice pairing. on the flanks centered around Rashford, Cavani or Greenwood.

Perhaps, Solskjær wanted to mirror the success of David Beckham and Ryan Giggs on the flanks. The pair dominated England for years and yielded the 1999 Champions League. In fact, it was often Solskjær himself deployed between the two.

However, Solskjær ignored the potential Pogba-Fernandes midfield with Sancho and Ronaldo on the wings. Instead, Pogba, a career midfielder, often occupies one of the wings. His midfield goes around Scott McTominay and Fred, a much-maligned pairing among United supporters. Creativity then runs solely through Fernandes. Of course, he is a talisman in the midfield, and his goal contribution record shows that. But, it is still dependency on one player’s ability. 

If a strategy works, then it is hard to complain about it. Also, Ole built up a deep and talented squad. The strategy of depth with five or more substitutes available makes sense. However, timing of these changes was the issue.

Manchester United’s struggles may have been minimized with proper substitutions. Pressure goes to the manager to explain why he may have left a certain player out, or a certain player on.

Given the fact that United’s semifinal defeats and inability to produce a Final climax were ultimately the result of a lack of goals, temerity could be seen as Solskjær’s major shortcoming. In essence, he opted for sticking to his guns and looking surehanded instead of making changes to look weary.

Issues arising because of depth?

Photo credit: AFP.

Undoubtedly, Ole built a team and a squad. Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s arrival from Crystal Palace filled the shaky right back slot. Brazilian Alex Telles was signed from FC Porto for to give England’s Luke Shaw competition for the left back berth.

As stated previously, there is immense potential for options throughout the field. Alex Telles, CB Axel Tuanzebe, Fred, Dan James and Juan Mata all came off the bench in the recent Europa League final loss to Villarreal. Of course, each player scored their penalty to go along with a handful of time on the field.

Yet, the earliest of the substitutions came in the 100th minute, Fred replacing Mason Greenwood.

The problem with having a large squad is which players to select in order to give the team the best chance of success. Alex Ferguson’s advice to Solskjær following a string of tough performances was simple. 

“You should always start with your best player,” Ferguson told Khabib Nurmagomedov following a 1-1 draw with Everton.

The draw compounded a 1-0 loss at home to West Ham in the third round of the League Cup.

Solskjær’s strategy was to field a young team in a lesser-prioritized competition. The young team would gain a valuable set of experience against Premier League opposition, sure. However, this puts the aim of silverware in the back of the manager and team’s mind. Regardless of the tournament’s prestige, it is an important tournament for a club and manager without a major trophy since Solskjær’s appointment.

There is a false belief in looking to the future. It is time to stop pretending about looking forward and focus on the now.

Manchester United’s struggles are well-documented. The squad is there, it now comes down to the manager to right the ship and deliver the glory this club expects.

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