Manchester United needs a rebuild from the ground up

The last few weeks have shown just how clueless and frail United are at the moment. From its shambolic defence to its wayward midfield, everything needs to change
Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, center, and Donny van de Beek, right, after the English Premier League soccer match between Watford and Manchester United at Vicarage Road, Watford, England, Saturday Nov. 20, 2021(AP) PREMIUM
Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, center, and Donny van de Beek, right, after the English Premier League soccer match between Watford and Manchester United at Vicarage Road, Watford, England, Saturday Nov. 20, 2021(AP)
Published on Nov 22, 2021 09:23 PM IST
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The why had become obvious in recent times, the question was when.

That was answered on Sunday as Manchester United sacked Ole Gunnar Solskjaer after a run of devastating results saw them plummet to eighth in the Premier League. While the 5-0 demolition at the hands of Liverpool and a 2-0 defeat against arch-rivals Manchester City had already loosened the foundations, it’s the 4-1 loss against lowly Watford, who’ve come back up to the top tier just this season after being relegated in 2019-20, that blew the house off.

It was United’s fifth defeat in the last seven league games.

There was no saving the former United hero, the man who made miracles happen for the team, often after coming on as a substitute. But what is more damaging for the club is that the “super-sub” leaves Old Trafford in more or less that way he found it when he subbed in for Jose Mourinho three years ago—a team that looks broken from the inside, jaded fans, and a hierarchy clueless about the way forward.

The man hailed for his rescue acts as a player could not find the same touch as manager.

What exactly is going wrong for United? Why couldn’t the talismanic Solksjaer rally an expensively-assembled squad to come together as a team?

Some of the wayward performances on the field are so bizarrely poor as to be inexplicable, but other reasons are far more concrete and longstanding.

Fans are fond of painting the devil on the Glazer family, the American owners of the club, who are seen as clueless about all things football and focused solely on the business side of it. That would explain the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo from under the noses of Manchester City. The Portuguese forward is highly marketable but hardly suits the team’s needs on the pitch. His signing was also seen as one to pacify the supporters who had staged mass protests when news broke of United being part of the proposed European Super League.

The period between Ronaldo’s debut on September 11, in which he scored twice in 4-1 win over Newcastle United, to the 4-1 defeat at Vicarage Road at the weekend highlighted the chinks in United’s armour more than ever.

Since the euphoric win over Newcastle, United won just four out of 13 matches in all competitions, collected just seven points from eight Premier League games and were knocked out of the League Cup.

It showed up two things: Solksjaer’s inexperience as a coach at the highest level and the gaping holes in the United team.

With Paul Pogba out with an injury, a midfield consisting of Fred, Scott McTominay, Nemanja Matic and on occasion Donny Van de Beek are not only no match for the midfield strengths of City, Liverpool or Chelsea, they can barely hold their own against much lesser teams.

But even that’s better than the ruins of United’s defence. Harry Maguire, who captains the team and marshals the defence, looks like a haunted man on the pitch—almost always out of position, failing to mark in the most basic situations, and taking amateurishly heavy touches in the most dangerous situations. With him, the entire defence has gone off the boil.

Ronaldo’s signing has only compounded all these problems. Solksjaer more or less depends on a single strategy: defend deep and hit on the counter. This is great for Ronaldo, but only if the defence is firing. With the defence in shambles, there is simply nothing to build off of.

Ronaldo too is not the lightning player he used to be. Sure, he rescued them on numerous occasions, especially in the Champions League where he scored late winners at home against Villarreal and Atalanta and a dramatic equaliser against the latter in Italy but he has looked a pale shadow of his former self.

The football pundits are divided over Manchester United’s announcement that technical director Michael Carrick will be the caretaker boss till they search for an interim manager.

“They have not planned for this. They have not prepared for it. I don't think anybody would have done. It has deteriorated so badly and so quickly,” former United skipper Gary Neville told Sky Sport.

But he was of the opinion that unless they get a quality manager, they shouldn’t rush to make a permanent appointment. “They now have to make sure they get the next one right, if that means being patient for six months to wait for managers to become available at the end of the season,” he said.

Whoever comes in, his first task will be to fix the defence. Then, add steel and structure to the midfield by finding a midfield general/enforcer of the caliber of Roy Keane. And finally, infuse confidence into some of United’s brightest attacking talents—Jadon Sancho, sidelined since his arrival from Borussia Dortmund, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood.

There are a lot of names floating around, including the likes of Zinedine Zidane, PSG’s Mauricio Pochettino and Leicester City’s Brendan Rodgers among others.

But whoever takes over will need to start from the foundation.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Rajesh Pansare is a member of the Mumbai sports desk and writes on football and motor sport.

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Monday, November 29, 2021