Manchester United seemingly have become a prisoner of their structural deformity
Alex Telles of Manchester United controls the ball during the Europa League match in Portugal (File photo: AP)
A frenetic deadline-day saw Manchester United sign four players — Edinson Cavani, Alex Telles, Facundo Pellistri and Amad Diallo. The club apparently pressed the panic button after their 6-1 hiding by Tottenham Hotspur last Sunday. United seemingly have become a prisoner of their structural deformity.
Donny van de Beek for £35 million from Ajax last month was a good acquisition. The 23-year-old midfielder oozes talent, although his manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, so far has underplayed him in the three Premier League matches. Throughout the summer, United’s transfer activities centred around bringing on Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund. Eventually, his reported £108 million fee proved to be too expensive. Instead of the 20-year-old winger, United decided to settle for the 33-year-old Cavani on the deadline-day. The whole thing reeked of desperation.
The Uruguayan is an elite centre-forward with 341 goals in 556 club games. But injuries have hindered his career of late — just 35 games for Paris Saint-Germain over the last two seasons. Cavani, though, is a big-name signing and when in form, he will score goals. His work-rate, too, is excellent. But there’s every possibility that the Cavani acquisition could go the Radamel Falcao way. On the deadline-day in 2014, United had brought in the star Colombian forward on loan. He ended up making only 26 appearances and scoring four goals.
The reason why United failed in their pursuit of Sancho was that the club owners, the Glazers, and their frontman, executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, refused to loosen the purse strings. Dortmund held out to their valuation of the player, refusing to budge. All the while, Woodward maintained that the club wouldn’t be spending in excess of £100 million in a Covid-ravaged market.
Of course Cavani wasn’t United’s Plan B. A 33-year-old striker cannot be a Plan B for a 20-year-old winger. Cavani, as a free agent, was a part of United’s eleventh hour scramble. The club has roped in two wingers all right — Pellistri and Diallo. But they are spring chickens. Also, due to the work-permit issues, Diallo will not join the team before January. Sancho was Solskjær’s priority target.
United actually didn’t set their priorities right. A centre-back was the need of the hour. In the first three league matches, the team has conceded 11 goals. It could have been worse, for Brighton were denied by the woodwork five times. “We can talk about Sancho all we like but until United get a centre-back who can run and defend one-on-ones they are never going to win the league,” club legend Gary Neville told Sky Sports after United loss to Crystal Palace. Club captain Harry Maguire offers physicality but he is not quick enough. Victor Lindelof is good on the ball, but he is not commanding and poor in one-on-one situations.
Eric Bailly replaced Lindelof for the Tottenham game but stuck to his tendency of switching off at crucial moments. A fast and commanding centre-back like Dayot Upamecano should have been United’s priority this term. Telles has joined and as a full-back, he would be an upgrade on the injury-prone Luke Shaw. But United needed organisation and leadership at the heart of their defence. The club is suffering for not having a proper structure. Pundits know that, fans know that and maybe, Solskjær, too, knows that. This is Woodward’s seventh season in the transfer market. Matt Judge, the club’s head of corporate development, is their chief transfer negotiator. They have worked in tandem to make United a commercial behemoth off the pitch. But they are not football men and their weaknesses in transfer dealings have repeatedly been exposed.
A large section of United’s fan base is going full throttle with the ‘#GlazerOut and #WoodwardOut’ campaign. The Glazers have reportedly taken out north of £750 million from the club to repay their debt. At the same time, United have spent around £1 billion on new signings across four separate managers with completely different philosophies. But before Solskjær’s arrival, their spending had been directionless. Solskjær reset the team culture and brought in a youth policy — Cavani is an aberration, a mentor to the likes of Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood and Anthony Martial. Solskjær’s signings so far have had been effective, although Maguire looks a different player following the Mykonos incident, where he was arrested by the Greek police.
United need a director of football, someone like Marc Overmars, who, along with Edwin van der Sar, is working wonders at Ajax. The director of football works as a bridge between the manager and the board. He sets the transfer policy, flips through the pages of his contact books, negotiates with the footballers and their agents and ensures that the club has right players in the right places. He also ensures that transfer dealings are smooth, without paying over the odds. That United have been dithering on appointing a director of football attests their inaction. Or maybe, Woodward doesn’t want to cede control.
Between 2005 — when the Glazers took over — and 2013 United, though, were winning. But that was down to Sir Alex Ferguson’s managerial genius. Between 2005-06 and 2012-13, United won five league titles — three on the spin — and a Champions League crown. Even after selling Cristiano Ronaldo, they reached back-to-back Champions League finals. Sir Alex had the ability to take a sad song and make it extraordinary, to paraphrase The Beatles. He was the greatest of them all.
Is Solskjær the right man to take the team forward? The United board has invested heavily — in excess of £250 million on players — on the Norwegian. The team had a season of progress last term. Solskjær is liked by the players. Even after the Spurs humiliation, he didn’t throw his players under the bus. He is a good man, an honest trier. Jose Mourinho exposed his tactical shortcomings, the way he exploited United’s defensive vulnerability— Maguire and Shaw, and very little defensive protection from Rashford and Maguire. Solskjær didn’t have a counter-plan. He will be under pressure to take the team to next level this season.
United have a ready-made replacement in Mauricio Pochettino.