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Progress has been made this season, but problems remain at Manchester United

Can Man United solve their squad’s shortcomings in a single summer?

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Image: Dave Thompson

YOU KNOW THE old saying.

Football is a simple game: 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes after one set of players arrive at the stadium seven hours before kick off with beds added to executive boxes while the other sends a decoy bus to distract protesting, fulminating fans as they lope quietly in through a security-corralled back entrance. 

The drama of simply staging last night’s league game with Liverpool shows the fury with which Manchester United is presently gripped, as fans further raise the stakes against the vampiric Glazer regime. 

Gary Neville captured the moment with characteristic melodrama on Sky Sports. “Let’s be clear, what we’ve seen on that forecourt before is effectively Man United turned into a prison, it’s a devastating image for the Manchester United football club brand around the world.” 

Allowing for the soullessness of the empty stadia experience, up to last month it could be said that this was Manchester United’s most encouraging season since Alex Ferguson retired, but the roiling off-field furies and more recent on-pitch failings threaten to curdle the optimism.

There is certainly a renewed vigour and fervour behind the anti-Glazer protests but it’s difficult to see an acceptable end in sight. The protests are appropriate but they are enervating nonetheless: protests in the early years of the Glazer years bitterly divided parts of the match-going fan base. 

The absentee owners have given no indication they want to sell up, but have finally deigned to write a statement addressing fans, promising to invest in the playing staff and the club’s infrastructure along with stating their openness to the principle of supporters buying shares in the club. There was very little detail on that, mind. 

manchester-united-fan-protest-old-trafford Anti-Glazer protests outside Old Trafford last night. Source: PA

The Glazers have left United fans in a depressing reality: their club is not being run for their benefit.

Compared to the club’s existential drama it seems slightly churlish to talk about issues on the pitch, but while there has undeniably been progress made this season, there remain some deep flaws in the squad that must be addressed to catch up with an indomitable-looking City while keeping ahead of a rapidly-improving Chelsea and a Liverpool side who will surely be less torpid, tired, and unfortunate next season. 

The issue United may face is whether they have too many problems to address in a single summer. 

There is an emerging issue at goalkeeper: David de Gea’s form has passed from slump to a fundamental decline, though Dean Henderson has not been dominant in his stead.

As Liverpool made abundantly clear last night, the defence lacks depth in Harry Maguire’s absence. Victor Lindelof is a poorer player without Maguire beside him, while Eric Bailly is unconvincing and terribly injury-prone. 

Meanwhile, the eternal issue rages on: how to get the best out of Paul Pogba. 

Ole Gunnar Solskajer deserves great credit for how he has managed Pogba along with his agent’s strops this season, but given the other strengths at United’s disposal, there are questions as to whether what is best for Pogba is best for the team in important games.

Pogba is still not trusted to play at the base of midfield in the biggest games, but has consistently impressed off the left. The issue here is less what Pogba offers than what is lost in other areas. 

As was again the case against Liverpool, Pogba’s selection off the left meant Marcus Rashford was shunted to the right side, where he far less effective. When Solskajer changed things by substituting Fred, dropping Pogba deeper and putting Rashford to the left it paid immediate dividends. 

Rashford scored once, should have scored again in stoppage time, and linked superbly with Luke Shaw, with once overlapping run by the latter resulting in a goalmouth scramble which Nat Phillips ultimately cleared off the line.

United look a much more fluent attacking unit with Rashford on the left, but with Bruno Fernandes a guaranteed starter, it means Pogba’s position in the team further puzzles. 

Extending Cavani’s contract was a canny move on United’s part, but it remains doubtful whether he can continue to shoulder the responsibility of being United’s No.9 across a full season, though Mason Greenwood needs only to add consistency to solve United’s right-sided attacking problem. 

A Europa League win would crown a good season for Manchester United, but with shortcomings among the squad and a toxic battle being waged off the pitch, it remains to be seen to what extent they can mint this year’s progress into something more tangible next year. 

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Premier League Fixtures 

Friday 

Newcastle vs Manchester City 8pm 

Saturday 

Burnley vs Leeds United 12.30pm 

Southampton vs Fulham 3pm 

Brighton vs West Ham 8pm 

Sunday 

Crystal Palace vs Aston Villa 12pm

Spurs vs Wolves 2.05pm 

West Brom vs Liverpool 4.30pm 

Everton vs Sheffield United 7pm

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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