During these unprecedented times that European football finds itself in, where home atmosphere has been replaced with apocalyptic ominousness, players, coaches and managers are susceptible to fortnight-long quarantines at a moment’s notice and the offseason could be counted in days rather than weeks, it feels almost unfair to criticise any club for failing to adequately adapt.
And yet, even amid such mind-boggling, distracting and challenging circumstances, Manchester United’s inability to prepare for a season in which they needed to start closing the gap between themselves and the Premier League’s two title-chasing juggernauts, Liverpool and Manchester City, is glaringly striking.
The results and performances thus far in the Premier League speak for themselves; a 3-1 defeat at home to Crystal Palace, a fortuitous stoppage-time win over Brighton gifted by Neal Maupay’s penalty box stupidity, and Sunday night’s 6-1 horror show against Tottenham - a complete capitulation at the hands of Jose Mourinho, a manager the club felt that it could do much better than when dispensing of him nearly two years ago.
But the painful truth is that the lattermost result felt unsurprising come the full-time whistle, at least compared to the 7-2 loss the reigning champions endured at Villa Park few hours later. It was symptomatic of United’s underwhelming start to the season and thus hardly freakish that the highest-quality team they’ve faced so far dished out the biggest punishment. This kind of display had been brewing for a while, perhaps ever since the club first started drawing up their plans for the 2020/21 campaign.
Because at every level, there is only one word to describe Manchester United as a club right now: underprepared. The clearest evidence has been in front of our very eyes from United’s first competitive kick of the campaign. The Red Devils were physically bested as the Eagles produced a typically Palace counter-attacking masterclass against them in September - they couldn’t deal with the visitors’ pace on the break, nor their power, nor their industry in midfield.
At the time, benefit of the doubt was understandable, after United entered the season a week later than their opponents. They simply didn’t look up to speed. But we are now 180 minutes of Premier League football further down the line, and in that time the Red Devils have faced two more sides in Brighton and Spurs that have simply looked sharper, faster and harder than them.
It is perhaps no coincidence too that Manchester City have also been bereft of the usual energy synonymous with Pep Guardiola teams, and in turn endured a mixed start to the campaign themselves. Having also participated in the latter stages of European competition last season, City started a week later as well and have struggled to sustain explosive starts to games throughout the whole ninety minutes.
Nonetheless, the consequences for United have felt far more severe, and the ultimate question is either why the club have failed to adequately identify this obstacle to their early season form, or why they haven’t found a way to minimise it. United don’t merely look undercooked in the same way as City - they appear completely out of tune with the physical demands of a Premier League season.
Again, because of the nature of the summer off-season and their delayed start to the new campaign after a prolonged end to the previous one, there is an element of forgivability for United. But it’s not just in the players’ legs where a lack of preparation appears prevalent - it’s at management and boardroom level too.
United finished last season in strong form, not losing a Premier League game from February onwards. But Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s rotation of the starting XI became less and less frequent, and even after the introduction of the talismanic Bruno Fernandes, so many of their goals relied on at least one of three key things - space to exploit on the counter-attack, moments of individual brilliance and winning fouls in the penalty area.
United have become increasingly proficient at all three throughout Ole’s tenure, but to compete with Liverpool and City more strings would need adding to the Red Devils’ bow before 2020/21; after all, Liverpool are the best the Premier League has seen for some time in being able to win games both with possession and without it, while the slickness of City’s attacking football - even when finishing 17 point off top place - remains unrivalled throughout the division.
Yet United have entered the new season without any discernible differences to how they ended the last. The starting XI personnel is identical, the pattern of play is the same, and most of the goals come from the same sources. Out of their five goals so far, two have been penalties and one was Marcus Rashford ripping Brighton apart on the counter-attack - the remaining two being an own goal and Donny van de Beek’s debut strike.
No obvious Plan B has come into effect, no change in formation has been suggested or even flirted with, no altering the dynamics of the side has taken place. United have simply tried to pick up where they left off, as if the previous standard set was good enough without any need for improvement.
And that makes you wonder what Ole spent his brief time off in the summer doing, because so far there’s no evidence whatsoever that he’s done anything to evolve this side, to tactically prepare them for the new season beyond what the rest of the league already knows about them and can already predict.
It’s no secret they will try to transition quickly and use speed on the counter, just as it’s no secret Fernandes will try to win penalties, just as it’s no secret both of their wingers will cut inside, just as it’s no secret Aaron Wan-Bissaka doesn’t offer much going forward and Luke Shaw is defensively suspect, just as it’s no secret Victor Lindelof is a weakness in the air and passes can be played behind Harry Maguire. United are a completely known entity at this point, and every team is aware of what their strengths and weaknesses are.
Of course, it’s difficult to reinvent a team without new personnel coming in, and that unfortunately represents yet another level of the club where United are so woefully underprepared for what will no doubt be an incredibly challenging season under incredibly unique circumstances.
Even during a depressed transfer window, Arsenal, Chelsea, Man City and Spurs all managed to bring in between two and seven first-team signings before the first matchday of the new Premier League season, the only exception other than United being Liverpool who, aside from the squad additions which they’ve since gone on to make, have no glaring need to bring in new signings anyway.
That has of course afforded those clubs more time to bed new signings in and adapt their squads accordingly, and all of them have looked far more convincing than United thus far. Meanwhile, even Liverpool have managed to bolster their numbers since then, but at the time of writing - around seven hours before the summer transfer deadline - United’s single confirmed signing remains van de Beek, making United the only big six club not to sign anyone since the Premier League season started, and the only big six club to make less than three acquisitions overall.
It’s yet another symptom of a club that just hasn’t reacted to the circumstances they’ve been given and sleepwalked their way into the new campaign, seemingly assuming it to be a mere continuation of the last. And of course apologists can point to the individual difficulties United have faced, which have been even more severe than what the Premier League has faced as a collective, but the fact of the matter is that there’s very little evidence to suggest they’ve actively tried to circumvent them.
And that combined underpreparedness, should such a word exist, is what we are now seeing on the pitch; a team physically behind the rest of the league, a manager who’s failed to keep opponents guessing by updating his playbook, a boardroom that’s either overlooked, ignored or failed to react to the importance of early business in a one-off transfer window.
It’s quite staggering how so many layers of the club can all be culpable of being so underprepared, but it’s also incredibly telling. If those three, central pillars of United have all failed spectacularly in the same respect, clearly the problems at Old Trafford go right down to the club’s core.News Now - Sport News