Ole Gunnar Solskjaer enjoyed a phenomenal start as Manager at Manchester United, but their embarrassing 4-0 aggregate collapse to Barcelona highlighted the reality of his rebuilding task.
There was one stat that stood out for me. And it wasn’t even anything to do with possession, or shots on target, or dribbles. No, what stood out was a tweet that appeared after the final whistle had blown at Camp Nou. It summed up exactly how Manchester United have drifted so far away from Europe’s elite.
The fact that David De Gea, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Ashley Young were all a part of that squad isn’t just shocking. With the exception of De Gea, it’s damning. Because they were hardly world-beaters back then. Fast-forwards 8 years and their inclusion in a game of this calibre is indicative of United’s poor handling of affairs post-Ferguson.
They lacked quality, made mistakes, invited unnecessary pressure and generally looked well out of their depth against a relatively average Barcelona team (by recent standards). Granted, Lionel Messi was a cut above in this game, but this Barcelona team was there for the taking; with the right amount of quality and a composed approach from the right opponent. United showed glimmers of this at Old Trafford in the first leg, but the lack of quality was brutally exposed in Camp Nou.
Mistakes prove costly
The frustrating thing for United fans is that they actually started brightly. Marcus Rashford hit the bar after 2 minutes and the team pushed, pressed and countered diligently for the opening quarter of an hour, playing with the kind of probing and attacking style that will surely become Solskjaer’s hallmark. But this approach requires a lot of discipline in order to work; in the final third you have to take your chances, and in defense you have to concentrate to withstand a counter-attack. Sadly, United had discipline in neither area, and their sloppiness allowed Messi in after just 15 minutes to pretty much write off the tie.
The passage of play leading up to Messi’s opener (see video above) is hard to watch. Especially if you’re Ashley Young. This game felt like Young’s “Gary Neville moment“. He is no longer good enough to play for Manchester United, and yet bizarrely signed a contract extension in February. Alongside new deals also for Smalling and Jones.
United have lowered the bar massively in recent seasons. On this evidence it will cost a lot of money to get anywhere close to the elite level again.
If Solskjaer does oversee a summer clear-out of deadwood, that would mean around 10 players leaving the club. And for relatively low fees. Replacing 10 squad players with genuine quality – and potentially a couple of marquee names – will not be cheap. But United need it.
They’ve spent big in recent years and haven’t got anywhere near close to the level of quality that comes with those kinds of fees. A Director of Football and an actual transfer policy are a must.
Players potentially on their way out of the club:
Alexis Sanchez, Matteo Darmian, Antonio Valencia, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, Nemanja Matic, Romelu Lukaku, David De Gea.
Solskjaer’s blistering start as caretaker manager was clearly a result of the positivity he brought into the dressing room. Especially after the disharmony of the Jose Mourinho era. The feeling of invincibility that he somehow managed to instill into this group of players – and the results that he achieved – papered over just how weak this squad is. He got the very best out of them for weeks and must be applauded for that. But there’s a feeling now that United have hit their level.
Adding quality – and learning from mistakesEmbed from Getty Images
The board have reportedly given Solskjaer the funds for a rebuilding task at Manchester United this summer. He’s had the green light to sign a quality player for each position in the summer, which is the least they will need. Some of the names mentioned are undoubtedly the right calibre, but the question is, would they want to join United in their current guise?
Harry Maguire, Jadon Sancho, Declan Rice and Aaron Wan-Bissaka have all been linked with a move to Old Trafford. But luring them to United might prove difficult – especially if they fail to qualify for the Champions League. Even then, they are looking at around £300m to tempt their clubs before wages are even mentioned.
United have a crop of extremely talented youngsters in the ranks to add to any potential new signings. Solskjaer hasn’t been shy in involving Mason Greenwood and Tahith Chong with the first team squad so far. If United’s current squad players are making mistakes but are too old too learn from them, why not get the youngsters in more regularly?
Is Solskjaer the man to take on the task at Manchester United? It’s a huge one after all. A rebuilding job has been necessary at United since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. But every manager since then has failed to sign a player worthy of the shirt – in quality or attitude. The fact that so many mediocre players remain at the club from the Fergie era – and that so few signings have been a success – shows just how desperate the club is for a clear transfer policy.
That must come now, or else United will fall even further behind the elite. And on the evidence of the Barcelona defeat, United cannot afford to let that happen.