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Manchester United - crisis and comeback

Posted: Oct 7, 2021

Modern day Manchester United is a boiling broth of uncertainty. Crisis one moment and a comeback next. Flying and crashing. But never really constant. They are always an intriguing watch. Almost as though like a remote of an electronic device in a kid’s grasp. One never really knows what will happen next. And whatever does happen, usually accompanies itself with thrilling consequence.

The 2021-22 season thus far has progressed along similar lines. Manchester United began superbly, humbling rivals Leeds United at home. But, soon after, fell face first to BSC Young Boys in the Champions League. There was a late recovery at West Ham courtesy of a familiar Jesse Lingard stunner in stoppage time. But only a few days later, they fell in the Cup to the same opposition.

The inconsistency carried forward to the remaining Champions League and Premier League games ahead of the break too. Once again, in Europe, United needed a late winner after going down. It was their returning star man Cristiano Ronaldo who elated the crowd and revealed his very toned torso. Back in Premier League an equaliser from Everton denied them yet another home win.

Manchester United under Solskjaer – a pattern

Manchester United OleThe pattern seems all too familiar now. It is indicative of Manchester United not just since Sir Alex Ferguson's departure. But a very striking highlight of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's reign. It began from the outset really. Ole started his stint with five stars and five goals. The win was compounded by a hot streak that saw United knock out fancied PSG from the Champions League at the Parc des Princes. And the season collapsed thereafter, finishing outside the Champions League spots.

The inconsistency carried forward to the next season too after United plummeted into crisis till Bruno Fernandes arrived in January 2020 like a messiah. The Portuguese breathed new life into Old Trafford and rancid performances. Such was the state, United were deemed to be in deep crisis. And ever since, every little failure is termed as impending crisis. That means, United are in a perpetual state of comeback.

This is not unfamiliar ground for those of this parish. The red half of Manchester is not uninitiated to comebacks. They claim to have DNA that is spelled thus - comeback kings. But this is a different kind of comeback. From subpar to average and sometimes nearing good. But never really good enough. Far removed from the spectacular days of yore. Ones which the current manager was himself an integral part of. Champions League triumphs and habitual Premier League trophy lifting.

It is almost unthinkable for the modern day football fan to imagine United going trophyless for four seasons. Yet, that is the reality. Ole has failed to pull through in big games, losing multiple semi finals. There was a final heartbreak too. 22 penalties is a harsh way to decide any game. However, one will point to United's lack of killer instinct in allowing the game to stretch out.

Manchester United - system traded for killer instinct?

Cristiano RonaldoIt was evidently clear that Manchester United needed strengthening. They severely lacked alternatives as one saw Marcus Rashford painfully play through injury and consequent poor form. He should have been on the surgery table. Instead, he was fighting on the pitch like the hero of a human being and footballer he is.

So the signings rolled in. World Cup winning Raphael Varane. The effervescent young superstar of global football, Jadon Sancho. And finally, the alpha male and alpha ego Cristiano Ronaldo. Whoever said killer instinct could not purchased had clearly no knowledge of football's free market.

However, there is one little caveat to the marquee returnee. He is twelve years older and not a winger anymore. He does not press and will certainly not run the channels. Ronaldo will score goals and win you football matches. But perhaps not do too much more. What more can a striker do? What more should a striker do? There are various answers to this question. Jose Mourinho reckons a good striker should add value to a team irrespective of goals. Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp have shown the multiple facets any player can and perhaps must possess.

Ole's tactics, whatever one's predisposition to its existence, depends on the high press. Anthony Martial is not the most favourite amongst fans today but he was very good at pressing  as a number 9. So is Edinson Cavani. Marcus Rashford is quite accomplished at it too. United's current wide and forward players, however, are not. Pogba, Sancho and Greenwood have other skills. Pressing is not their strong suit. As for Ronaldo, it is difficult to say because he does not attempt it often enough anyway.

Manchester United - best starting 11

Manchester United teamTo Donny or not to Donny, that is the question. That really is the question! Also, where to Donny? And Ole may even ask, how to Donny? The Dutch midfielder's career has fallen off the cliff since an emotional move to Manchester United. Bruno is ahead of him at number 10, Pogba is a better number 8 and Fred or McTominay are preferred in the six. Donny can play all three positions but perhaps none of them proficiently enough.

Ole prefers the double pivot in a 4-2-3-1 formation and oftentimes, Fred pairs McTominay. The two of them are near perfect for big games where opposing teams dominate possession. They cover great distance, are tenacious and work very hard off the ball. This often puts Paul Pogba on the left. However, the arrival of Jadon Sancho and continuous progress of Mason Greenwood would mean the Frenchman has to adjust to defensive discipline.

Rashford is likely to station himself on the left once he arrives, leaving Martial as the second choice there. The right of midfield will be contested between young Englishmen Greenwood and Sancho. Bruno Fernandes is the undisputed pick at number 10, leaving Ronaldo to spearhead an attack that looks extremely menacing on paper.

Perhaps Rashford's pace and willingness to run directly allows them the variety required to score more goals. He is also an underrated creator. As for Sancho, he endured a similar slow start to last campaign and is good enough to turn the style on soon.

This leaves the backline which is fairly settled. David De Gea has reinstated himself as the unanimous choice between the sticks. And the back four of Aaron Wan Bissaka, Raphael Varane, club captain Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw pick themselves.

Manchester United - can they afford another comeback?

Manchester United Bruno GreenwoodComebacks will always be an integral part of United's life. It is too deeply ingrained within the culture of the club to ever really leave. In fact, it is one of those things in sport - a romantic constant. But, perhaps, United cannot really afford yet another season long comeback. Within games is fine, but across a season would mean there is crisis yet again.

And five years without a trophy really is damning for a club of United's global power and footballing status. The fact that every defeat sends rumour mills into overdrive is a fair indication of the constant pressure on Ole. And now the eyeballs are as many as they ever were. Ronaldo's arrival has increased press coverage and enhanced expectations manifolds.

The room to wriggle is not much. And no matter what the communications and briefings are from within, it is very common for falls to be sudden and precipitous in football. It is an unforgivingly success driven industry. Time is not an afforded luxury. And so Ole Gunnar Solskjaer must face his reality now. Either a spectacular comeback of yore. Or a crisis where he plummets to the floor.