While December days are dark and drab, March springs the sense that there is something beautiful out there; in life, in nature, and certainly in football. Manchester United fans have learned to believe again. Ole’s at the wheel. It is eight successive away wins in all competitions. It is the humming of those V8 Pogba and Herrera engines. It’s the belief that Marcus Rashford, that young talent who had José Mourinho reacting angrily to his miss against Young Boys in November, is now unstoppable and certainly undroppable.
Things are falling into place in Manchester and the fans are excited. Jesse Lingard, that player once so divisive among Manchester United fans, now has his absence felt in the Manchester United lineup. Victor Lindelöf is looking for his permanent partner in the United defence.
That things are running so smoothly presently in certain aspects of the squad has drawn stark contrast to areas in which things are not working as well. The recent injury crisis to hit Manchester United, one which has afflicted Nemanja Matić, Ander Herrera, Juan Mata, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard has highlighted a lack of depth.
Solskjaer’s success has come off the back of a largely unchanged lineup, and these injuries have now raised questions about the quality of the squad. Certain players — namely Alexis Sánchez and Fred — have come under intense scrutiny following their big money moves to Manchester.
The duo – namechecked by the now infamous Ole’s at the Wheel song – appeared in the starting XI for the first time together on Wednesday night away to Crystal Palace. The fact that neither would have been in the starting XI had it not been for injuries elsewhere is indicative that their moves have not yielded success just yet.
Two questions have to be asked. What has gone wrong for the pair? Are their careers in Manchester redeemable?
Fred’s absence from the Manchester United team this season has been more noticeable than that of Sánchez. Sánchez has had to compete with a successful front three pairing with the additional factor of Romelu Lukaku also needing game time. Fred has been overlooked by both Mourinho and Solskjaer repeatedly and the feeling is that his performances in training must have been underwhelming.
His performance against Wolves in late September was a rare cameo and another in which he underwhelmed. Observers on Wednesday night believed that he struggled greatly with the pace of the Premier League and has not yet adapted. The same was once said of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Fabinho at Liverpool. Whether Fred can adapt remains to be seen but the early indications are not positive when he is being likened to famed Manchester United failures Kleberson and Eric Djemba-Djemba.
The fact that Solskjaer was forced to leave a yellow-carded Nemanja Matić on the field in the PSG game despite the real possibility of a red card destroying Manchester United’s hopes would indicate he has little faith in his midfield options. It is very likely that had Marouane Fellaini not departed Manchester United in January that he would be above Fred and even Andreas Pereira in the midfield pecking order. The failure of these players to properly grasp the nettle has meant that Manchester United’s midfield options are greatly stretched.
The Alexis Sánchez issue should be far more troubling than that of Fred. Sánchez can hardly be struggling with the pace of the Premier League. While Fred had played well in the Champions League last season, he has not demonstrated the week-in, week-out Premier League and La Liga pedigree that Sánchez has. Sánchez single-handedly destroyed Manchester United at the Emirates during the Louis Van Gaal reign.
Sánchez has produced some important moments, such as his goal against Tottenham at Wembley last year or his winning goal against Newcastle in October, but these have been fleeting. Beyond these, he has failed to get involved and contribute in a meaningful way.
The only thing that Sánchez and Fred have achieved thus far for Manchester United was preventing their rivals Manchester City becoming stronger. It now seems that if these players don’t begin to contribute in the next few months that they are unlikely to be at Old Trafford next season.
How likely is it that the pair will find their feet? United fans will hope that Fred can at some stage adapt to Manchester, but it is taking a very long time.
As for Sánchez, the Chilean has proven himself a fantastic player, a proven champion and a real game winning talent, but it is possible that Manchester United are just not the right club for him at the moment. United under Solskjaer look to be a team built around fast attacking wide players, and at thirty years old, Alexis Sánchez may have arrived at Old Trafford at the wrong time to best harness his incredible skill set. Ander Herrera is currently doing his best to champion the cause of Sánchez at Manchester United and while this is admirable, it seems like it might be a futile exercise.
Fred and Sánchez might be the last of the Morgan Schneiderlin, Memphis Depay and Angel Di Maria brigade signed during the Ed Woodward reign; top quality, skilled players who just failed to make the grade at Manchester United. In a letter to Eric Cantona in 1997, Alex Ferguson wrote about the difficulties of playing for United, and the difficulties Teddy Sheringham was having in adjusting to United’s game:
“[Teddy] is finding it difficult to find the space he got at Tottenham and is playing deep so we have some adjusting to do. Players sometimes don’t realise how difficult it is to play at our level because every game is a Cup Final for our opponents so I just hope he can do it for us.”
Fast forward twenty years and the same can now be said about Fred and Alexis Sánchez at Manchester United. It’s a big club, and sadly too big for some.