Man Utd rely on overperforming for too long and it needs to stop
When Chelsea and Manchester City stepped out at the Estadio do Dragao in Porto for the Champions League final, what was more impressive than the players on the pitch was the bench strength of the two clubs. Their squad depth almost made you feel like they are performing as per expectations and perhaps, only they should have reached the final.
Every single player on the Chelsea bench was a qualified international — including the would-be Scotland international Billy Gilmour. The Man City bench gave the impression of being good enough for a top four finish in the Premier League.
The very look of these two benches are the very denotation of the world domination mindset of the clubs and the club’s owners. And certainly, it did draw the gaze of the fans of the other club in Manchester, which has taken pride in winning trophies over the years but has now been left to overperform using stagnant resources.
Manchester United fans, in turn, looked at the bench that they had in their Europa League final in Gdansk on Wednesday evening. As much as it had a fair share of international players too, a large number of them were present just to make up the numbers. Nemanja Matic was a mere insurance policy, with Harry Maguire injured and Lee Grant only there for namesake as the second goalkeeper on the bench.
Fred was hardly a game changer and Brandon Williams is expected to leave, after falling down the pecking order. Juan Mata’s stock has reduced and he came on just for the penalty. Considering that Villarreal were very deep, Daniel James wouldn’t created a massive impact and Donny van de Beek hasn’t settled into the club because of numerous factors. Amad Diallo has sparkled but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is cautious about using the still physically docile 18-year-old.
Criticisms had risen amongst the fans about Solskjaer’s inability to make subs or his tendency to make them at the wrong time, when he perhaps had no reason to trust them in a final. He had Fred essentially half fit and was forced to play his most attacking team with Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay in the middle. Even when the clock was ticking past extra time, he trusted the same players that have carried United over the huge 60-game period.
It was the modern-day Man United in a nutshell — a far cry from how things were for the Champions League finalists and their riches in the squad. It was the Man United which finished second, as a result of overperformance rooting from the failures of others and constant dependency on a bunch of the same players (and playing some brilliant football and getting great results, to be fair). It’s the Man United which, for the nth time, didn’t get the resources it needed to compete over the summer of 2020. It’s the Man United where progress is perpetually slower than other clubs regardless of the quality of managers- almost like time slows down at the place, if the leaking Old Trafford roof wasn’t a throwback and the lack of matchday experience at the club wasn’t a thing of the 1990s.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, this isn’t about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Jose Mourinho, Louis van Gaal, David Moyes or Sir Alex Ferguson. It’s about the Glazers and their tendency to fool the club’s fans, almost fibbing them into thinking that this grand old club is meant to be winning trophies of the highest level using a limited level of resources in the squads in place.
Jose Mourinho famously said that finishing second with ‘that’ Man United squad in 2018 was the biggest achievement of his career. As much as the Portuguese has had bigger achievements than that, United overperformed on their Expected Goals metric by a solid +10 that season and at the conclusion of the campaign, Jose was left crying out for defensive recruitments that never came.
On a fairer day, Manolo Gabbiadini’s goal should’ve been given in the League Cup final of the 2016/17 season and John Guidetti would’ve bundled in a winner from three yards out for Celta in the Europa League semi-final of that season. There were incredibly fine margins United got massively lucky out of that season and in the league, they finished sixth. And for anyone sensible, the league finishes reflect more upon your quality as a team. Knockout tournaments can change at the flip of a coin.
Even in the frustrating 2018/19 campaign, United overperformed on xG despite finishing well behind the top four. It was a squad with barely reliable defenders and some players that don’t even find themselves in the team now. Solskjaer created magic out of whatever he had in a limited period, before they fell to mean again, losing to Everton, Cardiff and failing to beat Huddersfield Town.
As a result of a sensational second half of the 2019/20 campaign, they finished third while overperforming on xG once again. Their first half of the season was desolate. Issues in the team still weren’t fixed over the summer and it took six months for Bruno Fernandes to be dragged into Carrington, but when squad depth improvement was needed in the summer of 2020, it was a massive let down — despite the manager earning the trust.
Once again, when a proper number seven to Cristiano Ronaldo was needed by having to spend big and fix the good old right-wing issue, a free-agent striker (no disrespect to my favourite player — Edi Cavani) was brought in to become the number seven. A bit like how Gabriel Obertan was seen as the Ronaldo replacement back in the days, as the number seven jersey was handed to a free agent striker in Michael Owen.
No centre-back was signed over the summer of 2020, despite a stinking need which came to the fore when Victor Lindelof was almost trying to almost catch a flying duck in the set-piece that saw Gerard Moreno score. The dreaded Jadon Sancho saga turned into a running joke, as United failed to sign an established right-winger and had to rely on a forward playing on the right, leading to Villarreal identifying the one-dimensionality in how United played from the left.
It is crucial to note that barring the legendary Antonio Valencia, United haven’t had a proper right-winger in ages. Angel di Maria was signed as a midfielder by Van Gaal and Daniel James was never meant to be a regular and his spurts have also been a massive overperformance. Valencia was turned into a right-back, leading to Van Gaal and Mourinho often relying on a number ten to play on the right. Mourinho even had to pigeonhole Anthony Martial and Alexis Sanchez in that position and there was a point when Solskjaer had to play Diogo Dalot on the right in a 4–4–2 shape.
Marcus Rashford faced criticism for his performance and to be fair, it was his worst showing in a United jersey. But him playing his socks off despite injury since September and getting racially abused after a poor final is a fitting reflection of what United are — a club forced to rely on their youth graduates (or in other cases, misfits) essentially crippling themselves to debilitation and to be abused when bad performances come in when he’s basically finished in a physical and mental sense. Again, that was Man United in a nutshell.
It was barely a coincidence that United’s record defensive signing — poor Harry Maguire, was watching on from the bench helplessly in the final. Many years ago, then record signing Dimitar Berbatov was watching United from the stands in the Champions League final of 2011. Circumstances could’ve been so different if United had the right structure and would’ve signed the right profiles to help out their record signings, instead of making them look like the final pieces of the jigsaws.
Poor Mason Greenwood, who’d go on to be a top player, has played out of position for too long — without mercy. That is hardly Solskjaer’s fault. If he plays Daniel James there, a certain section of fans will be at his back. The Norwegian took United to second place when no one expected him, overperforming massively on xG. Vociferous sections of the club’s fans said — we should be closer to the title.
People barely realise that breaking down low-blocks isn’t Ole’s issue only. It was Mourinho’s issue too. It was Van Gaal’s major issue too. It was Moyes’ issue too. Can it be a coincidence? Probably not, because when was the last time United had a right winger stretching play, creating spaces inside for midfielders to use and make late-runs into? When was the last time (bar the aged Nemanja Matic) did United have a line-breaking defensive midfielder to cut open packed defensive lines?
Daley Blind was one and he’s still a beautiful footballer. He became collateral damage to managerial instability which led the club to LvG to Jose and reached the Champions League semi-final and was seconds away from the final until Lucas Moura turned up. He could still come in and become the defensive midfielder that United are crying out for but it is what it is with him too — a regret borne out causes known to everyone but not to those who are responsible.
David Moyes needed a central midfielder in the summer of 2013 but got Marouane Fellaini — a chaotic anti-christ of what a midfielder represents (a cult hero regardless). In January 2014, he needed another central midfielder, he got Juan Mata and the Spaniard was, like many others, played on the right-wing so many times by Van Gaal and Moyes. That’s the paradox United are.
When people say United should be winning trophies at the highest level, I laugh, deep inside. Sir Alex Ferguson had Darron Gibson score against Bayern Munich. Tom Cleverley became England’s number ten shirt holder for a brief while under Fergie. The Jonny Evans who was hounded out by the club’s fans later because of shocking performances, delivered a masterclass at the Bernabeu in 2013 under Sir Alex. If United should be winning trophies at the highest level, they’d be massively overperforming and it is extremely rare and more than anything, very unsustainable.
As much as they should’ve beaten Villarreal on Wednesday, Man United are never going to win major trophies regularly till the time the You Know Whos are there and it doesn’t matter who the manager is.
Solskjaer’s footballing idea is all about taking risks. The Glazers’ idea of running the club though, is about taking no risks at all. Invest only as much as they need to make top four. Because if they take risks, spend big regularly and the team’s position in the table doesn’t justify the sum spent, they’ll be at a financial loss. And if they’re at a financial loss, there is no structure at the club that has the brains to sell the players at the right time, for the right amount to make up for some losses and reduce the financial loads.
Chelsea and Manchester City can be in a loss many times. But especially for Chelsea, there is a structure in place which handles transitions, sells players right, signs the right players and makes up for losses using all of that and by winning things. United are and were — even sometimes in Sir Alex’s era, a hypocrisy. Almost like a sanctimony moulded by the Glazers to fool the fans.