In the early hours of August 15, 2021 I lay sleepless, rewatching the 5-1 drubbing of Leeds United at Old Trafford barely 24 hours earlier. I was desperate for the next match, and like many times before in the reign of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer I was smitten with a glimpse of the feeling that drew me to this club in the first place. It was a remarkable opening day, complete with the reveal of World Cup and serial Champions League winner Raphael Varane which had the xV (expected vibes) through the roof at the start of the club’s 2021/22 campaign.
The victory came without star forward’s Marcus Rashford and Edinson Cavani, and featured only a late cameo from star signing Jadon Sancho, but gave an incredible sense of optimism about manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s ambitions of playing with a more fluid front line. Pogba, placed on the left but often drifting about, provided four assists on the day. Bruno Fernandes was a hat trick hero, and Mason Greenwood demonstrated his excellent finishing as well as growth off the ball and attacking in transition. The result was followed by two very meh performances against Southampton and Wolves respectively, but the defensive structure and recovery in those matches wasn’t particularly worrying, it was mostly midfield control and building attacks.
The biggest problem about the Wolves match, leading into an international break, was that the Glazers and the club were given an opportunity to sign Cristiano Ronaldo. The former club great, who left for Real Madrid in 2009, was searching for a way out of Juventus, and when the Glazers heard from Jorge Mendes that he’d consider United they figured the opportunity was too good to pass on. This was a bad choice for a number of reasons, among which was the transformation of United’s attack and the further avoiding of addressing the midfield problem at the end of the transfer deadline. Rather than reinforcing a big area of need, United exacerbated the problem by reshaping their attack around the abilities of one man. Yes, he has scored a bunch since arriving, but his contributions are only just enough to keep alive a team that has been quickly and poorly restructured around him. The fact that the club coughed up a small transfer fee as well as committed to paying half a million each week shows that there was certainly some money for a midfielder sitting around as well. It was instead put towards something the Glazers knew they could sell regardless of results, and they were right.
The problems run much deeper than Ronaldo, and Solskjaer must bear blame for his inability to prepare the side, but the level of focus that is on United now has meant that the discourse from fans and pundits alike has increased the toxicity. In fact, the plan now seems to be embracing the overreliance on Ronaldo’s goals, which is entirely a Solskjaer problem. Reports of low morale from the United squad are emerging, as well as internal disagreements over the decision to sign Ronaldo whilst ignoring the midfield problem. All of this comes just months after the Super League debacle as well, which saw fans across the sport supposedly unite against the common enemy of greed and excessive commercialization of the sport. Now many of those same fans have no problem with a Glazer nostalgia-pander transfer signing, or the constant public relations peddling on Ronaldo’s behalf. Some are back to spending their time hurling abuse across the football Twitterverse and chastising those who would dare point out the many errors of the club’s ways. It is a complicated fanscape to navigate, and there is not a split sides battle, but the toxicity is towards journalists, analysts, and other fans over the defense of this teams tactics is totally unnecessary and an ugly mark on the United fanbase.
With the bad football on the pitch, fans at each other on socials, and the prospect of Ole’s sacking once again realistic the vibes are down very bad after a sky high start to the season, and there is nowhere really left to run to for a remedy of the situation. I write this as someone incredibly concerned with the immediate and long term future of my club, and the sport in general considering the existential threat faced in April. I understand that not everyone will have the same views on Ronaldo as myself, on or off the pitch, and my non-committal position on Ole In or Ole Out means I have little to offer by way of managerial commentary, but what I do know is that things do not feel right after what was a pretty positive summer.
The turning point of division seems to be Ronaldo. Whether reasons were moral, tactical, or both it was a pretty big interruption for fans and discourse as well as the way the team plays. It was an interruption of what was a pretty good thing going, and has heightened other problems on and off the pitch. But one player can’t possibly be responsible for every problem, particularly issues that were here before his arrival. Sloppy midfield play and unwillingness to sign new players to address that problem over multiple transfer windows, overreliance on a key starting XI while keeping others out of rotation for extended periods, and willingness to trust players to play through injury have all been unfortunate and persistent shortcomings in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s managerial reign. His inability to adapt is now under the microscope because of heightened focus and expectation placed on the club, but has always been prevalent in his time at the club. It certainly feels as though he’s still at the club on time bought from previous escape jobs, but it’s hard to imagine him cooking up a sustainable quick fix this season that will satisfy demands for a return to glory that we’ve all craved these last 8 years.
My reason for writing this is difficult to communicate even as I conclude it. I apologize if this was hard to follow, or offered little clarity as to how you feel about the current state of the club. It is a complicated situation that reflects poorly on the long term planning under the Glazers, clear lack of transparency between levels of the club in team building, and for better or worse a continued loyalty from fans who have been through a lot these last few years and feels they are entitled to better football. Unfortunately, perhaps we are not entitled to better football, and given the behavior of some fans the collective may actually be deserving of the mess of a team we currently have.
That sense of magic that brought many to the club will likely remain elusive. If Solskjaer can again manifest something to inspire confidence, we’ve seen it can carry the team far in cup competitions as well as recover from poor league form. Winning the league is out of the question unless there are remarkable collapses by all of Liverpool, Chelsea, and Manchester City, and Tottenham’s acquisition of the services of Antonio Conte might make them an interesting rival for European qualification. United could well be in trouble, or they could stabilize and salvage a decent season for themselves, and my most positive takeaway from watching these matches is maybe they can put together a cup run. Ronaldo cares about his legacy, and winning anything with this team would be significant, but whether it will carry the same feeling as it once did seems unlikely. This isn’t a team that should have settled for a win or bust mentality. This feels like a team that was building towards something and added the wrong piece, and could be on the verge of having to start all over because of it.
I hope I’m wrong about that.