Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side have won only four of their last ten matches in all competitions
After a somewhat promising start to the season which saw United win three of their opening four games in the Premier League, results have been mixed to say the least. A shock defeat to Young Boys in the Champions League set them on a run of three losses from four games in all comps. Cristiano Ronaldo rescued them in both Champions League group games against Atalanta with late goals but this only papered over the cracks of what is shaping up to be a very tumultuous season at Old Trafford. In recent weeks, performances have hit a new low and results have followed in turn.
They fell to one of their worst ever home defeats as Liverpool smashed them 5-0 and shortly after Manchester City cruised to a 2-0 win there themselves. These two matches in particular underlined just how vast the difference in quality is between Solksjaer's side and this season's title contenders. After a summer transfer window which saw the acquisition of exciting England winger Jadon Sancho, World Cup winning centre back Raphael Varane and was topped off by the luring of Cristiano Ronaldo back to his old home, optimism was at an all time high among United's fanbase. Many were tipping them to at least challenge for the title this season.
That idea was extinguished before October was over and now the club and the fans must face the reality that they will most likely be engaged in a fierce battle for the top four which could include as many as three other realistic challengers. United currently sit in sixth position, five points outside the top four and already nine points adrift of league leaders Chelsea. Spurs, now under the management of one Antonio Conte, will absolutely be looking to snatch that spot. Mikel Arteta's Arsenal are looking better every week and cannot be counted out yet. Even West Ham under David Moyes are making a serious, if early, claim for that Champions League spot. With the way things stand right now, it looks very possible that this squad will be playing Europa League football next season.
Things aren't quite panning out at United and there are a multitude of reasons why that could be. Ole now finds his support in the stands, on Twitter and even among his old pals in the studio dwindling with every passing second. There are questions being asked about Solskjaer's position at the club, about the potentially negative impact of Cristiano Ronaldo, and a whole host of other fascinating topics concerning this group and their coach.
We decided to get the insights of two ardent and vocal Manchester United supporters. Dale O'Donnell is the Editor-in-Chief at Stretty News and the host of Strettycast. Pauly Kwestel is a football data and tactics analyst, and contributor to The Busby Babe. Here's what they had to say:
Q. Almost seven months on from the initial European Super League announcement and the reignition of the #GlazersOut campaign, how would you describe the relationship between fans and the owners right now?
Dale: The same. We don’t want the Glazers anywhere near Manchester United, never have and never will. Lazy pundits talk about how much money United have spent (poorly) down the years, but none of that was Glazer cash. We make our own money and more to help line the Glazer’s pockets.
Q. Where do you stand on the debate over Ronaldo's impact? He's scored some vital goals but there's also an argument to be made that his inclusion in the team negatively affects other players or the general equilibrium.
Pauly: I've been very outspoken about my feelings about this signing. It was never anything other than a nostalgia grab from the owners to try and win favour with the fans. United were second in the league in goals scored last year, but sixth in shots, and fifth in non-penalty xG. Their problem wasn't scoring goals, it was creating good chances. There's no question Ronaldo has scored some huge goals in Europe and is carrying the team in the Champions League but there's very fair questions to ask about whether the team would have even needed those goals in the first place if Ronaldo wasn't there. Ronaldo causes a lot of structural problems for United defensively. It's not about "pressing," United weren't a pressing team even before he arrived, but even when you're not pressing, you have to stay organized. For the past two years, United have been very, very good at this - that's why they've kept so many clean sheets against the big teams. This year they're awful.
Ronaldo doesn't move around or do much. When you watch him "defending" he moves around as if anything outside the centre circle is lava. It creates a lot of extra work for his teammates and a lot of extra ground for everyone to cover. That tends to open up a lot of gaps that any organized team can (and will) exploit. In possession he likes to move around, which creates its own problems. He often drops into the left half space to try and find the ball - which is where Pogba & Sancho like to operate when they're playing LW - it tends to get in the way of them and even Shaw from getting forward. Even worse is he's not doing anything productive with the ball when he gets it there, his 0.09 xGBuildup is God awful and that tells us when Ronaldo gets the ball in build up, United aren't going to get a good shot from that sequence. And don't even get me started on how his arrival has affected Mason Greenwood. Another article for another time.
Q. What about Ole in/Ole out? After the start to the season the team has had, do you believe Ole can take the club forward?
Dale: Not anymore but I still respect him as our manager. It has got to the stage where I feel he has run his race, but the Glazers are prolonging the situation because of their incompetent ways in not having a solution.
Q. What do you see happening with Donny Van de Beek? Will he ever get a consistent run of games and a chance to prove himself or is he destined for a move elsewhere in the near future?
Pauly: You have to remember what the team was like in the summer of 2020 and the reason Van de Beek was signed. He was signed as depth for Bruno/Rashford/RW as a replacement for Lingard/Pereira who were very much out of favour. He wasn't brought in to "replace" Paul Pogba, who was never leaving in 2020 - the papers just needed things to write. The signing made sense when you remember the club expected Jadon Sancho to follow him through the door. When he didn't, it got messy. When Sancho didn't come, VDB wasn't a great fit. He's not the direct passer that Bruno is - or that United need in their pivot. His game doesn't really fit playing between Rashford and Greenwood since they aren't the kinds of passers that can pick out his runs. On top of that, he was a 23 year old who moved to a completely new country with no friends or family and wasn't allowed to leave his house for 80% of the year, it's not really a surprise he didn't settle in.
This season should have been better but the arrival of Ronaldo changes things as there's too many players for too few spots. Sancho is here, so Donny should get more playing time with Sancho but that just hasn't happened yet. He's also not helping his cause when he says things like "I can play anywhere, 6, 8, 10." Playing in a pivot at Ajax is far different than playing in one at Manchester United, or England in general. He simply doesn't do the things United need their pivot players to do. As a more "attacking" player in the pivot he somehow makes United both worse defensively and worse going forward. Donny's an attacking player who can play as a 10 or off the left or right, that's where he should focus on trying to win minutes. With Ronaldo in the team that's where United currently need more creativity - though whether Solskjaer is willing to drop Rashford or Greenwood is a whole other issue.
Q. If you were in charge, would you renew Paul Pogba? Is he deserving of the flack he often gets from pundits?
Dale: No because I don’t think Pogba has earned a new contract. His return story hasn’t gone to plan and I don’t see a new deal improving matters. Anyhow, Pogba has long flirted with the idea of leaving United despite the fact none of the ‘interested’ clubs were interested in splashing the cash on him. Now, he’s likely to move on a free and demand astronomical wages
Q. How do you see the rest of this season panning out? Given where you are right now, what would you settle for at the end of the season?
Pauly: Unfortunately I don't really see things getting much better. Ole will eventually leave but none of the potential replacements thrill me. Rodgers would be an hilarious choice because he's just not different enough to Ole to actually make an impact. He could be sacked by May. My only hope is that things don't go so off the rails that they start hurting the future by not developing certain players or missing out on others because we're in a win-now mode with a team that is very much not good enough to do so.
As the international break comes to a close, anticipation builds towards the return of the Premier League this weekend. United are away at Watford on Saturday. The Hornets have been unpredictable since the arrival of new manager Claudio Ranieri and could represent yet another banana skin for United. Following that, they go away to Villarreal next Tuesday for a huge Champions League clash. The two are joint top of Group F with Solksjaer's men only ahead on goal difference. It's an extremely tight group with only four points between top and bottom with Atalanta and Young Boys both also still more than capable of qualifying. That's two huge games within four days for United and more importantly under fire manager.
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