Man Utd: How bad is the latest crisis for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side?
IT is Manchester United’s worst start to a season for 30 years.
The club are 12th in the Premier League, with nine points from eight games. They have not won away from Old Trafford in domestic competition since February and have failed to score more than one goal in any game since the 4-0 opening-day hammering of Chelsea.
United will spend the next two weeks sitting an uncomfortable two points above the relegation zone.
Next up are arch rivals and Premier League leaders Liverpool, who require one more victory to equal Manchester City’s record 18 Premier League wins in a row.
Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is putting on a brave face and only last month, United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward said patience was required as the club tried to recapture past glories.
But as striker Marcus Rashford tweeted on Monday, there is no hiding in football. So is Solskjaer really safe? Will Woodward stick with this current position and give the Norwegian time? And even if he does, is there any sign United’s miserable season is going to get any better?
More sorry statistics
Solskjaer was given the job of replacing Jose Mourinho on a permanent basis on 28 March.
He had lost one of his first 17 games in temporary charge and had a win percentage of 82.35%.
Fast forward seven months and the backdrop could not be much more bleak. A total of 14 points from their past 15 games is better only than Southampton (13), Brighton (12) and Watford (10) of the 14 clubs who have been in the Premier League throughout his time in charge.
Solskjaer’s win ratio now is 47.5% – the worst of any United manager since Dave Sexton, who was in charge from 1977-81.
United are two points above the relegation zone. It is unlikely, but not impossible, they could be in it after the ninth round of matches has been completed. The last time they were in the bottom three after more than a single game was 1992-93, when they were 20th (out of 22) after three matches. They went on to win the title that season. No-one is seriously contemplating that outcome at the end of this campaign.
United have not won away from home in the Premier League since they beat Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park on 27 February. The eight games they have gone without a victory since then is their worst run since 1989.
Their shot conversion rate in the Premier League this season is 8.2%, the fifth worst in the top flight.
United have won one out of their past eight meetings with Liverpool, although five of them have ended in draws.
‘Only crisis is an injury crisis’
This was a light-hearted response from a United staff member to a situation acknowledged to be hugely difficult to navigate.
Yet there is an element of truth behind the flippancy.
For the opening two games of the season, the victory against Chelsea and a draw at Wolves when United were the better side and would probably have won if Paul Pogba had converted a penalty, Solskjaer made one change; swapping Andreas Pereira for new signing Daniel James.
In the third game – a home defeat by Crystal Palace – left-back Luke Shaw suffered a hamstring injury and hasn’t played since. That match is also the last time Anthony Martial has played for United after sustaining a thigh injury in training.
At Newcastle, Solskjaer’s starting line-up contained only five players from the Chelsea game; goalkeeper David de Gea, midfielders Scott McTominay and Pereira, striker Marcus Rashford and £80m defender Harry Maguire, who headed United’s best chance wide at St James’ Park.
The feeling at the club is that if United can field a side similar to the one that played against Chelsea, including Pogba, who has missed five out of the past seven matches with an ankle injury, results and performances will improve.
‘A quagmire of mediocrity’
This was a real quote, from a United staff member, to sum up what they thought of the current situation.
Solskjaer, it was stressed, was not to blame for this. It was just what the speaker felt was an honest assessment of the club’s squad at the present time.
Sources have told the BBC that Solskjaer’s initial view after replacing Mourinho was that United needed to change nine players.
So far, three have left, plus Alexis Sanchez and Chris Smalling on loan. In addition, Marouane Fellaini left for China in February and Antonio Valencia, who played twice under Solskjaer, was not offered a new contract.
It has been stressed by multiple United staff members that keeping strikers Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez would have been counter-productive because the pair had made it known they no longer wished to be at the club. Neither played a single match in pre-season before they joined Inter Milan.
Solskjaer was keen to make further signings but a combination of the correct players not being available, the inability to get unwanted players out of the club to create space and asking prices being deemed to be too high made it impractical.
As an example, United were keen to sign Newcastle midfielder Sean Longstaff. However, when they approached the Magpies, they were told the asking price was £50m.
When it was pointed out this was a huge amount for a 21-year-old who had made only 13 senior appearances for Newcastle, the reply was that United had just paid the same fee to Crystal Palace for Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who was the same age and had played 46 times for his club.
United opted to walk away.
While there is obvious frustration among the coaching staff at this course of action, United do not have limitless funds, despite being one of the world’s richest clubs.
It does, however, shine a light once again on the club’s major transfer negotiator, head of corporate development Matt Judge, and his ability to do deals. Woodward has previously defended the recruitment team and structure but one agent – who has been trying to arrange a loan deal for a client – has rather cruelly suggested Judge should be going out on loan to further his experience.
Solskjaer’s obvious problem is the lack of movement in the summer leaves him with a number of players he feels are not up to the demands of a being United player – either mentally or through ability. The injury issues have pushed them further to the forefront of the squad.
Against Newcastle, as in other recent games, periods of decent football were mixed with a bewildering inability to put together effective passing moves.
There is also a feeling some longer-serving players have become weary because of the club’s various issues since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013 and now lack the confidence to drag themselves out of the malaise.
Solskjaer has repeatedly talked up the crop of youngsters in which he is placing such faith.
Last month, he said 18-year-old forward Mason Greenwood was “one of the best finishers I have seen”.
Behind the scenes, United’s coaching staff know they are asking too much of Greenwood, Tahith Chong, Angel Gomes and Brandon Williams. They note Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori – who have all excelled for Chelsea this season – have had two or three loan spells away from Stamford Bridge to further their footballing education.
Abraham, who has scored eight Premier League goals this season and was 22 on 2 October, is four weeks older than Marcus Rashford, who is having to shoulder United’s attacking responsibilities virtually on his own.
With the exception of Ryan Giggs, who was deemed a special case, Sir Alex Ferguson introduced the famed ‘Class of ’92’ slowly and was not afraid to leave them out on occasion.
It was not until the ‘You’ll Never Win Anything With Kids’ day, at the start of the 1995-96 season, that they were used regularly and within the same team.
The fear is United’s youngsters will get so used to losing, it will become a hard habit to break.
What happens now?
A United source put the club’s situation into stark perspective after Sunday’s defeat at Newcastle: “We just have to try and get to January.”
Club officials continue to state this is a notoriously difficult time to do transfer business and the doomed arrival of Sanchez from Arsenal in January 2018 underlines the pitfalls.
Yet, without additions, finishing in the top six looks impossible, let alone qualifying for the Champions League. If this is not achieved, it would trigger penalty clauses in sponsorship deals.
Solskjaer is certain players still want to join United. The key is getting the ones who have the right mental approach. It is something they managed in the summer but it must be repeated in January and next summer if the club are to make any progress.
The big question is whether United will stand by the 46-year-old if the present situation gets worse.
Uncertainty over Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham future has heightened social media debate about Solskjaer’s abilities, although, for now, United fans attending matches are turning their ire towards the Glazer family who own the club rather than the man who manages it.
However, there is a very real fear from some inside the club that should Liverpool inflict a heavy defeat on United on 20 October, the external reaction may create pressure they find too hard to resist.
This would be regarded as unfair by those who feel Solskjaer’s three signings have been positive additions but only represent the first phase of what needs to be achieved.
However, the alternate view is that Solskjaer is not up to the job and a defeat by Liverpool would merely confirm it.
Either way, the next two weeks are not going to be easy for anyone connected with Manchester United. – bbc.com