By J Hutcherson (Feb 4, 2020) US Soccer Players - Sticking a sell-by date on the current version of Manchester United has become a preoccupation this season. It's not just that United is spending another season buried in the shadow of Manchester City. It's that City is not the best team in the Premier League. Combining those two things leads to the only reasonable conclusion. Change the manager and start the rebuild immediately. Except that didn't happen during the January window. Instead, Manchester United mostly moves forward with what it has.
What Manchester United has is a proven business model that downplays disappointing results on the field. Deloitte's Money League has them in 3rd-place, the richest club in the Premier League with over $785m in revenue. While some United supporters would like to imagine all of that poured into the squad, the modern game doesn't make that easy. An interesting mix of release clauses, better options with other teams, and player dissatisfaction have stalled Europe's elite from continuing to compile all-star rosters. There's no team of galacticos right now, in part because players are choosing not to group together under the employ of the brightest lights in Europe.
Manchester United's biggest star isn't available. Paul Pogba's usage since rejoining the club from Juventus for the 2016-17 season exemplifies United's issues. His role wasn't clear in the later stages of the Jose Mourinho era or under Ole Gunnar-Solskjaer. That Pogba might not want to be a part of United anymore is an easy headline for English news outlets. Worth considering is that he has pretty good reasons for wanting to move somewhere else.
English clubs are in an interesting situation across the board when it comes to their recent riches. They can afford to spend more than any of their European counterparts. The Pogba transfer set a record for English clubs, but it didn't turn any of them into the equivalent of PSG. Where the dominant team in Ligue 1 seems willing to do whatever they can to build up their squad, even the elite clubs in England hit self-imposed limits fairly quickly. United's January window brought in component parts to address existing concerns. They have injury issues, including Pogba. This wasn't a free-spending attempt to make the current squad noticeably better. Instead, it was a response to a pragmatic understanding of the table.
Winter break arrives with Manchester United in 8th-place with 35 points from 25 games. Their goal difference is +7, the 6th-highest in the league, and an indication that they should be higher up the table. How much higher is the reasonable expectation question. United management is shouldering the criticism of removing the interim label from Solskjaer too quickly last season. The club's quick turn in form under Solksjaer led to a fan-friendly moment and got him the job. There's nothing wrong with that in theory or practice, even with bigger name managers available then and now.
Solksjaer's United isn't fully his yet. Whether or not he gets the time he needs to turn over the squad, there's no discounting the pieces he didn't put into place. Managers like to lean on the "not my players" excuse, but with Solskjaer it resonates. We don't know who his marquee player or players might be, assuming Pogba really intends to leave the club this summer. That's pressure not just on Solksjaer but the entire Manchester United operation. It wouldn't change had they opted for a new manager in a season that has rarely looked like it might end up with a Champions League place.
Expectation vs reality is the management problem across the board for United. They're a club that can't escape its reputation, even when a lengthy rebuild seems in order. That compounds an already dicey situation that's played out over the last few seasons.
Under Mourinho, United took full advantage of the Europa League rule change that meant the winner got a Champions League place. They beat Ajax in the 2016-17 Europa League, finishing 6th in the Premier League. United advanced from its group in the 2017-18 Champions League, but couldn't get past Atletico Madrid in the knockout round. Finishing second to Manchester City in the Premier League seemed to point to brighter days ahead. Instead, stalling in the 2018-19 Premier League led to Mourinho's departure in mid-December. Solksjaer's big result came in the Champions League, guiding United past PSG on away goals and then losing 4-0 to Barcelona in the quarterfinals. They finished 6th in the Premier League, a place that now might flatter the club this season.
Assuming Solskjaer remains in charge into next season, United already faces another test this summer. They need the kind of player recruitment that will cause players not to put too much weight on what happened with Pogba. They'll need to convince members of a small group of superstars that this is a club that will challenge City and Liverpool. Every season where things don't go as planned domestically and in Europe makes that more difficult. Pogba joined knowing he would be spending a season in the Europa League. It's hard to see many players of his caliber willing to make that commitment then or now.
When Pogba returns from injury, he immediately becomes the difference-maker for United. In that regard, nothing has changed since he joined the club. What the rest of this season becomes is the opportunity to send a message of intent. That's going to take more than Solskjaer's positivity or the massive amount of revenue the club continues to generate. Pushing into the top four at the same time as navigating the Champions League answers problems, full stop. Solskjaer's new rotation of forwards may help with that, but super clubs rely on superstars. They have no choice.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at email@example.com.
More from J Hutcherson:
- The BeneLiga and remapping European soccer
- Setting up a super league
- Adams, Johnson, McKennie and the Bundesliga title
- Expansion isn't the biggest story for MLS in 2020
Logo courtesy of Manchester United