All is not well at Old Trafford
There were new levels of discontent this past week as Manchester United suffered consecutive league defeats at Anfield and at home to Burnley. The latter saw the final five or ten minutes played out in front of an Old Trafford stadium that would be generously described as half-empty.
Given Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s penchant for looking on the bright side, he might well have described it as half-full. As it happened, the Norwegian did at least attempt to show some positivity anyway on Wednesday, despite one of the club’s worst performances in the last decade.
“We’re still fifth in the league,” Solskjaer said, which, upon closer examination, says much about the quality of the division past the top two sides. That United remain in fifth despite losing three league games already in 2020 tells you everything you need to know.
Solskjaer is a legend at United and his contribution as a player will never really be devalued no matter how things pan out in his spell as manager. But his comments about satisfaction with the squad he has and how improvement is better from within than externally recruited have left many concerned that he is acting as a protective mouthpiece for the owners at the club; a convenient patsy, who might consider himself so lucky to have the job, that he is frightened to speak out against the owners and chief executive for risk of putting his position on the line.
So far this season he has walked a tightrope in this regard. It would not have been sensible to be so heavily critical of the quality of the squad he came into the season with, of course. Players like Nemanja Matic and Phil Jones, like Fred and Andreas Pereira; now so crucial to the senior representation in the first team that it seems like a lifetime ago when they were, in August, among the frontrunners to leave the club if only a willing buyer had put forward an offer.
There was an almighty exodus of senior players - Herrera and Lukaku left, so too did Sanchez and Smalling. Valencia and Fellaini had already gone and Matteo Darmian soon followed. Clearly, replacements were needed, particularly in case of an injury crisis, which has been forthcoming. Three players came in - and despite the recent troubles of Dan James and the pressure he seems to be under, those three players have been among the bright spots of the season. But this was not a sufficient strengthening of the squad if the objective was to qualify for the Champions League.
There have been some terribly turbulent winter months. Throughout it all Solskjaer has appeared to be at grave risk of losing his job on at least one occasion. Those who understand the mess he inherited, those who are more prone to giving the blame to the board, have been patient and understanding.
Yes, the squad was thin, yes, Solskjaer did sign off on those outgoing transfers, but there was an argument for short term benefit with regards removing some of the toxicity of the squad.
That defence of him was somewhat contingent on an accepted sensibility that the manager would seek to strengthen as immediately as the January transfer window opened.
Yet in the three and a half weeks in January, only the name of Bruno Fernandes has been touted, and primarily in foreign press as Sporting Lisbon seek to cash in. The seriousness of United’s interest is hard to know, but even if it was serious, it is illustrative of a lack of forward planning considering the player was available for cheaper in the summer and was not even on the club’s radar at that point.
Sensible investments for the long term such as Jadon Sancho, Erling Haaland and even Declan Rice, as divisive as that name is, have all been notable by their absence in January links.
In an attempt to bluff that United’s need is not as desperate as all can see, Solskjaer has remained loyal to the party line that the club are currently adopting. That they have been stung by years of foolish investments and they will not be forced to make another.
It is noble, and reasonable, but only in certain circumstances, and United do not currently operate in the circumstances where the direction of the club under its present ownership, or managership, is sound.
Solskjaer - in his silence, in his positive persona, in his somewhat unsettling positive comments about the ownership - is acting as a deflective shield, offering a generous protection to a party who are hardly likely to show him the same loyalty when the tough gets going.
Worse still, by standing by these words throughout the January window when United’s need is becoming increasingly desperate, and by attempting to put a positive spin on defeat at Anfield by virtue of it being marginally better than last year’s capitulation that saw him get the job in the first place, the manager is aligning himself as part of the problem.
There are enough angry and aggressive unreasonable voices in the support, but Solskjaer’s biggest problem is losing those who have been loyal to him, and those voices are becoming increasingly weary and apathetic, resigned to the growing inevitability of another period of transition soon to follow.
It is sad, and somewhat ironic, for Solskjaer’s public support to waver at a time when the club have inexplicably invested in a charm offensive designed to improve the reputation of Ed Woodward.
The neglected piece of residual information we can learn from this is that Woodward is planning to stay at United for the longer term, coming out strongly at a time when the Old Trafford crowd has probably been as vocal in opposition to the owners as it has been since 2010.
It is well-known that Woodward is now being represented by prominent journalist Neil Ashton’s new media consultancy firm and it is already unpalatable to many supporters on social media who have voiced anger and opposition to many of Ashton’s former colleagues in the media who have run positive spin on United’s chief executive in the past week.
Woodward seems keen to be liked. Perhaps Ashton’s first piece of advice would be to say that is unlikely to ever happen. Campaigns to portray him as the sympathetic victim of an angry mob are only likely to fan the flame. Like Solskjaer, he is probably wisest keeping his counsel.
Similarly, attempts to recalibrate the past and present United’s money man as the reason for their economic success in a period where their on-pitch performance has dropped, are only like to infuriate those who can see through it to recognise their club is a brand which has been exploited and taken advantage of.
A continuation of this is only likely to reignite some lingering resentment, provoking those apathetic voices in to a bitter response.
It is time to let action do the talking for once.
United have had the financial power to compete, and despite having close to £2bn taken out of the club in the last fifteen years, miraculously continue to be in the position to still do so. That is thanks to the power of the history of the club to survive the most traumatic and devastating spell, in terms of finance, that it is ever likely to experience. It is in spite of Woodward and the Glazers. Not because.
They maintain a position of global power and economic wealth because of the strength of the history and fabric of the club which has been so callously taken advantage of. If those in charge are serious about finally turning a corner, then it is a case of spending that money wisely and investing time, money and patience in the right people.
Clearly, what we have learned if anything from the last week is that the owners, and Woodward, intend to stick around. Whether he will reward Solskjaer’s loyalty to him with the free PR he provides on a weekly basis? Well, that remains to be seen.
The first indication of that would be a proper investment in the squad to try and rescue something from a season when there are so many clubs apparently willing to allow United the chance to get that fourth place.
There is no point differentiating about the transfer market any longer. The summer will be equally difficult, and possess the same circumstances. It is clear to all that it is a panic button situation; that is a scenario United have created for themselves by prioritising public relations over transfer negotiations.
Things are difficult, but they needn’t be in terminal decline, if only those with the power to address it concentrate on the health of the club and not their own reputation.
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