Something substantial needs to change. Yet Manchester United doesn’t plan on changing anything. Or those are the signals it’s giving off anyway.
On Wednesday, United lost 2-0 at home to Burnley, its first defeat to the Clarets at Old Trafford since 1962. That made it three Premier League losses in four for the Red Devils, who dropped six points below the Champions League places.
But more alarming still was the manner in which it happened. United was comfortable defeated by a small away team whose big summer signing was Danny Drinkwater. Yet manager Sean Dyche and his side had a clear idea of how to defeat a United that is joyless, static and devoid of confidence. Many of the home fans chanted their dismay and left early.
Then there’s the fact that since he was made permanent manager of United on March 28, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer now has a losing record in the Premier League with 11 victories, 12 defeats and nine ties. The team’s 9-8-7 start to the season is its worst in 30 years. He is, statistically and stylistically, the worst of the five managers to take charge of the club since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013. But there seems to be no appetite within the club to replace him.
Solskjaer apparently retains an astounding level of job security from a club that seems to understand that he isn’t entirely at fault, but also lacks the introspection to keep pulling on that thread and figure out who is.
Through this cataclysmic season, Solskjaer has maintained a sunny outlook, basking in the glow of what remains one of the biggest jobs in soccer and reminiscing about the olden days when he was a beloved forward there and all was well. For a time, he liked to drone on about going back to the way things were under Ferguson, never mind that the sport has been modernized to the point of being unrecognizable from back then. He has the bearing of an ambitious but in-over-his-head middle manager trying to reassure his employees that everything is fine and layoffs are not in fact coming.
Lately though, after fellow retired Red Devil Robin van Persie criticized Solskjaer for smiling so much even as the club spirals from one low to the next, he’s taken on a more stoic look, although it looks a tad affected. And his honesty is disarming.
But what might be most upsetting to the club’s once-spoiled but now-tortured fans is that it all seems to be fine to those in control as well. Reports have gotten out about the American Glazer family, despised by the fans for buying the club by leveraging it against debt, signing off an a rebuilding plan that could run up to three years. That’s an unimaginably long stretch for a club that won 13 league titles in the first 21 editions of the Premier League.
The ownership continues to back Solskjaer who, after a resurgence following his interim appointment in the wake Jose Mourinho’s firing, has shown and done nothing to suggest he can turn things around, or even that he has an actionable plan.
As such, what happened on Thursday was as disheveling as Wednesday’s game. Because nothing happened. There was no sacking. There was not even a public show of support for the manager, because the club evidently didn’t feel compelled to give one. Because it isn’t all that alarmed by how this season is going.
There was only silence.
Meanwhile, there are noises about signing a few players before the winter transfer window closes in a week. But absolutely nobody has the sense that this team is a player or two, or even three, away from being restored to its former glory. It has issues in every line and just about every position, in fact.
The pieces don’t fit and never really have. Record signing Paul Pogba is injured and lost faith in the medical staff, but also seems in no hurry to get back on the field, biding his time until he can finally force his departure over the summer. Striker Marcus Rashford, the only consistent goal threat, will be sidelined for quite some time because of a back injury that appears to be from overuse, after all his backups were shipped out over the summer. Harry Maguire, the most expensive defender in the world, was probably responsible for both goals against Burnley.
It’s all just a big mess.
There’s no rhyme or reason to the transfer policy. The managers to succeed Ferguson were more often destructive than productive. The medical department is unfit for purpose at a major club. And more grievous still: A sustainable model of governance and decision-making to replace Ferguson’s strongman approach still hasn’t been found. Which is to say that the club, almost seven years after Ferguson retired, still hasn’t equipped itself with the tools to move on from him.
Nobody and nothing improves at United. Players regress – who was the last signing to improve his standing in the game while at United? – and everything slowly slips ever further away from the place the club had come to think of as its natural perch atop the food chain.
United has to decide what it is, or what it isn’t. Is it a great club that’s in a lull but has formulated a plan to rebuild and is laying the foundation? In that case, a top-down makeover is needed, beginning with chief executive Ed Woodward.
Or does it now consider itself just another fallen giant, doomed to an existence of mediocrity and living in the past? Because if that’s the case, it should do nothing at all and carry on like this.
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