There is good news and bad news for Manchester United supporters right now, even though Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team go into the international break having posted the club’s worst start to a season since 1992-93.
The good news: having identified the need to weed out under-performing (and in some cases, non-performing) players, things will eventually get better at Old Trafford. The bad news: there is a real danger of things actually getting worse before light appears at the end of a long, dark tunnel for the most successful club of the Premier League era.
An uninspiring draw against Wolves and another at Southampton, either side of the 2-1 defeat at home to Crystal Palace, are more reflective of where United are at right now than the 4-0 opening-weekend victory against Chelsea. And with an impressive Leicester City next up at Old Trafford on Sept. 14 after the international break, the pressure is already beginning to build on Solskjaer and his players, who face an almighty battle to secure a top-four finish this season.
There is a strong argument to suggest that this current United team (and squad) is the weakest seen at Old Trafford in 30 years. For all the positive spin applied to recent performances by Solskjaer, it would be naïve to suggest that a start of one win, two draws and a defeat from their opening four games is nothing more than a blip.
Back in 1992-93, when United began the inaugural Premier League campaign with two defeats, one draw and a win, they were able to climb off the canvas to go on and win the title, the club’s first since 1967. But not even the most optimistic United supporter, player or coach would claim that the Class of 2019 has the ability to emulate Sir Alex Ferguson’s team of 27 years ago.
Some might contest the suggestion that this is the weakest United team in three decades by pointing to the side that finished seventh under David Moyes in 2013-14, but that team had the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney to call upon. Solskjaer’s team boasts no such depth of experience or quality, and that is mainly due to the hapless, and at times disastrous, recruitment of players since the turn of the decade.
Make no mistake, the problems facing United now can be traced back to before Ferguson retired in 2013, with the exits of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez in 2009 proving to be the start of the slide, when star players were repeatedly replaced with inferior signings. But this summer’s transfer business has left the United squad looking as though it has been hollowed out and, while admirable and sensible as a long-term strategy, the decision to clear out the deadwood and give youth a chance is also a dangerous one in a competition as demanding and unforgiving as the Premier League.
Since January, Solskjaer has sanctioned the departures of Marouane Fellaini, Antonio Valencia, Ander Herrera, Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez, Chris Smalling and Matteo Darmian, with only Harry Maguire, Daniel James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka being added to the squad. Mason Greenwood, 17, has been promoted to the first team, with Tahith Chong, 19, also given an opportunity to prove himself by Solskjaer.
Greenwood and Chong may develop into world-beaters, but neither is yet ready to shoulder the burden of playing for Manchester United, and the pressure could prove incredibly heavy for Greenwood should either of the club’s two senior forwards, Marcus Rashford or Anthony Martial, be sidelined at any time this season.
Solskjaer and Man United are slowly refreshing a squad in dire need of major changes but the slow pace and lack of depth could mean they fall a lot further before they rise. GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images
In midfield, there is nobody to cover for Paul Pogba should he be injured or suspended, while a defence which had seven centre-backs prior to Smalling’s loan move to Roma still relies on converted winger Ashley Young, now 34, to fill in for full-backs Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw.
United clearly need to reshape and rebuild their squad, but by allowing so many players to leave — particularly after the window for signing new ones has closed — is a huge risk and possibly even negligent. Solskjaer’s squad is an injury away from a crisis in every area of the pitch, but they must somehow safely navigate the team through to the January transfer window without suffering the kind of injury and form setbacks that afflict every side.
Had United been able to appoint a technical director — they have now been actively looking for one for over nine months — the gaping holes that have appeared in the squad may have been filled before they appeared, but perhaps that is wishful thinking at a club where, according to ESPN FC sources, Martial was retained because he is the favourite player of co-chairman Joel Glazer, and Marcos Rojo, who made just three starts last season, had a move blocked to Everton because the owners did not agree with the sale.
Solskjaer, meanwhile, is on board with the plan to reshape the squad, but he also admitted during preseason that he would need a replacement up front if Lukaku was sold. No replacement arrived, however, and Sanchez also left; rather than having one in and one out, United had two out and none in up front. They have also allowed two experienced midfielders to leave without replacements and sold two right-backs with just one coming in.
United believe it could take as many as four transfer windows before their squad is competitive again, but they seem to have done all of the cutting this summer without realising the need for depth. It is a bold strategy, but with an inexperienced manager at the helm and too many youngsters in key positions, the short-term pain could stifle the intended long-term gain.