In the grim years since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, it has been easy to write off Manchester United‘s malaise as a hangover. A blip. A temporary fault to be fixed before normal service is resumed.
The reality is that United are entering their eighth season since Ferguson’s departure and still look as far away from winning the Premier League title as ever.
‘Crazier things have happened,’ said Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on Friday, perhaps not realising how that would come across. The prospect of Manchester United being champions of England should never be crazy.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer claimed Manchester United winning the league this year sounds ‘crazy’
After a short but turbulent summer, Paul Pogba and Co have started the season miserably
Even during the post-Fergie slump, however, opening day has always given United fans a degree of hope and optimism.
They went out against Crystal Palace on Saturday seeking a club-record sixth straight win at the start of a top-flight season. It usually takes a while for harsh reality to kick in and the club’s title hopes to fade.
In that sense, the 3-1 defeat by Palace was different. It was United’s worst opening-day result since losing by the same score at Aston Villa 25 years ago when Match of the Day pundit Alan Hansen famously declared that Ferguson would win nothing with kids and was proved spectacularly wrong.
The Red Devils were beaten 3-1 on the opening day by Crystal Palace in a dismal display
Will Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team confound their critics? They are certainly better than this defeat would suggest, but the gulf between Liverpool and Manchester City seems just as wide as before.
At this rate, United will once again be among the also-rans battling for a top-four place.
There is still time to get the season back on track but Solskjaer must resolve a number of issues.
SIGN OF THE TIMES
United have been frustrated over new signings with just two weeks to go until the transfer window closes.
They have allowed themselves to become embroiled in a war of attrition with Borussia Dortmund over Jadon Sancho and lost out to Tottenham for Gareth Bale and Sergio Reguilon.
It is another sign that United no longer have the pulling power to attract the world’s best players, nor the financial might in an economic market ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic.
United CEO Ed Woodward (top) has missed out on some key transfer targets this summer
Writing in Saturday’s match programme, United chief Ed Woodward admitted: ‘Disruption from the pandemic is continuing to create huge economic pressures from top to bottom of the football pyramid and, while we are fortunate to be in a more resilient position than most clubs, we are not immune from the impact.’
There is no doubt that Woodward has backed his managers: a net investment of £900m since Ferguson retired and £240m under Solskjaer alone following the £40m purchase of Donny van de Beek from Ajax.
But United need more investment before the window closes. A right-sided forward and left-back are the priorities, and a new centre-back would not go amiss either.
Does the lack of transfers show Manchester United do not have the pulling power to sign stars?
When United beat Palace 2-0 at Selhurst Park on July 16, they were on the crest of the wave. The form team since restart, Solskjaer’s side were unbeaten in 19 games, through to the semi-finals of the FA Cup and one of the favourites to win the Europa League.
Three days later, United went out of the cup to Chelsea at Wembley. Although they clinched a top-four place on the final day of the season, another semi-final defeat followed to Sevilla in the Europa League. ‘A bitter end’, Solskjaer called it.
Manchester United were on cloud nine when they beat Palace in July – now they’re in a crisis
No sooner had the players departed for a brief break than captain Harry Maguire was arrested on holiday in Greece, Mason Greenwood was sent home from Iceland in disgrace following his senior debut for England and Paul Pogba contracted coronavirus.
Combined with United’s frustration in the transfer market, the feelgood factor built up for much of 2020 dissipated over the course of two months and Saturday’s defeat has only added to the gloom.
It’s been a tricky summer for Man United, not helped by Harry Maguire’s troubles in Greece
It’s been a strange time for all Premier League clubs but none have been taxed more than United.
The run to the Europa League semis meant that Solskjaer’s side played on for three weeks after the end of the old Premier League season and started this one just a week later.
The squad were back together for only a few days due to international call-ups and played one friendly.
United’s players look tired following a late end to last season due to the Europa League
Solskjaer had to get the balance right between giving his players a rest during the shortest of off-seasons and regaining their sharpness in time for Palace. It was always going to be a big ask, and United looked well off the pace.
It is going to be a relentless campaign so they need to get up to speed as quickly as possible.
GLOVES ARE OFF
In theory, the decision to install Dean Henderson as No 2 to David de Gea is designed to bring out the best in both goalkeepers, but it could also present Solskjaer with a major headache.
Sergio Romero may have been satisfied sitting on the bench but the younger, more ambitious Henderson most certainly is not.
He has made no secret of his desire to be No 1 to further his international ambitions or seek first-team football elsewhere.
Does Solskjaer stick with David de Gea (right) in goal or twist with Dean Henderson (left)?
The 23-year-old will play in the Carabao Cup at Luton on Tuesday night but that will not be enough for him.
Can Solskjaer drop De Gea, Spain’s No 1 and United’s highest earner on £375,000-a-week? And, if not, how does he keep Henderson happy?
ON THE BACK FOOT
The Palace defeat raised serious questions about United’s defence, not least in the middle where Victor Lindelof and Maguire looked particularly vulnerable to their opponents’ pace.
Solskajer has already said that he will monitor Maguire to make sure his captain is not distracted by the ongoing legal proceedings over his arrest in Mykonos.
While Maguire was in jail last month, Lindelof was being hailed as a hero in Sweden for pursuing and catching a thief in his hometown of Vasteras. The Palace attack proved rather more elusive, however, and he was partly at fault for all three goals.
The erroneous Victor Lindelof (above) versus Palace shows United’s need for a centre-back
United need more pace in the middle but must first reduce the number of centre-backs on their books which currently stands at seven.
Marcos Rojo should be the first to go but United are struggling to agree terms with Roma for Chris Smalling. Of the remaining three, Phil Jones, Eric Bailly and Axel Tuanzebe have struggled to stay fit, placing more burden on Maguire and Lindelof.
United are also in the market for a new left-back and have turned to Alex Telles of FC Porto after missing out on Reguilon.
MUDDLE IN THE MIDDLE
If anything, Van de Beek’s arrival has only confused the picture in United’s midfield. Where will the Dutchman fit in to the 4-2-3-1 formation? Can he play alongside Pogba and Bruno Fernandes?
Solskjaer says he can but Van De Beek was a substitute on Saturday and replaced the ineffective Pogba before scoring United’s only goal on his debut.
The Dutchman will clearly be a good addition and former United defender Gary Neville is absolutely right when he says that the demands of this season mean that strength in depth will be vital.
Donny van de Beek’s (centre) cameo has put a problem in the middle of the United midfield
‘I think we get obsessed when a player like Van de Beek signs and try to imagine how they will work together,’ Neville told Sky Sports on Saturday.
‘I look at 60 games a season and they need three, four or five players in every position. There needs to be competition for places. They will all play a part this season.’
Does Paul Pogba (left) fit with Bruno Fernandes if De Beek (right) continues to impress?
Sancho was meant to be the key ingredient in United’s plans for this season, but talks with Dortmund are deadlocked as the deadline draws near.
Other options have been considered – hence the unsuccessful move for Bale – but Daniel James started on the right against Palace ahead of Greenwood and continues to struggle for form.
Manchester United need more firepower than Anthony Martial at Marcus Rashford up front
There was nothing wrong with United’s attack last season. Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford both scored more than 20 goals and Greenwood weighed in with another 17.
But United need more firepower up front as well as goals from elsewhere in the team which is where they hope Van de Beek can contribute.