It has been anything but a summer of fun for Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Add up captain Harry Maguire getting arrested in Greece, Paul Pogba contracting the coronavirus, Mason Greenwood breaking COVID-19 regulations on England duty and being sent home, the failure to sign Jason Sancho and defeat to Aston Villa in Man United’s only preseason friendly, and it has been quite a testing time for the manager.
On top of it all, the truncated football calendar has meant his own holiday amounted to just four days in Norway with his family. Solskjaer says he has “not had time to recover mentally” from a gruelling season that stretched on for over a year, with the new one starting this coming Saturday against Crystal Palace.
It’s not all been doom and gloom, however, and the swift, smooth arrival of Dutch midfielder Donny van de Beek for £40 million from Ajax represents a good deal in a difficult market; executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward and chief negotiator Matt Judge deserve credit for getting it done. But ahead of a crucial campaign, there is a familiar frustration running through the club — transfer negotiations dragging on, fringe players hanging around and the clock ticking down towards the deadline on Oct. 5.
The talk at the end of last season was about capitalising on a third-place finish in the Premier League and beginning to bridge the gap with Liverpool and Manchester City. Instead, United fans have watched Chelsea make the biggest statement, with five eye-catching signings at a cost of more than £200m. It hasn’t helped United battle back against a theory held by some supporters that United’s owners, the Glazer family, are only interested in significant investment when they are trying to return to the lucrative Champions League, rather than capitalising after qualifying the previous season.
In seven years since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, United have spent an average of £85.4m on new players in summers following Champions League qualification. In summer windows after the team has missed out, United have spent an average of £161.8m — almost double.
It was a source of anger for former boss Jose Mourinho that Maguire was deemed too expensive in 2018, but not in 2019 — the only difference being, in his eyes, that in 2018 Champions League football had already been secured.
Louis van Gaal and Mourinho both oversaw seasons of varying degrees of progress, but the next step — a genuine challenge in the Premier League and Champions League — has always proved a step too far. It’s the task that now awaits Solskjaer, but with less than a week to go before the season kicks off, the next stage of his rebuild seems to have stalled.
Sources have told ESPN that Solskjaer has been largely accepting of the financial restraints caused by the coronavirus pandemic but there remains a growing annoyance that deals he thought would happen have not yet materialised.
In 2018, Mourinho, similarly frustrated at a lack of transfer activity, chose an outright war with Woodward and the board, ramping up the pressure every chance he got. On one occasion during the preseason tour of the United States, he ended a news conference by asking the travelling English reporters to meet him in the corridor outside to explain why he was so unhappy. That is not Solskjaer’s style and although he has maintained a good relationship with Woodward, privately he has made it known how vital it is that the squad is improved.
After the Premier League restart in June, Solskjaer relied heavily on a core group of 13 players. Chasing an equaliser against Sevilla FC in their Europa League semifinal defeat last month, he did not make a substitution until the 87th minute — almost 10 minutes after going behind; a pointed reminder that the Norwegian does not have much trust in his bench. For now, though, Solskjaer is sticking to the script in a way Mourinho did not.
“I am very happy working with these players and the squad,” Solskjaer said in a preseason interview. “We always trying to see if there’s any way possible that we can improve this squad and bring players in that will have the right level of quality and the right personality and have all the right criteria. We all know this summer and this year has been a very strange one and it’s important that everyone understands that this has an effect on football and not everyone can spend millions and millions.”
Solskjaer had hoped the bulk of his transfer funds would be spent on Sancho, but he remains a Borussia Dortmund player and the German side are now suggesting the 20-year-old, who started and scored in Dortmund’s 5-0 DFB-Pokal win over MSV Duisburg on Monday, will not be sold this year.
United have so far refused to give up their pursuit, but a list of alternatives has been drawn up just in case. Ivan Perisic, Kingsley Coman and Douglas Costa are among the names being considered, and a year-long loan deal for an “experienced stop-gap” has not been ruled out either. There were also talks with Gareth Bale’s representatives, but the Welshman looks to be on his way to Tottenham Hotspur.
Hopes that fringe players would be offloaded to raise extra funds have also been dashed, usually because interested clubs can’t pay a fee and match the high wages they enjoy at Old Trafford. Phil Jones made two league appearances last season, but still has at least three years left on his contract. Sergio Romero is keen to leave following the return of Dean Henderson, but bidders have been put off by his £10m price tag.
The social media frenzy around United’s transfer business — something the club cannot control or be held responsible for — only accentuates the cloud of negativity, but there is no escaping the fact that they have only managed to make one major signing in Van de Beek. It’s far from ideal ahead of what is an important campaign for Solskjaer. Three semifinals and finishing third in the league meant last season was largely viewed as a step in the right direction, but Solskjaer — winner of six Premier League titles as a player — knows better than most that success at Old Trafford usually means silverware.
After Mourinho’s summer of discontent in 2018, United started the season with five wins from the 13 games in all competitions and he was gone before Christmas. Solskjaer has built up more credit, particularly in the dressing room, but he cannot afford a poor start and another season cut adrift from the leaders. There is still an opportunity to turn this summer around and begin the campaign with renewed optimism. Time, though, is quickly running out.