United: plainly in trouble, or no?
Could it be that the fans leaving early and the first loss to Burnley for fifty years are meaningful signifiers *but not the same thing* as a full-on crisis? That the ‘worst start to the season’ stat is merely a factor to be considered – one of a zillion – not an indisputable shepherd’s crook of a thing, hoiking Solksjær summarily to pastures less public?
How we judge depends as much upon who we are, who we support, how philosophic we can be, as upon the stats. This is part of the appeal, yes? The phoney war around opinion.
The league table itself is arguably provocatively fickle, whilst being apparently factual. We extrapolate stuff in order to judge: thus club X sits wherever but has played ‘higher than that’, or has maybe endured a tough, unbalanced schedule, or has simply played more football than that table suggests. (In United’s case it could be that they have played less). Results are key but they neither tell the whole story nor project forward, to account for momentum, form, expectation. Fascinatingly, we might argue that they don’t – or tables don’t – even show what has happened.
But back to United. Yesterday’s home defeat to a willing but generally workmanlike Burnley side. Two goals conceded, the first a sharp finish, the second a thunderbolt. Possible that Maguire might have closed down better for both; certainly he failed to read the danger for the first early enough. And therefore he is culpable.
But if you search around that United side and look to a) pick a captain b) pick a player of real quality and c) mark out those who are good enough and strong enough to influence things, during highs and lows, would not Maguire be close to the top of your list? Forget the price tag thing. The England centre-back is a fine player: he was just a mili-second behind the action.
All of which means nothing… except to illustrate something of the tortuous nature of any argument. Who/what to blame, when there is human error in the moment, the mili-second? For all the coaching and all the talent/confidence/frailty/genius/planning in the world, what exactly do we know? What’s controllable?
With United in trouble or in glorious flow, Maguire plays, if fit. What about the rest?
This is the crux. The team-sheet looked thin again, last night. How many on it are Real Manchester United Players? And how many are RMUPs when things are a-stuttering? And how many are RMUPs under a different manager, d’ya reckon?
I’m the bloke who said fairly recently that he didn’t think McTominay was a RMUP: I stand by that in the sense that he may only be good enough if the blend around him is right enough. Fully accept that before his injury he may have been the club’s most consistent player. But this is not the same as being a Real Manchester United Player when United are riding high, as Champions League-winning candidates.
Clearly right now, a fit McTominay would stiffen the durability and improve the consistency of the current side: he can do that in a way that Pereira and Fred can’t. But because he is good but one-paced, good but limited, the young Scot needs to be part of a blend containing more pace, more art, more elite-level guile.
Let’s go back to the stuttering. Who, in last night’s line-up is going to do the roll-the-sleeves up thing? Fred tried, to be fair. I’m not (necessarily) being critical when I suggest that Martial, James, Mata strike me as fairly obvious examples of players who are a whole lot more likely to thrive, to be influential, in a side that is 2-0 up than in one that is struggling. (Martial may have been playing hurt last night but he rather epitomises the quietly sulky, detached striker who-ain’t-gonna-bust-a-gut to make something happen: that’s really not one of his qualities. United need some of that – or some sheer, undeniable genius).
Enter Rashford. The brilliant boy is of course the Great Local Hope… but sadly crocked. In any case there is a plausible case that because he typically plays high percentage football – that is, he races and flashes and risks and is therefore likely to be medium profligate with possession – Rashford, despite his visible, developing gifts, is hardly the model RMUP. It is even conceivable that he may not become one, due to the sporadic, if electrifying nature of his contribution. (Yes, it’s true, I am suggesting that Rashford has some work to do to flesh out into a genuine, consistent performer at the level to which Proper Man United teams compete).
We could go through the squad and have a lot of fun and a lot of arguments about who is good enough. Wan-Bissaka looks promising, does he not? Unfashionably, I rate Mata for his intelligence and game sense but accept that his role is particularly reliant on the blend around him: in short, too, time may be against him. Elsewhere…
We haven’t mentioned the manager. The manager who seemed out of his depth at Cardiff. The manager (and local hero) who seemingly transformed the club, early doors, simply by being him, Ole, a breath of fresh air after the poisonous Portuguese. For remember, he did start like a returning legend, dragging the club into what felt like a an intoxicating new era. Until it stopped.
Solksjær is up against it, now. The strong sense that United lack patterns of play contrasts embarrassingly with their near neighbours. The lack of pace through midfield and relative vacuum where their energy, commitment and belief should be contrasts horribly with their other bitter rivals at the seaward end of that Ship Canal. Where Klopp now seems an undeniable and inspirational genius, Ole seems to be shrinking, ageing.
But does the fact of Solkjær’s brilliant start mean that he might find or reclaim the club mojo? When Pogba and Rashford are fit? When he’s bought four, five, six players? Does the former super-sub have it in him, to mastermind and sustain this club at Champions League level?
Most would say ‘no’ – certainly not with this team. Most would say something, too, about how the club has been run, more generally, over the last several years. I’m guessing that even some neutrals – and I know there won’t be many on this – might accept that a goodish case scenario would be that Ole Supersub (see what I did there?) did, in time turn the club around, restoring some of the verve this club has traditionally offered to the game.
Solksjær is likeable, retaining just a touch of the spiky, boyish naïvety we saw when he wore the Manchester United shirt. He did, when he first came in, really get the club going again. Oddly, he may have steered them higher in the league than they belong or deserve to be, this side. Might the shady businessmen, shuffling conspiratorially behind yet decide to ‘stay local’ and back him?