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Andy Mitten column: How close are Solskjaer’s youthful Manchester United to getting it all right?

Daniel James

There were few smiling faces as Manchester United players, staff – and Sir Alex Ferguson, too – returned to their transport after Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Southampton. United’s team bus waited outside the main entrance, though half the players didn’t take it for the plane back to Manchester. Several internationals went straight to Heathrow, Nemanja Matic for a flight to Belgrade, Victor Lindelof to Sweden. Aaron Wan-Bissaka stayed down south to visit his mum, as did Paul Pogba. He spent time in London with family, seeing kids and new arrivals. 

Those who boarded the bus looked clearly disappointed. In the mixed zone, Harry Maguire stopped to speak – after checking who the group of journalists were – sounding like a Manchester United player as he said: “We were giving it away sloppily. We need to improve on that, show arrogance on the ball and be confident on the ball. We’re Man United and we want to control games.”

Juan Mata was one of the last to get on the coach. I wanted to speak to him before my train to London and a flight to Rome for a very late meeting with Lazio’s Ultras ahead of the Rome derby (that article will be in a forthcoming FourFourTwo magazine).

Mata shook his head.

“We need to kill games off that we start well,” he said. “Especially in the Premier League, because team will come back at you. We have to be more ruthless.”

He’s right. I’ve spoken to more Spanish footballers than I can remember about the difference between playing for a top team in England and one in Spain. When the giants in Spain go ahead, they usually stay ahead. The final 30 minutes of most Spanish games don't have the intensity of the last 30 minutes of most Premier League games.    

After a first five minutes when they were second best, United started very well at Wolves and went ahead, only to concede a second-half goal while under serious pressure and draw 1-1.

The game at Southampton was virtually a repeat: shaky first five, take the lead and then concede once their opponents turned the screw after half-time.

Both felt like defeats to fans. “A painful draw,” was Mata’s preferred description before he left. No positive spin on it. He knows that one win from four games isn’t good enough when you’re Manchester United. He admitted that the pressure will rise accordingly when that happens; that there’s currently a soft underbelly which means the team fails to capitalise on their lead and possession, then folds. 

“We have to be realistic and know where we are,” said Mata. “But secondly, we also have to win. There’s no time not to win.”   

The only time Mata’s sombre tune changed was when I asked him about Dan James.

“He’s full of confidence, he’s doing really well,” he said of the Welshman who has scored in three of his opening four games for United. Decent goals, too. As many league goals as Alexis Sanchez got in 32.

Before United faded after half-time, the interaction between James and Mata on Saturday was as fascinating as it was effective. Mata was vocally encouraging him to go tight on the touchline because he could see that Cedric Soares was unsure how to handle James and his pace. That ensured the youngster stretched the play and allowed Mata more space to exploit. James was United’s biggest danger cutting inside on his right, and it was Mata’s decoy which made the space for James to cut in and drive United ahead with a curling shot into the top corner. “James will tear you apart,” sang 3,000 always loud United fans, reworking their old Ryan Giggs tribute. 

OK, so I could be accused of scraping the barrel here. I remember a journalist who covers Liverpool talking of the time when they were not very good and bemoaning that he had to write another (what he called) “Liverpool didn’t win today but Joe Allen played well” piece.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his coaches feel that they should have 12 points and not five. They can back up their sentiments with statistics, but not points on the board. And winners seldom make excuses, right? United are already seven behind Liverpool and we’re still in August. It might as well be 70 such is the difference between the teams, but United’s rebuilding is what matters to fans. 

There will be patience – there has to be patience – but Manchester United cannot be a mid-table team because they are Manchester United. And while I’ve yet to meet a fan who doesn’t find it encouraging that Solskjaer wants to promote youth, those young players have to show that they’re Manchester United quality. The likes of Andreas Pereira are getting the chances they craved but have to do more if they’re to justify their places in the team. More established players like Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford, who both went to the team bus together, also have to up their games to score and assist. 

To go back to that barrel, at least Solskjaer’s three summer signings have looked the part so far. Fans just wonder if it should have been more. 

Without Premier League experience, James was the one who coaches had the most doubt about becoming a regular, but he’s contributing as he finds his feet.  

The 21-year-old is fast, direct and a likeable bundle of enthusiasm. He was signing so many autographs that he had to be warned not all of the requests were from fans, and that some were to be sold at a profit. He had no idea. But he did think to give his shirt to a fan in the visiting disabled section on Saturday; fans who’d left Manchester at five in the morning to make the 12:30 start. I’ve travelled with these supporters. People who moan about how difficult it is to get to a game should try doing it in a wheelchair. 

The players Solskjaer has let go were not really mourned by fans – fans who celebrated when the likes of Matteo Darmian were signed as evidence that the club was moving forward.      

The celebration which included every outfield United player after James’s goal at Southampton indicated unity, and indeed it was a fine team goal, but everything is viewed though the lens of results. Win and it’s another positive sign, don’t win and it feels as painful as Mata suggests. The reaction at the end of the game, when Southampton’s boss was happy and United’s was not, was the best verdict. And now there are two weeks of wondering when, if ever, United will start to click.  

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Andy Mitten
Andy Mitten

Andy Mitten is Editor at Large of FourFourTwo, interviewing the likes of Lionel Messi, Eric Cantona, Sir Alex Ferguson and Diego Maradona for the magazine. He also founded and is editor of United We Stand, the Manchester United fanzine, and contributes to a number of publications, including GQ, the BBC and The Athletic.