Well, that’s a wrap on 2019. And the decade of the Tens (that’s what I’m calling that decade). It was wonderful, I suppose. For the behemoth that is Manchester United, the end of this era finds them asking very serious questions about their present and future.
So, what now? Where does this mega club go next with 2020 just now rearing its beautiful head?
The good thing for United fans is that it really can’t get much worse. That’s not hyperbole either. It really cannot. The club could get relegated, yes, that would be worse than the current situation. But that is definitively not happening. Unless David Moyes comes back.
With all of the bad that the last few years has dished up for United, the plan for the future should be to plan for the future. It’s really that simple.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been in charge for just over a year and the side has had ups and then major downs before settling on more solid ground as late December has rolled around. The Mancunians find themselves in fifth to end 2019 with much room for hope. But as the world witnessed versus Arsenal on New Year’s Day, the club needs help desperately.
Many issues remain. The owners need to sort out Paul Pogba. If he is staying, lock him up with a new deal and the captaincy. Pay him whatever he wants, or at the very least put a £350m release clause in his contract. He is one of the best midfielders in the world. What he does on the ball, he does effortlessly. He is elite. Pogba has strength, technique and vision. The man is truly world class. But he also seems fickle. He seems like he needs a good coddle. And he has had recent trouble staying fit (and is currently out injured until late January at best). Past United managers have played him out of position. Pogba is best when he is stripped of any significant defensive responsibilities and allowed to roam behind the strikers. He is a playmaker. And he can win you games as the World Cup champions France will attest to. In this side, he should be playing in front of a midfield 2 and behind Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford as they stream forward.
Or let Paul Pogba leave. Pogba’s agent (I won’t mention his name) is an abhorrent clown. He is one of many reasons why this sport of football is going down the drain and becoming a victim to corporate monies. He sends poison pills to his clients and then their heads get turned. Moves elsewhere benefit agents as they stuff their oily pockets with the commission. Look at Pogba basically at every club he’s played for. His agent caused trouble during Pogba’s first stint at United. Pogba then wanted to leave a fruitful Juventus spell. And for the past two years, the back pages are full with Pogba wanting to leave United again. Everyday. That is part Pogba but also mostly his agent and the people who Paul lets in his ear. It is toxic and I have no problems with United ridding themselves of that weight and never dealing with that specific dipshit agent again (one of the reasons I am glad the club didn’t go in for Erling Håland). Pogba would undoubtedly be a loss, but United are massive and can retool without him. He hasn’t exactly set the world alight as part of the side so it may be time to actually structure the midfield without Paul Pogba instead of trying to placate him and have him murkily figure into the plans.
The Pogba dilemma is really just a component of Manchester United’s biggest concern: the midfield. There has been some joy of late as Scott McTominay has emerged and proven to be someone who can play for United. He is strong and determined and understands what it means to play for the club. He plays with heart and is the type of character you can build a squad around. But other than him the middle of the park lacks solidity and creativity. United struggle to break down defences when the opposition sits behind the ball in vast numbers (which is why they thrive against the top clubs who attack and leave themselves vulnerable to the counter — counterattack being a major strength of this United crop). This can be alleviated with a midfield brimming in confidence and the quality to unlock low blocks.
A holding midfielder or someone to sit alongside McTominay is necessary. Let’s not forget that this season has also seen McTominay have his injury concerns. So cover for him at the very least is required. There needs to be stability in the midfield. Matić has lost a step and too static for the top level. Fred is energetic and shown proper heart this season but doesn’t have the consistent talent to be in a trophy winning United starting lineup. Andreas is technically gifted and raised in the United youth ranks, but too is inconsistent and should be nothing but an option late on from the bench. Even with Pogba, a holding midfielder is required as Pogba should be playing further up front. The club seems too nonchalant about the urgency surrounding this midfield hole. Nothing has been done to shore this up for countless windows and now is the time to act. The salient inability to boss a midfield is the main reason United can’t play like they want to and are so susceptible to opponents with even a smidgen of quality.
A genuine number 10 if Paul Pogba leaves is the key for United. Someone who can sit behind the strikers and mastermind opportunities. A player who can link up the midfield with the attack. Someone who can make something out of nothing if a team is parking the bus. United do not have this kind of player and haven’t had one for years (Paul Scholes earlier and more recently Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo the last genius level playmakers the club has had). Jesse Lingard has shown that he is not up to the task. Lingard should not even be in a matchday 18 with how he has been struggling for form for over 12 months. He is a shell of the attacker we knew and has no business being in this team or any England team. United can’t have their skill positions be taken up by streaky types. The midfield screams for consistency and all successful teams have had that consistency that leads to success (think N’golo Kanté for Leicester City and Chelsea, Yaya Touré and David Silva for Manchester City, Jordan Henderson for Liverpool, Sergio Busquets for Barcelona, Toni Kroos for Real Madrid, etc.). United and futile Chairman Ed Woodward cannot close a deal to sign anyone who can assist in this great need. And nothing of note happens until this central midfield situation has been sussed out.
And further! It sounds silly after recent investment, but the club needs a central defender. Victor Lindelöf is not elite and should be pushed for his starting position. He is good in stretches but United are setting records for games without a clean sheet. And that rests with David de Gea making mistakes as well as Lindelöf and Harry Maguire not being up to snuff. Maguire has not proven to be worth his price tag. There are elements to his game that I do enjoy such as his poise and calm when defending. He isn’t prone to panicking but his lack of pace is alarming. And he doesn’t score goals which for a big target man like himself is imperative. On paper, Lindelöf and Maguire should be a top defensive two. They will gel and get better but there needs to be competition for places. Eric Bailly and Axel Tuanzebe are promising place fillers but neither have demonstrated that they are world class options, the kind of option United need if trophies are the end game.
Look: the depth necessary to win pots is distinctly absent at Manchester United. The full back position seems to have sorted itself out. The only area on the squad to do so properly. Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Brandon Williams should be the starters on their respective flanks. Luke Shaw and Diogo Dalot are good bench options. All four are young and can contribute to the attack as well as track back and be productive defenders. They will play with even more confidence once the spine of the team is more settled.
And I know that sounds like a lot but United are the biggest franchise breathing. Spend the money wisely and the results will follow. The emergence of young Mason Greenwood, who can score freely with both feet, has allowed funds to be focused on positions behind the forwards. The club could do with a reliable number 9 with experience (even off the bench when chasing a goal) but more massive needs are calling.
If United cannot address these issues by August then changes need to be made. Solskjaer at times seems delusional with the quality of the current squad. Often it seems like there isn’t actually a game plan. The act of managing and getting the players to play to a scheme is the job of the coaches. It is also Solskjaer’s job to highlight players in the market and have him be assertive in getting those targets bought. The time is now for United as all their competitors rebuild and leave them behind. So, if Woodward and the coaches cannot bring the players in then the club needs to find people who can. Have some balls and drive this organization forward. The excuses are becoming tiresome. And pathetic. There have been so many steps backwards that the urgency to improve is real and the moment is now.
Standards are high for the club at Old Trafford. Football is a business so emotions need to be put aside. Sell or do not renew the players not essential to the future (see Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones, Ashley Young, Jesse Lingard and Nemanja Matić) and buy with a purpose. The backbone of the squad needs strengthening. Buy a central defender and two central midfielders and watch this team shine. There’s too much talent for them not to. The club needs to understand that no more time can be wasted as the current side is a top ten team at best. And if anybody argues with that then what…a top eight team? Liverpool, City, Leicester, Chelsea, Tottenham and the Arsenal under Mikel Arteta that breathed life into Nicolas Pépé and Mesut Özil are all fundamentally more adept than these current United charges. Wolves and Sheffield United could also make the case. Fuck, even Crystal Palace if we’re being brutally honest.
And that’s not Manchester United. That’s not the club with the seismic history. The glory. The tradition. That’s not them. But it’s getting difficult to recognize the club of yore. My beloved club that raised me. And that’s the enormous problem. Buy and develop and you will see the Manchester United that played with panache and stacked silverware in rooms bigger than stadiums.
And do it today.