We should have enjoyed it more, if it’s actually over: the period when Manchester United couldn’t help tripping over their own dick, burnt name managers just because they had a name, bought mediocre players for astronomical prices just to appear to be in action, and have generally turned their wheels. All thanks to Ed Woodward, a banker who was able to play Football Manager in real life and do it badly. It was frankly heaven.
But it’s only been so long since England’s richest club will stumble around the party before passing out in the bathroom with the door locked before realizing changes need to be made. And we could be there.
The summer for United began with the calming conclusion to the year-long Jadon Sancho saga, who is now officially on board. Attacking wasn’t necessarily United’s problem last season, as they scored the second-most Premier League goals. But they did so by far exceeding the number of expected goals they set, which you can’t count on repeating year after year. Ask Liverpool. Sancho across from Marcus Rashford in the top three with Bruno Fernandes pulling the strings behind is a truly terrifying thought, because while Gareth Southgate may not be of much use to him, he’s still a player to accumulate 38 goals and 45 assists in the Bundesliga for a Champions League team before his 21st birthday. Sancho’s vision will mean teams can’t just cover Fernandes in midfield and pray that’s enough to cut United’s attack, assuming Paul Pogba is riding fences in his own mind (which he does usually).
But hey, United have already scored a lot, and as good as Sancho is, he can’t really improve his score, can he? I mean, it was already a dangerous offensive team before, and with Mason Greenwood and Rashford one more year, it was going to be again, right? It’s just frosting, not the real cake, right?
Yeah well, about that …
This week brought the news that United have also signed Raphael Varane from Real Madrid, which is probably the real problem for everyone. Varane is 28, at the peak of his career, and comes to Manchester after being the starting center-back of two La Liga winners and four Champions League winners. Launch a World Cup like France’s in 2018, and you clearly have a real colossus to deal with.
United spent some $ 111million on Harry Maguire two seasons ago to form the basis of their squad, just as Liverpool bought Virgil van Dijk to anchor theirs, Chelsea imported Thiago Silva to be theirs, then City would find Ruben Dias to be theirs. But it didn’t quite work that way. Maguire certainly wasn’t bad, and United’s defense wasn’t a clown’s car, but it wasn’t enough, because:
A. They haven’t really found a suitable partner for Maguire, and
B. Maguire aren’t really commanding the defense as United probably hoped. Varane also didn’t have to make it in Madrid with Sergio Ramos and his various medieval spells and weapons. But Ramos missed most of last season with injury and Madrid were still stingy, allowing just 28 league goals and also advancing to the Champions League semi-finals. Varane had a big role to play in all of this. Combined with Maguire, Luke Shaw (who could have been England’s best player at Euro 2020) and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, United could perhaps present the Premier League’s top four full-backs next season, at least defensively.
That’s not to say it’s automatic, of course, if you need to hope United continue to be finicky. Firstly, Varane took advantage of playing behind Casemiro in Madrid, one of the best defensive midfielders in the world. Fred or Scott McTominay are hardly Casemiro. There could therefore be a motorway at the Porte de Varane to which he is not used.
Two, United still lack certainty in their central striker. They are either bones on the edge of dust by Edinson Cavani, or Anthony Martial, whose name has become synonymous with “mercurial”. (which seems like a label that French players get more than any other, but that’s what happens when you’re French I guess. As you’ll see in a second here). The hope for United fans would be that with the death trio Rashford-Fernandes-Sancho playing behind and around any striker, all the team would need is someone who can stand still whatever. goes between the penalty spot and the penalty area and they’re ‘I’m just going to put the ball in the net (again, the Nuno Gomes football method).
Third, there won’t be such an open bridge for United in the league. Liverpool are highly unlikely to watch every center-back end up in a wheelchair again, Chelsea will not waste any part of the season with Frank Lampard as manager, and City are City.
Fourth, there is still the Paul Pogba problem, as he turned down a new contract and recently blasted PSG in much the same way he did at Madrid or Juventus in the past. over the years. It could be a real headache this time around as he only has this year left on his contract and United will be more desperate to get anything for him rather than letting him turn into a free agent.
The biggest factor that could undo all of this is manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. There are still questions as to how good he is and what effect he has, although he turned out to be more than the glorified talking mascot of the good old days he first thought of. If he had the good sense to just tell Fernandes, Rashford and Greenwood and whoever else to ‘go play’, it has worked well enough so far. The addition of Sancho only increases that, but to bring home one of the biggest trophies, Solskjaer will have to do more than be on the sidelines.
Although if he can’t and United hire a world-class manager, then we could really be in trouble.