By Bilal Ali
Manchester United is one the most successful football clubs in history, but the team currently playing its home games at Old Trafford bears no resemblance to the sides that made that statement undeniable.
If you look beyond the crest, home ground and colour of the shirt, you would be hard-pressed to distinguish between Manchester United and Crystal Palace, or any other side that plays the vast majority of its best football on the counter-attack.
United’s main plan of attack requires the opposition to overcommit when going forward; and when all else fails, one of United’s quick, tricky forwards tends to catch an outstretched leg of a despairing defender, resulting in a crucial penalty that often breaks a game wide open.
However, the team’s problems stem far deeper than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his inability to organise an operational press or break down a team sitting deep in its own half. The issues stem from a farcical football operations department; one bereft of a director of football.
For over two decades United was run autocratically by the iron-fisted and stubbornly successful Sir Alex Ferguson. While that structure bore remarkable fruit in those 26 years, the aftermath of Ferguson’s retirement has seen United fail to adapt to a changing sport: one that requires deep analytical assessment of players, as well as someone with the relevant football experience and qualifications to assess player signings and managerial appointments.
Manchester United’s record in the transfer market has been abysmal, with more misses that hits since Ferguson’s reign at the club came to an end – high-profile recruits such as Radamel Falcao, Angel Di Maria and Memphis Depay come to mind.
None demand more column inches than Paul Pogba, a player that has divided opinion amongst United fans in recent years, and today looks a shadow of the player that shone in the Juventus midfield of the mid-2010s. He even looks far-removed from the player that was named in the PFA Team of the Year as recently as 2019.
In the interest of full transparency, this writer has been a staunch backer of Pogba in the past, and I do not believe that Solskjaer is the right man for the job. But with the manager’s time at the club likely to end before a mass overhaul of the squad can be completed, I feel the need to focus on the playing squad and the deeper issues at hand.
Pogba has been left out of the Manchester United starting line-up on several occasions now, most notably against Paris Saint Germain in United’s first Champions League game of the season, and was once again left out in United’s most recent defeat to İstanbul Başakşehir.
Pogba is far from United’s only problem, but his substitute appearance against Başakşehir personified everything that is wrong with United’s current squad.
After coming on off the bench, Pogba appeared sluggish and constantly attempted low-percentage passes and dribbles, consistent with what his fellow midfielder Bruno Fernandes had been attempting since the start of the game, minus the long-legged dribbles and off-ball wrestles.
United’s number six has now long-appeared more concerned with building ‘Brand Pogba’ than the success of the club that brought him up through its academy. With Pogba hinting publicly on numerous occasions that he sees his future away from United, it’s time United cut its losses and find a way to move him on and recoup some of the handsome fee spent bringing him back to the club.
In this most recent game, United lacked urgency all over the field, and an over-reliance on Luke Shaw to be the creative spark had many United fans with their heads in their hands.
The defending for both of Başakşehir’s goals was pitiful – “inexcusable”, as Solskjaer rightly described it. Particularly the first goal, where Demba Ba was left unmarked in his own half with no defender between the Senegalese striker and the goal.
There is little doubt that the job is beyond Solskjaer, but you cannot wholly blame the manager for the lack of leadership, initiative and care shown by the United players against Başakşehir.
Anyone in Solskjaer’s shoes would be furious with the players, particularly with supposed leaders such as Fernandes and Harry Maguire, who both offered nothing in the way of leadership, either vocally or by example.
While removing the manager and replacing him with an experienced coach like Mauricio Pochettino could be a critical step in the right direction, the club also requires a crucial injection of football intellect in the operations side of the club. It all starts with recruiting the right players – and indeed the right characters – that would not roll over and allow a side their first ever UEFA Champions League win without putting up so much as a whimper.