Time to be patient for Manchester United

Friday, March 20th, 2020 11:29am

By Wayne Barton @WayneSBarton

Love Sport's Manchester United correspondent Wayne Barton wrote his weekly column looking towards the future for the Red Devils.

Manchester United may or may not kick a football in anger for the foreseeable future but there is no doubt we are still entering one of the pivotal periods in the club’s history.

It is inconsequential in the grand scheme of things but lost amidst the tribal bickering of whether Liverpool should be awarded the league title in lieu of actually winning it is the consequential issue that presents for the rest of the domestic pyramid. United are locked in a sea of complicated scenarios. They currently occupy fifth place in the table; as it stands, enough to see them qualify for the Champions League whenever the following season takes place, due to Manchester City’s ban.

But City are appealing. And, anyway, what about Sheffield United, with a game in hand over United; what about Arsenal, who finished in 5th in the 2018/9 season, who would have an argument should this current season be voided?

With the issues caused by the coronavirus likely to become more severe, and provisional guidelines of resumed competition likely to get pushed back again if not cancelled, it is better to evaluate what is easier to understand.

That doesn’t mean that the way forward at Old Trafford has become an easy fix. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will feel as frustrated as anyone that the season isn’t continuing, due to the good run of form his team were finding. And it is clear that the summer transfer window depends somewhat on qualification to the Champions League.

It is however a convenient point to take stock and assess how Solskjaer has done so far. This season has been tumultuous and has seen points where it felt difficult to see how the manager would continue; certainly after defeat to Newcastle early in the season, it seemed as if yet another change would take place in the dugout.

And, since Mauricio Pochettino was sacked as manager Tottenham Hotspur, every negative United result has been projected under the spotlight of a successor being in place. Some went as far as to suggest a deal with Ed Woodward had already been agreed. That would not come as a surprise to anyone who remembers the FA Cup Final of 2016, where Louis van Gaal may as well have picked up his P45 at the same time as lifting the trophy.

There are no guarantees in football but it would seem as if it would now take a pretty big turnaround for Solskjaer to lose his job before the next transfer window occurs.

He will have the opportunity to build - so what will he be building upon, and will it be enough to bridge the gap to make United top 4 locks, or even title contenders?

If the latter seems like an ambitious prospect it is worth considering the history of such challenges. Liverpool have only done what United themselves did around 14 years ago; that is to take on a rival with much greater financial strength in the transfer window, and find a way to elevate themselves to be better than every other side in the league. A greater concentration on consistency in those games is certainly something that United could do with.

In Bruno Fernandes, they have not only signed a player with the imagination and drive to break the deadlock in such games, but they have acquired a talent desperate to prove himself against the bigger teams. Against Manchester City his magic turned the game.

Fernandes is an obvious place to start but he isn’t a one-man team; nor can one man win a title alone. Starting from the back, then: much has been made of an apparent decline for David De Gea, but, barring the rick against Everton, his form has followed the generally accepted rule that a settled and quality defence can help everyone’s consistency. It remains to be seen if Dean Henderson will return to fight for a place and how that would impact on De Gea. The best case scenario for United is that Henderson does return and forces De Gea to return to the level everyone knows he is capable of. That said, the Spaniard is still one of the best in the world, and would certainly be comfortable in a team challenging for the league.

Aaron Wan-Bissaka already appears to have that temperament, too. His repeated victories in personal battles against Raheem Sterling will have helped his confidence come on, and in more recent games there was a definite improvement in his attacking contribution. Fellow new signing Harry Maguire appears to be growing in stature since being awarded the captaincy. And Luke Shaw, whose career at the club seemed as if it might be over following the emergence of Brandon Williams, has found a way to bounce back.

Victor Lindelof has improved, while Eric Bailly looked excellent after a shaky start at Chelsea in the league. If Solskjaer is feeling ruthless then it is fair to say there is room for improvement in defence with another centre-half to partner Maguire and a left-back, but, maybe he would get away with just a centre-half.

Putting their hands up here would be Axel Tuanzebe and Timothy Fosu-Mensah. Clearly, both have talent, and both should be given an opportunity.

Fosu-Mensah’s career has stalled since his barnstorming introduction under Louis van Gaal. That was four years ago; a long enough time to think the problems since are the rule, and the bright spell was the exception. But his performances at United, at whatever level, continue to impress.

Further forward, it is a little bit of a mixed bag. The trio of Fred, Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay have all exceeded pre-season expectations and all deserve to stay at the club. Yet there remains a nagging feeling that United do need another powerhouse in the middle who is more capable of dictating the pace of top games. Certainly, Fred and McTominay are fine reducers, but when it comes to setting the tempo and imposing themselves in a positive sense, they sometimes struggle.

That could come with maturity; it could come in tandem with a productive Paul Pogba, English football’s greatest dichotomy. A player with the individual ability to be the best in the league but the capability, particularly if disinterested, to be bullied out of a game by any midfield in the division.

His ratio of good games for the club can’t be better than one in four; that clearly needs to improve if he is to stay, but so too does the floor of his game - that is to say United cannot afford to carry him on his more peripheral days, where he becomes a liability.

Over the last two years it’s probably a fair statement to say he is a greater asset to the club as a potential sale than he is as a player but, particularly with the current situation, it seems that even Pogba’s camp have reluctantly realised that there will be few willing to take the chance on him. That will leave Mino Raiola with a job to try and stress that his client is worthy of an increase for what will be the most lucrative deal of his career.

Pogba remains a popular player at the club; popularity shouldn’t dictate a contract more than performance, but these are changing days in football, and United would likely acquiesce to present it as a victory in keeping hold of a highly-regarded player.

The blunt fact of the matter is that if Old Trafford sees four more years of what they’ve seen for the last four, Pogba’s career is going to be seen as one of immense potential wasted, and in a key position for United, that is likely to reflect the club’s fortunes on the pitch, too.

Of course, Fernandes now carries some of that creative burden. That is not the issue with Pogba; it has become a matter of personal responsibility. He may well improve. Jesse Lingard and Andreas Pereira seem very vulnerable even if Solskjaer likes them. Dan James, who is improving after a big dip in form, still ought to be seen as a squad figure for a couple of years.

And Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial will realise that another senior striker should now be seen as a complement to lift the goalscoring pressure. Just look at Odion Ighalo, who has come in with nowhere near the profile of a Lukaku or a Sanchez but seems a more comfortable fit than either of them ever were. Like Rooney and Ronaldo before them, it seems as if this season was a landmark one for the fates of Rashford and Martial; Rashford, whilst not quite Ronaldo, has certainly flourished with that responsibility and feels like a contender for captain in the future. His return could not be more desired.

And so if Ighalo was acquired on a permanent basis, alongside a winger in the mould of say Jadon Sancho, and they were joined by a midfielder and a defender, it is probably fair to say that United - whilst certainly not possessing a squad like City - could argue that it is better than 17 other teams in the league. And that is the potential foundation of a strong title challenge, as Liverpool proved.

Could Sancho be acquired without Champions League football? If so, it certainly feels as if the necessary upgrades elsewhere could also be made, and United could therefore have a squad which could challenge.

As for the manager, well, there are numerous criteria he has to fulfil. Trying to play entertaining football and playing young players is an obvious positive, and in the last few weeks there have been equally good answers to the more general critical questions about his simple ability to manage.

How could it be that the players were concentrated enough to fulfil smart tactical plans in big games and come up short against the so-called lesser sides? If it was a matter of creativity and urgency, then Fernandes has brought one answer. One or two more clever minds in the final third could have a significant impact.

United have been at similar points in the post-Ferguson era but none which quite have as many positive elements aligned at the same time.

If and when football returns, it would be wise for the club to invest more time in Solskjaer’s plan. Woodward would be wise to keep faith this time, rather than making another change because a more illustrious and exciting name may be available.

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