They say it’s like Groundhog Day. That two consecutive summer transfer windows could end with such a whimper is certainly an indictment of the Glazers’ ownership of Manchester United but the scene is different this season.
Firstly, the fans are behind the manager. The fans trust Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and don’t suspect that he would try and sell Anthony Martial in order to sign Willian. The fans know that Solskjaer hurts when the team is underperforming. They don’t know if he can fix this, but it helps to know that he feels it too. The fans could see in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s face on Friday morning that he has already been beaten down by the job, and inactivity in the summer transfer market.
The fans suspect that Ole shares their main grievance: the Glazer family.
The biggest difference between August 2018 and 2019 in Manchester is the outright anger of the fanbase. Last August had the usual Glazer disgruntlement, but this summer has really upped the ante. It seemed like the #GlazersOut movement had flamed out in late July when #fivekeyquestions for the Glazer ownership started trending, an open letter to the Glazer family asking them to explain their running of the club.
More than most, #fivekeyquestions garnered serious traction in its first few hours but was washed away by news of a super signing, and a rumoured trade of Romelu Lukaku for Argentina’s second-best footballer, Paulo Dybala. The trade was never to happen and the cynics among us might question the timing. A super juicy transfer rumour arriving at the perfect time to drown out supporter unrest for a little while.
Dybala never signed. Nor did Bruno Fernandes or Christian Eriksen and it was all merely gossip column fodder to keep the fans entertained. What is most disappointing is that while United were supposedly in the running for Dybala and Eriksen at least, both of these seemed last minute efforts that just happened to fall into their laps, with no real long term agenda or strategic transfer planning. It was a bit like Alexis Sánchez all over again.
Was Dybala ever going to sign? Or was it a mere effort by the ownership to distract the fans for a while? It was almost too good to be true, and all it served to do this time was kill supporter unrest.
For a while.
While the fans last summer were divided on Mourinho, this summer they are content with Ole, or perhaps certain that no manager could work effectively under the negligence of the Glazers and Ed Woodward. For his part, Solskjaer looked a beaten man in Friday’s press conference and will be hoping that good will, luck and sheer belief in his players will carry him through the season.
The job has changed Solskjaer already. That was evident last season. How quickly the Norwegian transitioned from “it’s easy to play football when you have good players” after the Cardiff victory in December to “Some of these players won’t be here next year” after the Huddersfield draw in May. On Friday, Solskjaer trotted out a new line: “We would rather trust the [players] we have than have a quick fix.” Words of a beaten man already we fear, and the supporters will suspect beaten by the Glazer machinations.
Manchester United’s already under-fire manager has worked to improve his team in pre-season. United had the tenth worst defensive record in the Premier League last season —conceding 54 goals, more than the top four, but also more than Newcastle, Leicester City, and Crystal Palace. Those 54 goals seem a slight aberration in that Manchester United probably conceded more goals than they should have been expected to concede (their xGA, or expected goals against was actually 52 which still seems high). It encompassed significant defensive frailties under the Mourinho reign and David De Gea’s crisis of confidence towards the end of the season.
These defensive fragilities of United have been addressed in the summer. Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka have both been signed to plug the defensive holes and ideally give the team a better chance of winning, especially when the team isn’t leaking goals.
The foundation of Manchester United’s good season will be defensive solidity and the players showing faith in Solskjaer; the players acting like they believe this is a man that can lead them to footballing success and to further their own careers. They played like this in December and January before slowly sowing the seed that fitness, or lack thereof – a problem rooted in Mourinho’s awful preseason last summer – was the real reason for Solskjaer’s men failing to continue to prosper as the season progressed last season.
Was it fitness, or did Solskjaer’s only tactical innovation – splitting the forwards and having Lingard drop deep – get found out? We shall soon see, but for the good of Manchester United’s supporters’ mental health, they will hope it was the former rather than the latter.
For now, Solskjaer will need to paper over the cracks in Manchester United’s foundation, cracks caused by years of mismanagement by the Glazer family. Papering over those cracks will not be easy, but he has thrown his chips down on defensive solidity and youth. He will need more than that; he will need to be lucky. He will need to pick the right teams and make the right decisions, but there is more to managing Manchester United than just that. Only time will tell if fan protests will be the hallmark of the year, or whether Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can inspire something special in this insipid Manchester United squad.