Andy Mitten column: A terrible season is over for Manchester United – but what is there to look forward to this summer?
Manchester United’s 2018/19 season is thankfully over.
Reds fans have long been envied, but now it’s they who are casting envious glances at the five teams above them with cup finals to look forward to. United couldn’t manage the top-four finish which would have been a success for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, but this season was best put to sleep and out of its misery. England’s biggest club could limp on no more.
Relegated Cardiff administered the coup de grace with a 2-0 win at Old Trafford in the latest farcical result. The Bluebirds have actually picked up more points than England’s most successful domestic club since Solskjaer was made permanent manager 10 games ago.
Manchester City celebrating a consecutive Premier League title and Liverpool contemplating a consecutive European Cup final hasn’t exactly helped.
Who are we?
United’s problems aren’t on the scale of Notts County losing their place in the Football League, or Bolton fans facing an uncertain future, but it’s all relative.
This is Manchester United, with the second-highest wage bill in world football and expectations to match, yet their players have underperformed so badly that fans wouldn’t be too concerned if they don’t see half their team again.
There’s a vast disconnect between the players and supporters, though it’s amazing how perceived traits can become amplified by victories or defeats. The truth is that most of the players are perfectly decent people, but they're not doing their jobs very well. They’ve let down the people who pay their wages.
United couldn’t even raise their game for one final flourish against Neil Warnock’s side, who they put five past away in December. The players are best keeping a low profile right now, because fans are disgusted at how this unfit, disunited United look shot to bits.
The fury will subside over the summer. Then the mood will ebb and flow according to which players are sold and arrive – but so patchy has been the recruitment this decade that reputations aren’t an accurate barometer of what’s to follow. Lionel Messi could be signed and he’d probably go eight months without scoring, unable to trap a bag of cement.
So many players are consistently inconsistent, but should a sale of Paul Pogba, for example, be celebrated or castigated? He’s one of many who seriously divides opinion, and one of many who’ll have his own version of events. There are at least two versions to almost everything at United right now, indicating a lack of unity.
So big is the 30-odd point gap to the top that Solskjaer isn’t being negative when he says his team won't be in contention for a title next season.
Though he’ll be well supported by fans desperate for him to succeed, that doesn’t stop him being doubted by those who loudly applauded his appointment only two months ago. Given his inexperience and lack of success to his name, it’s understandable.
If United fans are going to call out someone who won a European trophy by leading Aberdeen to triumph over Real Madrid, as they did with Sir Alex Ferguson, they’re going to call out Solskjaer. But it’ll take time, which most appreciate – and they know that United’s problems don’t only sit with the manager.
I was among those who said that Solskjaer should have been appointed in March (some fans were suggesting it after his first game!), to have peace of mind and the ability to plan properly for 2019/20. A technical director would have helped there.
Post-Ferguson, United have tried Fergie’s heir, the quixotic ‘genius’, the serial winner and now the home-grown hero. None have worked as hoped, and unless Solskjaer gets rid of the players he considers to be a negative influence on his squad; unless he gets the backing and support to make some bold and tough decisions, he’s going to be eaten alive.
The Norwegian has a very clear idea of who should go and who should stay – which goes well beyond fringe players and includes some big names – but is the patient strong enough for multiple operations? And is there the willingness to undergo major surgery when it’ll be hugely expensive and replacements are hard to recruit?
It’s doubly hard for Solskjaer because the competition is tougher than before, too. Rivals are far wealthier and their squads have been slowly and surely built – while the temptation with United is to rip up and start again each time a new manager comes in. That’s certainly how each manager sees it, and each has had a vastly expensive and often quite destructive vision of how to right wrongs.
Since the great man’s departure, it’s been two steps forward and two steps back – and that’s not going to get United back to the top of the stairs. There have been several false dawns when fans have proudly declared that ‘United are back’. The first came in an impressive spring of 2015 under Louis van Gaal; the second when Jose Mourinho’s team really seemed to be clicking after they beat Arsenal away in December 2017. The third was amid Solskjaer’s magnificent, improbable winning start.
United have ended seasons poorly before. It was the norm before Ferguson took over, and even in his first few years. Attendances collapsed (23,368 at home to Wimbledon in 1989, anyone?) at the end of the season after optimism had run dry and Liverpool won another league. It was a very long time ago… so long that Liverpool won titles.
It was normal then for the season to be considered over when the team went out of the FA Cup, since winning the league was but a distant dream. And we’re back at that point, back among the also-rans.
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