When will Man United learn their lesson?
Manchester United look set to have their busiest transfer window in several years. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was reportedly promised a transfer war-chest as the club embarked on a squad overhaul. Following a limp end to the Premier League season, that eroded the goodwill generated by the positive results over the previous few months, it is much needed.
Man United have already signed winger Daniel James from Swansea City. They are also said to be in the market for a central defender, a full-back, a central midfielder and a forward. The club will need all the help they can get. The squad is disjointed, muddled and lacks quality in key areas – especially central defence.
However, as reported by ESPN, Solskjaer had plans to sign either Harry Maguire or Kalidou Koulibaly, but interest has “cooled in recent weeks.” Instead, he is set to give another opportunity to the central defenders already in the squad – Chris Smalling, Eric Bailly, Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo and Victor Lindelof. The club are said to have prioritised signing a new right-back rather than a centre-half and Aaron Wan-Bissaka appears to be their main transfer target.
While they badly need to improve at right-back – as Ashley Young is a veteran converted winger and Diogo Dalot is still developing – it is difficult to justify not addressing the issues in central defence. It has been a problem position for years and it arguably sums up the malaise that has engulfed the club since Alex Ferguson retired in 2013.
Smalling and Jones remain from Ferguson’s time and have somehow regressed over the last few seasons. Yet, they received contract extensions a few months ago. Bailly started his Man United career strongly but his performances dipped after suffering injuries – in the last two seasons he has made just 36 appearances, two games fewer than he played in his first season at Old Trafford.
Lindelof’s United career started sluggishly but he has developed into a solid player, the most reliable of the club’s central defenders. Rojo has started fewer games than Sergio Romero, the club’s back-up goalkeeper, over the last two seasons. United’s five senior centre-halves were bought by three different managers. The problems in the position mirror the muddled approach of the club since 2013.
If it is the case that Solskjaer and the club are prepared to give the central defenders another chance to impress, it could prove to be a costly mistake. To persist with players who have proven sub-standard – Jones, Rojo and Smalling – or who are injury prone – Bailly – would be futile. United’s central defenders have had plenty of chances under several different managers, playing a total of 795 games. They have had more than enough time to make a mark, but only Lindelof has proved reliable.
The policy of persisting with these players would also hamper United as they seek to rebuild their squad, losing valuable time as their rivals make moves in the transfer market. The club needs to learn from Liverpool, who discarded Loris Karius after his errors in the 2018 Champions League final. They broke the world-record transfer fee for a goalkeeper to sign Alisson Becker as a replacement and have never looked back.
Rather than giving Mamadou Sakho or Ragnar Klavan another chance, Jurgen Klopp sanctioned the signing of Virgil van Dijk from Southampton for £75m, a world-record fee for a central defender. There is nothing to be gained by persisting with players who have consistently proven unworthy of selection, as Liverpool have shown.
Man United need to heed Liverpool’s lesson and discard the dead wood. Solskjaer also needs to be decisive to avoid losing any more momentum. When he was acting as the team’s caretaker coach between December and March, United were almost unstoppable. They beat Arsenal in the FA Cup, Tottenham at Wembley and Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
They won 14 of the Norwegian’s first 19 games, with the crowning moment coming away to Paris Saint-Germain when they knocked the French side out of the Champions League in dramatic fashion. The spirit of Jose Mourinho had been banished and Solskjaer the manager, like Solskjaer the player, specialised in memorable moments and last-minute goals.
However, since taking the wheel on a permanent basis during the March international break, United have veered off course. The Red Devils’ form fell off a cliff. They missed out on qualification for the Champions League and failed to beat already-relegated Cardiff and Huddersfield Town in their final two games of the season.
Solskjaer desperately needs a strong start to the new season and for that to happen he will need to remodel his squad during the summer – starting with central defence, an undoubted problem position. However, that appears unlikely to happen at the moment.