We should have enjoyed it more, if it is indeed over: the period of time where Manchester United couldn’t stop tripping over its own dick, burned through name managers simply because they had a name, bought mediocre players for astronomic prices simply to appear to be in action, and generally spun their wheels. All of it thanks to Ed Woodward, a banker who got to play real life Football Manager and do it badly. It was honestly paradise.
But there’s only so long that England’s richest club is going to stumble around the party before passing out in the bathroom with the door locked before it realizes that changes need to be made. And we might be there.
The summer for United started with the relieving conclusion to the year-long Jadon Sancho saga, who is now officially on board. Attack wasn’t necessarily the problem for United last season, as they scored the second-most goals in the Premier League. But they did that greatly outperforming the expected-goals count they put up, which you can’t count on repeating year after year. Ask Liverpool. Sancho on the other side of Marcus Rashford in a front-three with Bruno Fernandes pulling strings behind is a truly terrifying thought, as even though Gareth Southgate might not have much use for him this is still a player to pile up 38 goals and 45 assists in the Bundesliga for a Champions League team before his 21st birthday. Sancho’s vision will mean teams can’t simply blanket Fernandes in midfield and pray that’s enough to cut off United’s attack, assuming Paul Pogba is off riding fences in his own mind (which he usually is).
But hey, United scored a lot already, and as good as Sancho is, he can’t really improve their tally that much, right? I mean, this was already a dangerous offensive team before, and with Mason Greenwood and Rashford a year older, it was going to be again, right? This is just icing, not the actual cake, right?
Yeah well, about that…
This week has brought the news that United have also signed Raphael Varane from Real Madrid, which is probably the real problem for everyone. Varane is 28, in the prime of his career, and comes to Manchester having been the starting centerback for two La Liga winners and four Champions League winners. Throw in a World Cup as France’s as well in 2018, and clearly you’ve got a real colossus to deal with.
United spent some $111 million on Harry Maguire two seasons ago to be the foundation of their team, just as Liverpool had bought Virgil van Dijk to anchor theirs, Chelsea imported Thiago Silva to be theirs, and then City would find Ruben Dias to be theirs. But it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Maguire certainly hasn’t been bad, and United’s defense hasn’t been a clown car, but it hasn’t been quite enough, because:
A. They haven’t found a suitable partner really for Maguire, and
B. Maguire doesn’t really command the defense in the way that United probably hoped he would. Varane didn’t have to do that in Madrid either with Sergio Ramos and his various medieval spells and weapons around. But Ramos missed most of last season through injury and Madrid were still miserly, giving up only 28 goals in the league and making the Champions League semis as well. Varane had a big role to play in all of that. Combined with Maguire, Luke Shaw (who might have been England’s best player at Euro 2020), and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, United could feature perhaps the best back four in the Premier League next season, at least defensively.
That doesn’t mean it’s automatic, of course, if you need hope of continued United waywardness. One, Varane benefitted from playing behind Casemiro in Madrid, one of the world’s leading defensive midfielders. Fred or Scott McTominay are hardly Casemiro. So there could be a freeway to Varane’s doorstep that he’s not accustomed to.
Two, United still lack a certainty in their central striker. It’s either bones-on-the-verge-of-dust Edinson Cavani, or Anthony Martial, whose name has become a synonym of “mercurial.” (which seems to be a label French players get more than any other, but that’s what happens when you’re French I suppose. As you’ll see in a second here). The hope for United supporters would be that with the threesome of death Rashford-Fernandes-Sancho playing behind and around any striker, all the team would need is someone who can stand still somewhere between the penalty spot and the six-yard box and they’ll just bank the ball off him into the net (again, the Nuno Gomes method of football).
Third, there won’t be quite as open of a gateway for United in the league. Liverpool are very unlikely to watch every single centerback end up in a wheelchair again, Chelsea won’t be wasting any part of the season on Frank Lampard as manager, and City are City.
Fourth, there’s still the Paul Pogba problem, as he’s turned down a new contract and has been batting his eyes at PSG of late, much in the same fashion he has to Madrid or Juventus over the years. It could be a real headache this time as he only has this year left on his deal and United will be more desperate to get anything for him rather than let him just traipse off as a free agent.
The biggest factor that could undo all of this is the manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. There are still questions as to just how good he is and what effect he has, though he has proven to be more than the glorified mascot talking about the good old days that he was first thought of. If he’s had the sense to just tell Fernandes and Rashford and Greenwood and whoever else to “go play,” it’s worked enough this far. Adding Sancho only increases that, but to bring home one of the bigger trophies Solskjaer will have to do more than be out of the way.
Though if he can’t, and United hire a world-class manager, then we could really be in trouble.