Recollect the last time you slipped – a fall, stumble, anything. It’s probably easier to remember what led to it or how it ended, but what about the fraction of a second during the slip, the moments between your balance giving way and your body coming to rest either through support or on the ground?
There is a fleeting feeling of panic, a fear of physical harm. Your heart-rate shoots up and you anticipate hurt before there is actual contact. All this while, these mere microseconds that the laws of physics have afforded your body, your instincts lead your limbs to scamper for support. In the middle of a slip, your eyes cannot process the changing vertical axis of your line of sight. The responsibility lands on the brain to use all the information it had collected – before the slip – about the surroundings and find the nearest possible support.
A fall is a slip too but one that lasts longer and is far more agonising because your mind now has more time to anticipate the pain that you’re about to feel. Your eyes still take the same amount of time to process vertical change as in a slip, but now it’s a continuous process that never seems to end.
I’m aware that the fall analogy must’ve been used for Manchester United before – seven years is a long time for writers – but what else explains a continuous drop of this magnitude more simply than a free-fall. The 0-2 loss at home against Burnley this Wednesday was United’s eighth of the Premier League season, and a lot like the other seven, there was a sense of painful inevitability about it very soon after kick-off. Burnley were more organised, hungrier and seemed to have a clearer understanding of how to win – unforgivable if you sat on the home dugout at Old Trafford.
That Burnley came with a plan shouldn’t be surprising, but the lack of one by United shouldn’t raise eyebrows either. Over the 24 games United have played this season, rarely have they shown a tactical idea beyond sit-back-and-counter at teams that play high. It worked against Chelsea in August and against City and Spurs in December. Against teams who have understood their patterns and are slightly more conservative, United seem to run into a brick wall.
Enough, too, has been written and spoken around Ole Solskjaer’s competence at one of the toughest jobs in football. When he was appointed as a long-term choice in March, Solskjaer spoke of bringing back the spirit of the famous Treble team. It seemed poetic for the 20th anniversary of the most incredible season in English football. Six years after Sir Alex vacated the throne, one of his proteges was going to lead United back to it. Unfortunately, the team he manages hasn’t shown the same resilience as the one he played for, although both wore the same clothes.
This United team have an incredibly consistent ability to look like a group of players who have never played together. It shows in the number of passes that they misplace because their teammate never made the movement they had expected. Midfielders are often found unsure of where and when the forwards might move – against Arsenal, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford kept running into small pockets of space behind and in between channels, but rarely got supply. Defensive players are often found lacking in shared understanding – during the Liverpool game last weekend, Lindelof and Fred were at loggerheads over who should mark an onrushing forward’s run. This disarray lands on the manager’s doorstep.
You can tell Ole is an honest, nice man and tries his best, but also that he often looks woefully out of depth for his job. Take out the goodwill generated by his playing career and this sounds a lot like David Moyes, a manager United couldn’t bear to persist with for one full season. Moyes was sacked for reasons that are perfectly applicable to Solskjaer too, and even though you cannot mention it on social media, there is something positive about this United board persisting with their manager through a trough. Moreover, seven years into the fall, one can hope there is a greater realisation of what caused it and the things that might help in arresting it.
Recruitment has been a prolonged and well-documented problem, but not necessarily in the way that it looks. Manchester United, since Ferguson left, have signed enough players with a high standard of ability and potential to grow. From Juan Mata to Harry Maguire, one thing that the managers or the fans cannot complain about is spending potential or quality in the dressing room. But superstars rarely mould teams.
Most good teams, like Liverpool over the last 24 months, have a solid balance between the virtuosic and the unassuming-but-reliable. For every Salah and Mane, there needs to be a Henderson and Milner. Manchester United have paid absolutely no attention to that side of team-building, to the extent where you would now struggle to count on one finger the number of players who can be relied upon for 30 games a season. A Lukaku, Sanchez, or Pogba might get you the creative spark, but more often than not, you need more an entire bunch like McTominay to hold the team together and grind results out when things don’t go to plan.
Planning, indeed, has been the biggest problem in their recruitment process. United seldom seem to plan for roles or profiles, but directly go for names. Even in their current pursuit of Bruno Fernandes, a question begs to be asked around whether United are after him because he fits a certain role or do they want him because he is a big player who is available? Admittedly, both can often be made to come together, but if there’s anything that United have done enough of and failed, it is signing players with lofty reputations without much idea of what to achieve with them. Do you remember the discussions about Paul Pogba’s best position? Yeah.
Similarly, when they let go of Romelu Lukaku this summer, it seemed to be a mutual decision between Ole and the board – one that you would expect they would’ve thought long and hard about, given Lukaku’s calibre. A function of that thought would’ve, or should’ve, been lining up at a replacement, even if for preserving squad strength. Marcus Rashford’s recent injury is a direct result of United’s ineptitude on that front. Had they signed a forward, they could’ve managed Rashford’s workload better and rested him whenever his body showed fragility.
Losing Marcus Rashford to injury when he was in the form of his life seems fitting in a season where avoidable errors have become the gloomy leitmotif. The occasional win over a big-six opponent is all well and good and makes for great banter material, but a club of this stature and resource-bank – in the age of superclubs – cannot be placed 30 points behind the leaders and just 11 away from the drop-zone. Worse still, there isn’t a quick fix to their predicament, mostly because the issues are complex and run deep. In their defence, United have attempted to address some of those problems, but often in isolation. This has led to a position where there isn’t a simple answer to what they must try to fix first. Will sacking Solskjaer for Pochettino in the middle of the season help? Will getting Bruno Fernandes help? If either or both of them do, do United have the necessary people and structure in place to follow up those two acquisitions with more intelligent changes?
Over the last couple of years, the term Director of Football has probably been used more often in the context of Manchester United than something like right-back or goalkeeper. It is obvious that Ed Woodward, United’s CEO – and acting DoF, if you will – is not very good at managing football-related affairs or a particularly popular figure with the fanbase. The terraces of Old Trafford and the timelines of social media have recently had a lot to say about him and their views weren’t very welcoming. It doesn’t look like their wishes will be granted very soon, at least as long as the Glazers own the club, because Ed is a fantastic businessman – the core competency expected of a CEO. He has continued to grow the revenue at Manchester United even in their worst football phase in recent memory. Woodward oversaw the Glazer family’s successful takeover of United in 2005 and has been with the club since, so he’s probably not going anywhere and neither is his role getting reduced.
That leaves us with the Glazers, the family of businessmen interested purely in the money this club can make them. If a change of ownership is the only long-term answer to all of United’s problems and questions, then we are in for a long ride. Buckle up.