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How far off are Manchester United from being relevant again?

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The league table does not tell the full story — United are on the brink

Manchester United v Colchester United - Carabao Cup: Quarter Final Photo by John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

In the wake of yet another failure to overcome a team in the bottom half of the league table, the #OleOut brigade has climbed back out of hiding. Arguments ensue. Pundits begin chanting Mauricio Pochettino’s name again. Rival fans laugh. United fans despair. And in the midst of all the chaos, the same question continues to loom: How far off are Manchester United from being relevant again?

When looking at the dialogue surrounding United this season, one can determine relatively easily that it has been a borderline disastrous one. Some of the club’s worst performances in living memory have been put in right before the turn of the decade. The general criticism being lodged at Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his players have mirrored those performances, with many calling him out of his depth, and the squad being “miles away” from challenging for a title. But is this team really that far away from challenging the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool? The league table may plainly state as much, but a more angled look at the squad may suggest something else entirely.

Pundits have been quick to gloss over United’s exemplary record against top 6 sides this season. Most agree that their record is merely the product of a team that is good at playing a low-block and hitting on the break. Yet, the question begs to be asked: Why should this be something to scoff at? After all, it was Sir Alex Ferguson’s side that adopted a similar approach in the late noughties to such lofty success, particularly in Europe. That same period osaw United achieve an unprecedented amount of success in their own Champions League history, reaching the final back to back in 2008 and 2009, with accompanying league titles. With a trident of forwards that possessed pace and skill to burn in Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Carlos Tevez, United boasted the most fearsome counter-attacking side in all of Europe.

That is not to say however, that this was the sole tactic utilized by the side. It couldn’t be. Lower-table opposition in the league were more than happy to sit back in a low-block of their own and try to parse out a nil-nil draw, or steal three points with a goal on the break. Unlike the present, it rarely worked. No, this was a team that could play and win in multiple ways, against varying types of opposition. Breaking down a team that parked the bus was just another one of the myriad of strings in the bow of this last great Sir Alex Ferguson side. Such varied tactical flexibility is now rarely cited when remembering what is arguably still the greatest Premiership side of the 21st century.

That same tactical flexibility is not as readily seen perhaps in the two current flagship sides of the Premier League, Manchester City and Liverpool. Of particular interest is Pep Guardiola’s City team. If any criticism can be aimed at his side — and there are very few — it is that they only know how to play more or less, one way. That way however happens to also be extremely effective against low-blocks. Dazzling wing-play that spreads defenses is married to talented attacking midfielders who can thread the final ball through the gaps that form between the lines. It is a recipe familiar to that excellent United side, where their width on the wings allowed players like Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs, and even Rooney who liked to drop deep, to play the killer final ball through the middle.

The natural question should then be, how far off is the current United team from being able to consistently break down a low-block themselves? After all, if they are so adept at sitting back, surely all that is missing is the other side of the equation for them to become formidable contenders again. The irony is that they already possess a player in the injured Paul Pogba who would go some way to remedying that. Pogba’s natural ability to both see and execute a defense splitting pass against teams that sit back has been sorely missed in games like those against Newcastle and Aston Villa. His suspicious furlough on the sidelines however has even his most staunch defenders resigned to his inevitable exit in the upcoming year.

Therefore, how many players do United need to sign to beat the almighty low-block?

For starters, a certain one James Maddison would do. With the links to United refusing to go away for over a year now, it certainly seems as though the interest from both parties is real. As things stand, Maddison has played more successful through balls than any other player this season. His 13 through balls are in fact, more than half of United’s combined total of 22 this season. He has also created more chances than any other player in the league last season. In theory, this is the exact player that United need to upend bottom table teams.

For all the criticism that Ed Woodward soaked up in last summer’s window, if he can simply repeat the feat of bringing in 3 more players that all slot in next summer, United suddenly look a different proposition entirely. They can already do it against the upper echelon of the league, but if they bring in Maddison, or a no.10 of similar ilk, another winger, and a midfielder, United overnight look to go from a team with paper-thin depth in midfield, zero solutions to a low-block, and one terrible Andreas Pereira, to a team that can comfortably push 3rd place in the league. Many of the pillars of the next team have already been set. However, the media ratings that a story about a “crisis at United” generates, only shroud how far along they actually are in the rebuilding process.

It is perhaps too soon for a genuine title push in the 2020-2021 season, but with 3 astute signings in the summer, a campaign to at least keep Manchester City and Liverpool honest isn’t out of the question. One additional summer window after that to fine tune, along with the continued accelerated development of United’s immensely talented youngsters can feasibly reap a genuine title push by 2021-2022. A date much earlier than many fans would dare to dream of at this point in time.

Much of the existence of that possibility can be credited to Solskjaer’s handling of the excellent academy players coming through. The fact that opposing fans are still learning who Mason Greenwood is, speaks to Solskjaer’s determination to develop him at a sensible pace. The lingering sense however, that it is becoming near impossible to keep him out of the starting XI for much longer, is a testament to Greenwood’s immense talent and rapid growth. A talent which should see him lead the line through the next decade at Old Trafford. Rashford’s own consistently brilliant form is reminiscent of Ronaldo’s 2006/2007 season, where bags of potential have seemingly overnight turned into world-class product. The penny has dropped, so to speak. Brandon Williams has been nothing short of a revelation at left-back, while Axel Tuanzebe and others are in the pipeline.

In short, Solskjaer’s ability to develop young talent should not go unnoticed. The fruits of those labors have already begun to blossom, and should only bear greater returns in the coming seasons. It is largely unsurprising that the Norwegian’s ability — or lack thereof — to affect positive change at United has only been looked at through the myopic lens of the league table. It is also dumb.

Between the firehouse sales of veterans on bloated contracts, the rapid development of young talent, and successful signings, United’s day of resurrection is much closer than fans and pundits alike seem to realize. They sit one competent summer transfer window away from leapfrogging back into relevancy, and two summers away from possible glory.