Life in a 24/7 news cycle demands immediacy. Patience is a virtue that is no longer shared by the media or its consumers. Everyone needs more; more stories, more content. So it only makes sense that when nothing is happening the story becomes that nothing is happening.
In few places is this more true than for football writers. Access to managers and players is notoriously limited. Yet football writers have daily columns to write. In the internet world they have multiple daily posts to write.
And when you’ve been sent on a three week trip to the far east, you best be providing that content.
That’s why when Manchester United’s preseason tour of Australia and Asia was winding down, the stories turned from talking about the team’s on field exploits, to criticizing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and the board for what wasn’t happening.
The club said a rebuild was necessary but only two new signings had arrived. Solskjaer said many players would leave, but so far only Antonio Valencia and Ander Herrera had left. Solskjaer may have been talking the talk, but he wasn’t walking the walk.
“Talking the talk” of course refers to Solskjaer’s now famous comments following United’s 4-0 defeat to Everton last season.
“You have got to ask them. I have asked them. Of course if you want to play at this club, it has to be more.
“You can’t change your whole squad. One step at a time. I am going to be successful here and there are players who won’t be part of that.”
Guess what. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is staying true to his word.
On Tuesday, it was reported that Alexis Sánchez would be leaving on a season long loan to Inter Milan. His disastrous 18 month spell at Old Trafford featured five goals and nine assists and can be best summed up by nemesis Samuel Luckhurst.
Lesson learnt from the Sanchez signing is whoever the next #mufc number seven is his arrival will have to be given about as much fanfare as Lee Grant's. Sanchez was the South American Michael Owen: Helped decide a memorable derby. That was about it.— Samuel Luckhurst (@samuelluckhurst) August 27, 2019
What’s important to remember, and I stress this because it seems like people forget about it every day, is that rebuilds take time. You can’t overhaul your entire squad overnight. United tried to do that with José Mourinho and that’s part of the reason they’re in this mess.
As Solskjaer said, it has to happen one step at a time. Players will slowly leave, others will slowly come, others need to develop. It’s important to stress this: United aren’t trying to compete with Manchester City and Liverpool this year. They’re trying to build up so they can compete with them soon.
The Alexis loan is a significant step in United’s rebuild. It’s the first step in fully getting rid of him.
Sánchez’s impact on the pitch was somewhere between minimal and a disaster. His two assists against City were great. His goal against Newcastle may have kept the Mourinho era going two months longer than it had to.
Sanchez’s biggest contribution at Old Trafford was off the pitch, and it wasn’t good. His massive wages threw United’s wage structure out of balance and immediately created turmoil in the dressing room.
Looking at how (un)important Sánchez was to the team, versus how important they were, it’s no surprise that David de Gea and Paul Pogba wanted to restructure their contracts.
It’s because of Sánchez that Marouane Fellaini demanded a huge pay rise. The board stood firm, until Mourinho stepped in and gave him a two year contract. It’s because of that Fellaini deal that Juan Mata wanted a two year contract. Mata could be a useful player this year, but probably not next year.
The club used to have a policy that no one over the age of 30 got more than a one year deal. Fellaini and Mata got two. It all goes back to Sánchez.
Sanchez has been a heavy influence in how United have approached this summer’s window. As Solskjaer said, he wants players who want to be here. The shirt has to mean something to them, not the paycheck.
All summer long it was widely agreed that Sánchez and Romelu Lukaku needed to leave. They didn’t want to be here, nor did they fit the style of play Solskjaer wanted to play. The boss is staying true to his word; those two left and the club is still trying to offload Marcos Rojo and Matteo Darmian.
If United fans aren’t being defined as insatiable, they are quickly getting there. Now that Lukaku and Sánchez are gone fans are just moving on to the next thing to complain about. The club hasn’t signed a “proven striker” to replace Sánchez and Lukaku (who combined for all of 13 league goals last year).
Instead of complaining about this, fans would be better off trying to understand exactly why that hasn’t been possible.
British people are notoriously adverse to change. For 100 years English football was run in a certain way simply because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” The fans’ mentality is the same: Manchester United have a lot of money, and if they’re not spending that money it’s because they either don’t want to, or because of incompetence.
The market has changed. The team needs a striker, but who was available? The days of calling up Fulham and offering them £12.5 million — an amount of money that club needed — for Louis Saha are gone. All Premier League teams have money now, they don’t need to sell anyone. Look at this summer’s transfer window — how many players made upward moves from one Premier League club to another? Very few. There’s a reason everyone has to go shopping abroad these days.
The club knows they have positions of need. They didn’t neglect them this summer. Without Champions League football the best players aren’t exactly knocking on Old Trafford’s door.
The club tried to get Paulo Dybala but walked away when it was clear he would only come if he got a significant wage hike. They made a play for Christian Eriksen but he didn’t want to come. They could have signed Mario Mandzukić but then they’d simply be left in the same situation, an overpaid striker who doesn’t fit Solskjaer’s system brooding on the bench.
Fans wanted Bruno Fernandes, but if you know anything about how the transfer market works, especially in the days of deregulated agents, you’d realize there was never anything there.
(A few years ago FIFA stopped requiring agents to be registered. That’s led to a massive influx of “agents” who all claim to represent a player. Often times clubs have no idea if the person they’re talking to even knows a certain player. There are plenty of recent books that touch on how shady the transfer market is but this article from The Athletic sums it up best.)
Even if there was interest in Bruno, you could forgive a club that’s been burned on bad signings for wanting to wait a year before pouncing on a player who doubled his xG last year to see if he can keep up that form. It’s actually smart business!
It’s true that not signing a veteran puts a lot of pressure on not just United’s youngsters but on Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial. But that’s exactly what they need. Neither of them are even 24 years old yet. You need to challenge them to lead the team, otherwise they’ll perennially live in the shadows.
They’re starting out just fine. Martial has two goals in three games on eight shots (three shots on target). The eight shots is the concerning part. Martial is one of the most efficient strikers in the league. If he gets more shots he’ll score a lot of goals, but the problem is United aren’t getting him shots.
Like I said before, patience is a virtue that is not being shared by United fans. They don’t want to wait. They want to blame the loss to Crystal Palace on the lack of a proven striker, even though their current number 9 is on pace for 25 goals this year.
Rebuilds take time. It took Jurgen Klopp three years to turn Liverpool into title contenders, and even at the start of last season there were still some fans that thought sacking Brendan Rodgers for Klopp was a mistake.
United’s performances have been good so far. They have the lowest xGA in the league. They’ve just hit some bad luck. That’ll turn around. Yes there will be some frustrating games this year but what’s important is this:
Solskjaer has a long term plan. He’s sticking with it. Things are changing, and we just have to be patient enough to not look at it on a day to day basis. Go back to August 1st and look how much the team has changed.