Reaction as United lose in London.
So, let’s get the easy things out of the way first; as easy as something like that can be to stomach, anyway. United were second best and deserved nothing from the game. Yes, it is blatantly obvious that injuries to the midfield and attack came at a huge detriment but could you hand on heart say that the visitors would definitely have been better than they were, with a full complement of fit players?
It was a performance that bore the hallmarks of most things wrong over recent years, it was pedestrian in midfield and practically invisible up front save for a couple of promising crosses, usually through Dan James. Harry Maguire had the best chance but a point would have been a point United did not deserve to get from a game against a team who were just better than them.
Nobody was surprised by this Manchester United performance, which says much in itself. I suggested on Twitter that it is the poorest team in living memory; I received responses which suggested the relegation side of the 1970s, but at least that team had potential and the frame of a side that was able to blossom.
The point of that wasn’t to bemoan the quality of the team but more to remind people to have some perspective about what we are currently dealing with between now and January. It will not improve in terms of personnel and even when United are at their ostensible strongest when Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial return from the sort of injuries star names tend to pick up in their last season before leaving a club, there should not be an expectation that United will suddenly be able to put in better performances or get better results.
There are hysterical over-reactions from some who respond to every result and performance as if the summer transfer window has just closed and they have just discovered who the players in the squad are. They demand the resignation of Ed Woodward or even Ole Gunnar Solskjaer — if, that is, they don’t want him sacked.
Solskjaer is unfortunate and fortunate in same breath as the injury crisis increases the chances of results like this, as likely as it would have been anyway. It means those doubting will only have more ammunition as they believe the week-by-week evidence is stacking up. Those who feel the problems run deeper will be more likely to give Solskjaer the benefit of the doubt — even if the reality is that he is culpable too, he gets a pass because so many of these problems were ones he walked into.
The natural and obvious complaint to make is that it didn’t really need hindsight to predict that letting Lukaku and Sanchez go, and relying on Martial and Rashford to step up a level without bringing in a senior player to bolster the attack, was not the wisest move.
But there is no point questioning the wisdom of allowing those players to go because the short term benefits of them coming on today, or starting, would in all probability have been negligible anyway. And if Sanchez had scored a goal and won a point or even all three, would that have been worth a longer term investment more than the message of admitting it was a financial disaster to sign him?
Even if it is obvious we needed another senior attacker, we didn’t bring one in, so to continue to harp on about it every week does nothing but increase the blood pressure needlessly.
Coming a day after City won 8-0, United’s dire outing was not helped by the light shone by Gary Neville on commentary for Sky who once again spoke about the money spent by the club since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson.
They have spent close on £900m and there is no denying that so much of that has been poorly spent but this is not a £900m squad and even if it was, it doesn’t make it immune to problems caused by injury. There has to be proper context and perspective when discussing money because rarely does it ever get mentioned that in that time United have lost the following players for next to nothing — Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, Darren Fletcher, Ryan Giggs, and, more recently, Wayne Rooney. All that experience lost for nothing. Of course the cost of replacing them would be extravagant. (If you’re interested, I have written about this subject at length in my latest book Redprint, which you can order here.)
Most of those players, and many more squad members, were lost over a concentrated period of time where three full-time managers were hired between 2013 and 2016. It was a transition that even one manager with a consistent idea would have struggled to oversee.
One of United’s biggest issues is this perception that they need to just spend to keep up with the Joneses, or they’ll never match their rivals. Thinking that way is perpetual suicide to ambitions of genuinely moving forward.
There is no point concentrating on what City are doing because they have an embarrassing amount of money that renders any achievement as more ‘hollow’ than those we famously sing about Chelsea. When De Bruyne scored the eighth yesterday, there were bunches of empty seats behind the goal. Their team, their best ever, was chasing history! It’s not a sporting achievement or a coaching achievement so there is no point trying to emulate or keep up with it.
Liverpool might be seen as the way to go but are they? They have to sacrifice one or two trophies in order to keep the squad fresh and even then they are at the mercy of one or two injuries really tipping them over. It is a model invested in by Klopp to try and capture the League title over the next 18 months but it is not sustainable to match this City club run the way they are in the long term.
United have to go back to the drawing board and realise that the points to win the league are mainly to be found in games against the other seventeen teams.
That will mean a long-term culture change starting with the attitude of the squad who will have to realise that teams like West Ham and Leicester are still playing against the reputation of Manchester United and not the reality. There are too many players currently at the club comfortably trading off the reputation of it, too. The process of turning that around will take longer than a few months. Hopefully the younger, promising players can use these experiences to know the minimum that is required.
One of the things to remember in a time where everything feels negative is that United’s better performers have been the signings Solskjaer made. It gives him more power when it comes to identifying the players he wants for the future, and should give everyone faith in his conviction.
That means over-reactions to defeats and performances like today serve nobody any purpose; showing discontent against the owners only appears as dissatisfaction because the team lost, which will only make Woodward’s trigger finger itchy. Solskjaer deserves at least another year to try and turn this around and I’m sorry, but the reality is that for the short term, days like today are something you’re just going to have to get used to.
The counter point to this is the number of talented kids that United have, how talented they are and how and when Solskjaer might give them a chance to prove themselves. Greenwood was out of the squad today and therefore you might theorise it was the sort of extreme circumstance you put another rookie striker on the bench. He didn’t.
Greenwood is just about the only player who has been banging down the door to prove that he deserves a chance in the first team. You could argue Gomes is too good for the U23 level and had deserved more of a chance but he hasn’t been so convincing that it had been impossible to ignore in the same way Greenwood has (and it’s worth pointing out that in Greenwood’s case, he has been more convincing than Rashford himself was when he got his chance).
Garner? Well, yes, one could say he deserves a chance ahead of Matic and Fred but he’s 18 years old and you can’t just make the leap past the senior players to put all that pressure and responsibility on him. Garner might well have found it too big a task today and it could have done him more harm than good when the reality was United were just toothless up front and it highlighted their plodding vulnerability more than anything else. It needs a sensible introduction.
Similarly, Chong was ineffectual against a weak and willing opponent in midweek. Pereira and James did at least fire some good crosses in. It might have done Chong more harm to give him minutes kicking crosses into nobody in specific.
It is timely that this week marked the 25th anniversary of the Port Vale League Cup tie which caused a complaint in the House of Commons due to Alex Ferguson fielding a young team missing big stars. The idea was if they were good enough they were old enough and the proof on that occasion was they were good enough. (It’s also almost 24 years since United lost 3-0 to York City in a team which had the attacking line up of Beckham, Phil Neville, McClair, Sharpe, Simon Davies and Giggs.)
But this isn’t 1995 or 1996. We don’t know if these young players are anywhere near good enough… let’s face it, it’s very unlikely they’ll be anywhere near as successful as a Phil Neville or a Beckham let alone a Giggs, even if they have the individual talent to give more than a Simon Davies. But they also don’t have a McClair or a Pallister or a Parker to have the experience to help them along.
Instead, the likes of Chong and Garner would have the likes of Matic and Fred, too busy sweating on proving themselves in a race against time to help along a player likely to replace him. It is not a great environment and therefore it is an unenviable task for Solskjaer. As intolerable as it seems, it is part of the waiting game for a Matic or a Fred to be so poor that replacing them with a rookie is a logical move.
Some might say we’re there already, but Solskjaer isn’t; his first choice midfield was Pogba, Herrera and McTominay. It is only this season and this recent run where this pair, normally second choice, have become first choice. For the manager to just bypass them and go to rookies would look and feel like a risk and be completely reflective of a manager who makes impulsive and rash decisions. When that happens, the squad can be unreceptive to a coach who does not appear to have a strategy. A manager must have patience even, or especially, in the bad times. Just like supporters.