Ole Gunnar Solskjaer stood dejected at Goodison Park last year following Manchester United’s 4-0 defeat to Everton, when he effectively said that some players had played their final games in a United shirt.
“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.”
Solskjaer had a very big rebuilding job ahead of him. There was a lot of deadwood in the squad that needed to be cleared out, and he said he would do it.
As he also said, it would be one step at a time. Selling players (especially ones on big wages) isn’t easy and doesn’t happen overnight. Fans started to lose faith in Solskjaer’s words when August began and much of that deadwood was still with the squad.
However, by the time the European transfer window slammed shut, Solskjaer had been true to his word. Seven senior squad members had left the club either permanently or on loan with the intent of it eventually being permanent. After three transfer windows at the club, that number is now nine.
But what has gone on with those players who left, and how is the club doing without them? How about we take a look.
Marouane Fellaini (Undisclosed: Shandong Luneng)
The first move Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made was allowing Fellaini to leave and sign with Chinese club Shandong Luneng. Fellaini scored eight goals and had three assists in his first season as he helped Shandong finish all the way in... fifth. Good for him!
The reality is even with all the big goals Fellaini scored — and there weren’t as many of them as you think — Fellaini was never good enough for what a Manchester United player should be. His game certainly doesn’t fit the style of play that Solskjaer wanted. Sure United were a little depleted in midfield earlier this season and just needed bodies, but keeping Fellaini, and his wages, to be a sixth or seventh choice midfielder would never have been worth it.
Antonio Valencia (Released)
A long time servant of the club, but by last season it was clear that Valencia just couldn’t hack it anymore. He made just four league starts under José Mourinho before he was dropped and only made one appearance under Solskjaer before the Norwegian made a decision on him.
Valencia returned to Ecuador joining Liga de Quito, a team familiar to anyone who remembers the 2008 Club World Cup. United signed 21-year-old Aaron Wan-Bissaka as a replacement, and he has already provided twice as many assists as Valencia did in his final two years with the club. I think they’re doing all right.
Matteo Darmian (£3.6 million: Parma)
Darmian is a first choice player for 7th place Serie A club Parma. He made seven total appearances for United last year. Did you even notice he was gone?
Chris Smalling (Loan: AS Roma)
Smalling has had a great run in Italy for 5th place Roma and has been outstanding in the Europa League. He’s been an undeniable success and If they could agree on a price, Roma want to make the deal permanent.
No one at Old Trafford ever doubted Smalling’s ability to defend. It’s his ability to pass from the back, a skill which both Solskjaer and England manager Gareth Southgate highly value, that is lacking. For that he was never going to fit. United replaced him with Harry Maguire and have a much improved defense.
Alexis Sánchez (Loan: Inter Milan)
Unfortunately for United, Sanchez has spent his time in Italy exactly the same way he spent his time at Old Trafford: either injured or being completely ineffective on the pitch. Inter aren’t interested in extending the deal, and while Atletico Madrid may provide United with a lifeline, it’s looking pretty bleak. Sánchez’s astronomical wages make it nearly impossible to offload him.
Do they miss him? Well United are doing just fine in the cups and Daniel James has already matched Sanchez’s total Premier League production with the club, so you tell me.
Marcos Rojo (Loan: Estudiantes)
Rojo made nine appearances in all competitions for United this season which was about seven more than I would have expected. He was actually pretty good when called upon (barring one error vs Liverpool that cost United two points) and his absence against Sheffield United was a pretty big loss.
United have been trying to offload Rojo for nearly two years now and they have finally been able to do it. With the return from loan of Axel Tuanzebe, Luke Shaw blossoming as a left center back in a back three, and the emergence of Brandon Williams, they have pretty good cover on the left side of their defense.
Ashley Young (£1.28 million: Inter Milan)
There were many fans who were annoyed that Young was still on the team at the start of the season, which was a little much. Young is a totally competent deputy fullback and he answered the call whenever he was called upon. Given Luke Shaw’s injury record and Solskjaer’s obvious distrust of Diogo Dalot, the boss didn’t want to let Young go in January, but the former club captain got an offer that he didn’t think would come in the summertime and wanted to take it.
Young slotted in at left wing-back for an Inter side that was sitting 2nd in Serie A, two points behind leaders Juventus. Since Young’s arrival Inter have slid down to third place, nine points behind the Old Lady.
I hate pinning things on one player since there’s so much more going on (hey, they signed Christian Eriksen too). However, prior to Young’s arrival Inter’s xG and xGA per game were 1.86 and 0.96 respectively. Since Young’s arrival the xG has fallen to 1.43 and the xGA has risen to 1.37. Again, not saying it’s all Young’s fault, but when you’re a wing back that is...not good.
On the positive side, Young is dishing out really good COVID-19 advice from Italy.
‼ Most importantly, just stay safe! This is what we are doing here, it’s not an overreaction, it’s staying safe. And just remember others should be looking at you in this way as well. It’s not horrible, it’s a way of keeping your distance to ultimately help save lives.— Ashley Young (@youngy18) March 24, 2020
Romelu Lukaku (€80 million: Inter Milan)
It seems like every time Lukaku scores a goal this year we hear about it. That was especially true in the first half of the year when Anthony Martial’s injury left United without a presence up top.
The biggest knock against Lukaku was never that he couldn’t score, it was that he couldn’t score against the big teams. In his two years at United, Lukaku scored 28 Premier League goals, but only one came against a top six opponent (a header against a Chelsea side that finished five points off the top four that year).
Since moving to Serie A it’s been, well...
Romelu Lukaku this year:— Pauly Kwestel (@pkwestel) March 9, 2020
25 appearances: 17 goals 2 assists (0.79 goal involvements per 90) 2.97 shots/90
Lukaku vs top four teams this season
5 games: 0 goals 1 assist
0.20 goal involvements per 90. 2.09 shots/90
Even in Italy, it's more of the same for Lukaku #MUFC
Last week it was “revealed” that Solskjaer wanted to keep Lukaku at Old Trafford, though frankly we knew that back in November when Lukaku said he wanted to leave after Solskjaer played him on the right wing. Lukaku has played on the wing before, and he notably shone there for Belgium in their quarterfinal match against Brazil at the 2018 World Cup.
In Solskjaer’s system he would have been a great fit coming off the right for United this year.
This is exactly the role OGS envisioned for Lukaku. Come off that right wing with the space that's opened up from Martial dropping deep and be lethal with that left foot. He didn't want to play it. It's as simple as that #MUFC pic.twitter.com/3dscuqD5fj— Pauly Kwestel (@pkwestel) February 10, 2020
Against the big clubs United haven’t missed Lukaku in the slightest. They’ve got three wins each against Chelsea and Manchester City, as well as wins against Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur, and Leicester City. But it would be wrong to say they couldn’t have used the Belgian early in the season when they struggled against the likes of Bournemouth, Newcastle, West Ham, Sheffield United, Aston Villa, and Watford.
When push comes to shove though, Lukaku didn’t want to be here. For the wages United were paying him, to turn him into a striker who only comes of the bench or plays against lesser teams would have been crazy. Not to mention the complete disruption Lukaku was causing in the dressing room as his days at the club wound down. They simply had to move on from him.
Even if we haven’t seen Mason Greenwood as much as we’d like, Lukaku’s departure paved the way for the teen to get more experience. For that alone United are better off.
Ander Herrera (Released)
This is the big one. The one everyone always circles back to. You don’t need me to tell you how important Herrera was to this team last year, especially once Solskjaer took over, but I’ll do it anyway.
From the time Solskjaer took over, when Herrera started, United won 80% of their games compared to 36% without him. Win percentage is a dumb stat to assign to individual players but we can look at two other things. With Herrera, United won 2.60 points per game, while without him, that number fell to 1.27. Also, during the 801 minutes Herrera was on the field United had an xG per 90 of 2.28, compared to 1.70 in the 999 minutes without him.
United wanted to re-sign Herrera. Herrera wanted astronomical wages (reported to be anywhere from £200,000/wk to £350,000/wk depending on the source). United needed to get their wage bill in order, and even if they didn’t, there was no way Ander Herrera should be on those kind of wages.
Maybe they could have negotiated and worked something out, but United botched the negotiations, made everything really impersonal, and Herrera got offended and never sat down at the table. It is what it is.
Last year Herrera was irreplaceable, but the question is: are United missing him this year?
According to Statsbomb, this is what Herrera brought to the table.
Now, Statsbomb has access to much more, and much fancier, data than I do so I can only do so much when I try to replicate things on my own to compare players. The big area that I’m lacking is in the pressures and pressure regain areas, especially because Herrera jumps off the chart there. I used tackle percentage x tackles won (amount of times you went into a tackle and your team regains possession from that) to try and replicate it. Admittedly, neither of those stats are perfect let alone great, but what matters is we’re comparing everyone on the same scale.
For context, this is what Herrera looks like on my radar.
During pre-season, Solskjaer talked up Scott McTominay and Andreas Pereira as potential internal replacements for Herrera. Pereira has mostly been played as an attacking player, but in the few times he’s played as a central midfielder he’s been nothing short of horrific.
As for McTominay, he started the season as part of a two man base with Paul Pogba. It’s not totally the role Herrera played, mainly because Pogba was next to him rather than being out in front him.
He wins more fouls and gets the ball deeper than Herrera, but defensively there’s been a big drop off.
But then there’s Fred, who didn’t play a big role last year but has really come into his own this year.
Like Herrera, the offensive output is lacking, but defensively Fred is actually stepping into Herrera’s role quite nicely. We also have a Statsbomb look at what Fred did after his first roughly 11 games.
He’s not totally there but Fred has really stepped up as a potential replacement for Herrera, especially in that vaunted pressures area where both of their numbers are extremely high for midfielders.
United have not completely replaced Ander Herrera, but it would be really hard to say they’re still missing him. They certainly did at the beginning of the season. Having Herrera would have let them push Pogba higher up the pitch against Wolves, Crystal Palace, and Southampton, which would have benefited the attack.
But once Pogba went down, a midfield pair of Fred and Herrera or McTominay and Herrera probably wouldn’t have improved the results that much. United’s problems had far more to do with their attackers than their midfielders.
Was it worth it to let Herrera leave?
Well, Herrera’s first season at PSG has been hampered by injuries. He’s picked up separate injuries this year to his calf, thigh, and hamstring. For a player who runs around a lot and mucks it up in the midfield those are not good signs. He’s started just six Ligue 1 matches this year, with two of them coming at right back!
Herrera can say everything he wants about not having wanted to leave United and how much he loves the club, but at the end of the day he wanted more money. That’s not the kind of attitude Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is looking to build his club around.
He’s now a 30-year-old player on extremely high wages picking up wear and tear injuries to his legs. Hindsight is 20/20 but you don’t need hindsight for this one. United are better off now having not caved to Herrera’s wage demands and letting him leave last summer.