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Monday, 19 August 2019

United Corner- New Season, New Hopes (August 19th 2019)

United Corner- New Season, New Hopes
At the start of the 2019/20 season it feels like the three of the top four places in the Premier League are going to be taken by Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, but Manchester United fans have to believe there have been enough changes at clubs below those three that can give them the edge to earn their way back into the Champions League.

Like the 2016/17 season, Manchester United have two paths back into the Champions League in front of them and I do think a similar approach should be taken to this season as United had under Jose Mourinho to that season. Simply put United have to make sure both avenues through to the Champions League remain alive going into the final couple of months of the season.

Finding the balance between the Premier League and Europa League won't be easy, but it should not be lost on the fans that two of the last three editions of this competition have been won by English clubs. With a battle expected for a top four spot, Manchester United have to make sure they have every opportunity available to them for a return to the Champions League.

The 4-0 win over Chelsea to open the season will definitely have given the whole squad a shot of belief as well as the fans who were not used to seeing clean sheets at Old Trafford, but no one wants to get too carried away about a single game. On another day Chelsea would have got plenty out of that fixture with the way the game was developing up until Anthony Martial scored Manchester United's second goal, and I think most will know United have to be much improved going forward to find the consistency they will need to move back into the top four.

The top four- there was a time when that was a given for Manchester United and the only concerns at the start of a season would have been regarding a title challenge.

Under the current ownership United couldn't be much further away from the last days of Sir Alex Ferguson and it can't be ignored that their finishing positions in the six seasons since he retired have been 7th, 4th, 5th, 6th, 2nd and 6th.

Let's be honest for a second- Sir Alex was extracting every last bit of magic he had to keep United punching way above their weight during a period when there was apparently 'no value in the market'. David Moyes came in and things began to fall apart pretty quickly as a overachieving squad didn't appreciate the new voice in the dressing room who had removed most links to the Ferguson era in terms of his backroom staff, but the focus should not only be on the manager.

Another big change that summer was the departure of David Gill and the incoming Dick 'Ed Woodward who as proved a disaster as far as the footballing side of the club is concerned. For some unknown reason Woodward has not only considered him a master negotiator, despite the clear evidence to the contrary over the last six years, but he always seems to believe he knows more about football than those he is appointing to manage the club.

David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho have all come and gone and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is the fourth manager of this club in the six seasons that have been completed since Sir Alex retired. The one overarching feature has been Woodward and most owners would have recognised the problem at the club, but the Glazer family are not like most owners.

Manchester United has long been seen as an investment in which they have spent very little of their own money and been able to take out fortunes to the detriment of the Stadium and the playing staff. Twelve months ago the master tactician Woodward didn't want to invest in the playing squad for Jose Mourinho because he didn't believe there were better defenders on the list given to him than those already at the club.

Yet twelve months later he buys the player that Mourinho had requested? It all points back to finding the cheapest way to get into the top four while a title challenge is clearly not something that the club are going to chase, but more hope that is something that may fall into their laps. Otherwise it makes no sense to not back your manager after he has guided the team to 2nd place in the Premier League, but clearly with a significant gap to the Champions Manchester City at the end of the 2017/18 season.

Too often those who don't have a deeper look talk about the money United have spent under the Glazers, but it is only a tiny fraction of what those people have taken out of the club through their debt management or dividends they feel they are entitled to at the end of the season. This off-season a club that finished over 30 points off the top four invested around 70 million pounds when you include the money that came back into the club and only a fool would believe that is designed to get closer to Liverpool and Manchester City rather than trying to close the gap to those chasing the top four places.

We have seen 'Glazers Out' and 'Woodward Out' trending at times on social media, but the former aren't going anywhere until they receive a huge bid and even then the new owners would likely come from backgrounds that won't impress everybody. And Dick 'Ed Woodward is very secure in his role considering he is making the Glazers money hand over fist and ultimately that is all they really care about rather than the level of performances Manchester United are producing week to week. With that in mind, it does point to a tough road to return to the top of English Football unless there is a touch of luck involved.

You would hope the fans will be able to do something about the ownership of the club and the clown that seems to be running the football side, but as I have said above I do feel both are very secure in their positions at the moment. The time came in 2005 when things may have been changed, but it has been too long now and I think we have to accept the way it is.

As a season ticket holder at Old Trafford I am not that impressed by people being critical of those who go to games- my love for United far outweighs my dislike of the Glazers and Woodward and I refuse to let those people force me to do something else with my weekends.

I do want to see United restored to their past glories and at the moment the only thing that can really be done is getting behind Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and hoping he can find the right formula to start turning the club back around.

I am not going to revise history though, I did not think Solskjaer was the right choice. His managerial career to this point has been below average at best and the only real claim he had to being manager was that he was a former player of the club, but Sir Matt Busby, Tommy Doherty and Sir Alex Ferguson didn't have those connections and all managed to turn United around when they came in during difficult periods.

Ultimately you need to be the right manager so I am hoping more than believing in Solskjaer at the moment, although I would love to be very wrong and will stick behind the manager for as long as he is in charge at Old Trafford. The poor run to end last season has to be a concern and I do think the remainder of August and early September will give us a real indication of what Solskjaer can achieve at the club.

Some will say he needs to be given a couple of years to really put his stamp on the squad, but I do feel Solskjaer will only be given that if Manchester United return to the Champions League at the end of this season. Over the next few weeks trips to Wolves, Southampton and West Ham United will be a real test for the manager and the club, especially considering United earned just a single point from those away games last season.

Home games against Crystal Palace, Leicester City and Arsenal round out the next six weeks and United only managed 5 points from those corresponding fixtures last season so we will learn plenty about the management team United have. Last weekend United did beat Chelsea, who earned a point at Old Trafford back in April, so that is a positive start, but I do feel Solskjaer needs to oversee at least 14 points from those six games coming up to make sure Manchester United remain on track for their ambitions to be achieved this season.

Even if United manage less than that, at this stage of the campaign the fans will stick behind the manager and rightly so. No matter our personal feelings about whether a player or manager is right for the club, I do think it is important to back them as United fans as we have done throughout our history.

There are going to be some obvious frustrations at times, but those should be focused on the board and above, even if ultimately the sword will fall on Solskjaer if things don't go as we would like. He might not have been my choice, but Solskjaer is our manager and I hope in nine months time I will regret ever doubting him.

The next few weeks are going to be very important for all United fans as the League settles down and we can really analyse where the team stands. I wasn't as happy as many that Romelu Lukaku was moved on, but we have to respect the fact that Solskjaer did not see a place for the Belgian in the way he wants his team to play and so it was better for both Lukaku and the club that he was sold.

It is a shame that money was not reinvested into a midfield that has lost Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera in recent months and I do think United look light there. There is going to be a sharp focus on the attackers to score enough goals to help United as I do think the midfield is going to struggle in plenty of games, especially when they come up against clever midfields that the likes of Wolves and Leicester City will employ.

Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka will help defensively, but Luke Shaw and Victor Lindelof are yet to convince and I am not sure Manchester United are going to be vastly improved at the back. On another day Chelsea score two or three goals last week and games in the next few weeks will tell us a lot about where United stand as I have said a few times now.

I am hopeful that a top four place can be earned- I don't think Arsenal have improved significantly from a defensive point of view and Chelsea's loss of Eden Hazard will hurt. Even if the next few weeks don't go as well as I would hope, I think it will be a season long battle for the top four as all those teams chasing those places have some inconsistent moments and I could even include Tottenham Hotspur in that.

It does mean United will have their chances, but much depends on whether they can score enough goals and I would not get carried away by the capitulation Chelsea had last week. I feel United have been left short of numbers when it comes to attacking areas on the pitch and the midfield- there are some very promising youngsters coming through, but I am not sure they can be relied upon to carry the club just yet.

Comparison to the 'Class of '92' feel wide of the mark as those players came in to play alongside established, proven Premier League winners in Peter Schmeichel, Roy Keane and Eric Cantona and I am not sure the United current squad has those kind of winning personalities. It will make it harder for young players to make the impact they would want and I also think it would be harsh on them to be asked to fill in the obvious gaps in the squad if they are not suited to those positions.

Last week some suggested Mason Greenwood should start on the right of the team- while I agree that is a problem position, asking a 17 year old to play there when he is clearly a centre forward that likes scoring goals is not going to be good for his development.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is going to be judged on all of these decisions though, I just hope he gets them right.

This is a new season though and over the last couple of months the stench of the poor ending to the 2018/19 campaign has been washed off. Like many fans, I do come into this one with renewed optimism despite a sub-par off-season when United did not come close to making the kind of investment they had been suggesting at the end of last season.

I do think Maguire and Wan-Bissaka will improve the team and Daniel James can learn and develop, but the midfield conundrum continues to be on that the club either can't, or refuse to, address. I am hoping Fred can come good after a season becoming accustomed to the League and Scott McTominay can hopefully kick on, but United look short in there as well as failing to address the right side of the attack.

Deep down I feel it is going to be an inconsistent year in front of Manchester United, but I do think the top four is a fairly open battle and I expect United to be there or thereabouts. The Europa League should offer the club a long run in a major European competition and Chelsea proved you can finish in the top four of the Premier League and win that trophy too.

There will be moments of frustration and there will be ups and downs, but that's part of the journey of being a football fan. Manchester United's road to recovery and bridging the gap to two of their biggest rivals is not going to be a short one, and it will be rocky at times, but the hope is that there is finally a plan in place as to how United will get there.

With the Glazer family and Woodward around, I wouldn't count on it and we can only hope Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can help this squad achieve their full potential.

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