It’s too early to hit the panic button. We’re only 4 matches into what promises to be a predictably disappointing season. I don’t think it’s too early to say “I told you, Ed.” But there’s also a lot of media-driven hysteria, because Manchester United is the biggest club in the world and cheap media thrives on clicks. It’s important to separate the wheat from the chaff, the men from the boys, the truly concerning from the breathless sensationalism.
That 4-0 opening day win feels a world away now. A credible and unlucky performance saw United leave Molineux with a point and some residual optimism that the growing pains would be brief and bearable, rather than gnawing and frustrating. That good feeling vanished with a disappointing 2-1 defeat at home to Crystal Palace (more on that later). And somehow, it felt worse to draw 1-1 at St. Mary’s today, because of how unthreatening Southampton was. Now, with the international break, we have to sit here without the taste of a win for a fortnight. An underwhelming haul from the opening set of fixtures, but the football hasn’t been bad. Remember, if we had converted our penalties, we’d have 8 points from 12 and nobody would be complaining. And in any event, with 34 games to go, there’s no need to reach for the inhaler.
This is the most obnoxious hysteria being peddled by half-baked pundits and fumbling journos desperate to wind up the fanbase of the largest club in the world. 3 in 15, no away win since that night in Paris, worse win percentage than van Gaal, “taking out Ole’s first 11 games…”. It’s honestly ridiculous. It’s ridiculous because it’s a data set comprised of smashing the rear end of one season with the front end of another. It’s ridiculous because it picks an arbitrary point in time to start drawing comparisons. It’s ridiculous because the United team as currently constructed has played together in the league precisely 4 times. And it’s ridiculous because last season doesn’t matter and this season is embryonic. I really want United to hit a bit of form, not least to shut the Mirror, the Sun, and ESPNFC.com up.
The Penalty Taker Fiasco
Look, I know we’ve turned into Roy of the Rovers with all the recent British signings but we could really do without the Great British trait of missing important penalties. Having said that, there is nothing in the penalty taker debacle either. Rashford is a better penalty taker than Pogba, and he should take penalties going forward. Even his recent miss struck the inside of the post – usually indicative of a perfect penalty. By the way, did you know that United went through a similarly bizarre series of penalty misses in a previous campaign? Yes, early in 2012/2013, Robin van Persie, Chicharito, and Nani all took turns to fluff their lines from 12 yards out in the space of about 4 weeks. I’m not sure if you remember what happened that season… but, it’s not happening this year. My point is that the penalty situation is a nothingburger and it will pass. It was absolutely inexcusable for Pogba to be on receiving end of some disgusting racist abuse in the aftermath of his miss. That is the true crisis. United fans must always be better than that. And even if you are a racist, know that you’re doing the team no favours by affecting player concentration, morale, and commitment with your racist bullshit.
Predictable Squad Deficiencies
It’s not too early to say I told you so. Here’s the problem summed up in a nutshell: we need Paul Pogba to play further forward to have any creativity and bite in the final third but we also need Paul Pogba deep in the engine room to have any chance of winning the battle for control in the middle of the park. How might we have solved this problem four weeks ago?
In my opinion, you simply have to play Pogba further forward. He’s so talented and technically gifted, he’s underutilised in the deeper position. He should be the heartbeat of the team. This problem is amplified by the lightweight nature of the other creators in the team. Jesse Lingard and Andreas Pereira are essentially the same type of player – industrious, hard working midfielders who occasionally chip in with a goal or assist. Think Park Ji-Sung. There is room for one of them in any given starting XI, not both. We don’t have Ronaldo and Rooney in attack alongside them, like Park did. In both our games against Palace and Southampton, we lacked any real flair or bite going forward…until we brought Matic on and moved Pogba further forward. Unfortunately, Matic isn’t young enough or good enough to start many matches anymore. Our remaining hopes seem to rest with Fred, who has the potential to partner McTominay in midfield and free Pogba to play number 10. Unfortunately, Fred hasn’t even cracked the matchday squad so far this season, though I continue to believe he will play an increased role this season. We simply don’t have anyone else.
I continue to worry about goals. This team has the capacity to devastate on the counter, as seen against Chelsea, but we haven’t really shown the ability to unlock a defence. Dan James has been a revelation and I love him, but his skill set and past form doesn’t suggest sustained goalscoring is a part of his game. He’s going to regress to the mean eventually. Rashford has looked off-colour since his penalty miss, and Anthony Martial looked like he might be about to make the leap until he twanged his hammy instead.
At this point, it’s time to recognise that Luke Shaw and Martial are sufficiently susceptible to injuries that we need to stock credible covering players. Ashley Young, loyal servant though he’s been, is not a credible option. We should have moved for Kieran Tierney.
Poor Tactics and Selection
I think Ole has to catch some flack for his team selection in the last two matches. 79% possession against Crystal Palace at home – that’s a meaningful statistic. That’s a midfield battle that could have been won with Matic and McTominay as the axis in midfield and Pogba further forward. Instead, it was sterile and pointless possession. Again today, against a Southampton team that offered next to nothing going forward, we were unthreatening with Andreas as part of our attacking quartet. Because we did not strengthen in midfield in the summer, Pogba is our only true source of creativity. The sooner Ole realizes this, the better. I have reason to believe he will, because United only truly threatened Southampton when he brought on Matic and moved Pogba to number 10.
We have to be more aggressive against teams that sit back against us. An attacking quartet of Pogba, Rashford, Martial, and one of James, Lingard, Andreas, Greenwood, or Mata, will keep a defence honest. An attacking quartet of Rashford, Martial, James, and Lingard, is firewood without a spark.
I will look back on this period of my Manchester United fandom and remember it as the Jesse Lingard era. 27 years old and supposedly at the peak of his playing ability, Jesse Lingard is not useless. He works incredibly hard for the team, tracks back, links up reasonably well, and is a tireless runner, stretching defences. But he’s not dangerous. He has moments of brilliance, like the FA Cup winner, but he doesn’t excite, even though he looks like he should. He doesn’t threaten, even though he always seems to take up threatening positions. Altogether, perhaps because the composite parts should add up to a high quality footballer, he is deeply underwhelming. He’s still good enough to be in the squad, but he’s not what I thought he would be. In many ways, this Manchester United era mirrors Jesse Lingard. Occasionally exciting but, far more commonly, deeply ordinary. A team that should be excellent on paper is less than the sum of its parts. A team that is rarely consistently dangerous, even as it rolls the ball around in the opposing half. Even Lingard’s role in the squad – a fringe first team player – reflects United’s recent status as a fringe Top 4 team.
Apart from De Gea and Smalling, none of last season’s established first team players hark back to the Ferguson era. So in effect, that was the first team fully constructed by Ed Woodward. It is ironic that, after his ignorant, glitzy, and expensive splurges in transfer markets around the world, his first United team is best personified by an average and ultimately underwhelming homegrown player.