Guardiola’s counterpart, United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær had opted for a five-man defence, bringing Matteo Darmian back from oblivion.
Early into the second half during the Manchester derby at Old Trafford on Wednesday, Pep Guardiola introduced Leroy Sane. Fernandinho hobbled off the pitch, but regardless of his injury, the Manchester City boss was going to make the attacking substitution. For the defending Premier League champions, an extra defensive midfielder against a subservient Manchester United was surplus to requirements. City had to win the game to stay to lead Liverpool in the title race and Sane’s arrival was the need of the hour.
Guardiola’s counterpart, United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær had opted for a five-man defence, bringing Matteo Darmian back from oblivion. Solskjær gave City a little too much respect to start with and as Sane came, he also failed to make the tactical switch. Nemanja Matic or Diogo Dalot should have been an immediate replacement for Fred. As it turned out, Sane just rolled over Fred, whom Roy Keane described as a “fake” in a post-match TV show. The decision to sack Jose Mourinho before Christmas was spot on. The Old Trafford dressing-room had become toxic under his charge. Appointing Solskjær as the caretaker manager, too, was the right decision. A club legend, he brought in the feel-good factor. The team bounced back spectacularly, started winning in the Premier League and made a memorable comeback against Paris St-Germain at Parc des Princes to reach the Champions League quarterfinal. Ole was at the wheel then. The wheel is coming off now.
Solskjær is a greenhorn as far as top-level football management is concerned. He indulged Paul Pogba, whose relationship with Mourinho had reached a point of no return. Pogba had posted a cryptic tweet before deleting it, when the club announced Mourinho’s departure. It was in bad taste. Following Solskjær’s appointment though, Pogba started to put more effort on the pitch and gradually became the team’s main axis. Then, he suddenly stopped playing to his potential. He is now reportedly flirting with a move to Real Madrid. In fact, the midfielder has become so emboldened that his agent Mino Raiola ‘cancelled a meeting with the club over a new deal’. According to a British media report, Pogba ‘has refused to obtain a visa, which would allow him to take part in United’s pre-season tour of the Far East’. Once upon a time, Ryan Giggs used to tear the opponents apart at Old Trafford. Now, Pogba is said to be tearing the home dressing-room apart. This is United’s fall from grace in microcosm.
David de Gea, too, has started to play hardball over his new contract, placing a £350,000-a-week wage demand. Once the world’s finest goalkeeper, the Spaniard is now on a steady decline. He concedes at the near post for fun these days. But Solskjær seemingly doesn’t have the personality to rein in his star players. Even a spring chicken like Marcus Rashford, who has achieved nothing yet, has started to show attitude in the dressing-room if reports are true. Mourinho considered Pogba a bad influence and maybe, he was right.
Keane, the legendary former United captain, tore into Pogba after the Manchester derby, indicating that the 26-year-old couldn’t be trusted. “I wouldn’t believe a word he says,” Keane said, adding: “There’s no meaning, no meaning behind it. I don’t even think he believed what he was saying there. He is a big problem, no doubt about it.” United would be better off by offloading both Pogba and de Gea, as they seem to have lost focus to play for the club. But it’s unlikely that Solskjær will exert his authority. Seven losses in nine games have created a serious crisis at United. This is the time when strong managers take brave decisions. Sir Alex Ferguson showed courage by clearing out Paul McGrath and Norman Whiteside—they were fan favourites—after taking charge. The great manager proved to be right in the long-run. Then again, Sir Alex was one of a kind. Solskjær still calls his erstwhile boss the “gaffer”. He needs to take a leaf out of his mentor’s book. Unfortunately, the Norwegian doesn’t look to be the man for the long-term. The United board jumped the gun and played to the gallery by appointing him the permanent manager following his early success. This was despite the fact that a club statement at the time of Mourinho’s sacking spoke about going through a thorough process before picking the right candidate at the end of the season. United let slip a golden opportunity to prise out Mauricio Pochettino from Tottenham Hotspur. They had to break the bank, yes. But £34 million to trigger Pochettino’s release clause was peanuts for a club of United’s financial might. As for the Argentine, although he has now become ‘Mr Tottenham’, it’s always very difficult for any manager to say ‘no’ to the United job. The 20-time Premier League champions are living in the past. A large chunk of players are not worthy of the red shirt. A mass clearout and rebuilding have become mandatory. Pochettino would have been the best man for the task by a country mile.
An inexperienced manager, limp players and smugness have pushed back United. There will be no Champions League football for them next season if they lose to Chelsea on Sunday. The blame lies squarely on the club owners—the Glazers—and their go-to man, executive vice-president Ed Woodward. For the last five years, since Sir Alex’s retirement, the club is on a sharp slide, football-wise. Without a director in football, there’s no clear roadmap with regards to player recruitment. Woodward is happy to make big-name signings. It helps the club’s shirt sales. Social media went on a meltdown, when Alexis Sanchez was at the piano in his United arrival promo. But the harsh reality is that his signing turned out to be the biggest disaster in the club’s recent history. Sanchez’s reported £500,000-a-week wage completely dismantled the club’s wage structure. Also, it wasn’t taken kindly by Pogba and company. They started to arm-twist Woodward. As for the Glazers, they use the club as a cash cow, where the proper display of a commercial partner is probably more important than Gary Neville’s inputs. Hope the Glazers know that Neville was the finest right-back of his generation and not a Republican. Joking apart, United are on the verge of retreating into modern football insignificance. It’s now or never.