Whisper it in hushed tones, but the cracks may just be starting to appear in Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s Manchester United. The season is still only three games old (and United are only two games in due to their permission to start late because of last season’s European exploits), but the preseason optimism has already all but evaporated.
United’s blistering form after the restart meant that the team managed to clinch a Champions League berth despite a relatively disappointing showing in the earlier part of the season. The emergence of teenage strike prodigy Mason Greenwood coincided with the return of Marcus Rashford from injury and an inspired Anthony Martial, leading to the formation of what many United fans were starting to believe was a forward line capable of challenging the formidable trio of whose names we are all aware currently playing at eternal rival Liverpool. When you add the much-needed creative qualities of January signing of Portuguese midfield maestro Bruno Fernandes, it was clear to see where this optimism was coming from.
A Lacklustre Start
To say that Ole’s reds have flattered to deceive in the opening two games of the season would be an understatement. An ignominious defeat on home turf to perennial Premier League strugglers Crystal Palace (who were admittedly fantastic on the break) was followed by a last-gasp win at Brighton. After being second-best in almost every department on the South Coast, only the soccer gods will know how United managed to come away with three points, the winning goal being scored after the final whistle for probably the first time in the history of soccer after play was brought back by VAR for a handball.
These two lifeless performances have left fans and pundits alike asking the same question: What is the reason for this alarming drop-off in form?
While the coronavirus pandemic led to serious doubts as to whether the season would have to be voided, the season was eventually concluded in late summer with Liverpool deserving champions. For most teams, the end of the Premier League season meant a brief respite from the intense schedule of the restart. However, for those teams still in European competition, there was still the small matter of a trip to Lisbon or Frankfurt for a high-stakes mini-tournament to decide the winner of the 19/20 Champions League or Europa League, in which United was resounding beaten by Europa heavyweights Sevilla.
This late finish meant that United did not play a single preseason friendly before a belated start, putting the team behind the pack when it came to preparation.
If there is one thing that United CEO Ed Woodward cannot be accused of, it is being a shrewd negotiator in the transfer market. United fans have long lamented his naivety as far as the dark arts of transfer negotiation is concerned, and this window has further exposed his shortcomings. The signing of highly-rated midfielder Donny van de Beek from Ajax may yet prove to be a shrewd acquisition, but United clearly need more in a few departments if they are going to challenge. The club looks to have been priced out of a move for number one target Jadon Sancho by a stubborn Dortmund adamant on keeping the hottest property in German football at the club for another season.
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