Manchester United flaunt their familiar failings once again

Iwan Lehnert

Ever seen Groundhog Day? Even if you haven’t, you’ve likely lived it if you’re reading this. The concept of an infinite time loop has been a source of rich material for cinema over the years and as Manchester United’s summer transfer window ended in predictably chaotic fashion, the yearly comparison to Bill Murray’s seminal 90s hit can be wheeled out once more.

United’s 2019/20 season may have ended on something of a sour note, with a reckless defeat to Sevilla in the Europa League ensuring a third straight season would end without any silverware. But it had some hope; Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side finished a credible (albeit lopsided) third in the Premier League and played exciting football at times post lockdown, suggesting that better could yet come if the team was strengthened properly.

Given how frequently the club had batted their eyelids at Jadon Sancho via the medium of press briefings, it seemed as if a legitimate attempt to secure a generational talent’s services was coming once last season drew its final breath. Sure, this would need to be accompanied by attempts to fix several problem areas on the pitch such as defensive midfield and wing back alongside an expunging of deadwood, but with so long to plan and prepare, United’s kingmakers were surely on course for a focussed, streamlined summer of recruitment. For once.

Oh, dear reader.

There’s some individual method within the overall madness when it comes to this summer’s captures. For example; Edinson Cavani could bring goals and an extra body up front, Alex Telles could provide attacking threat to a flank sorely missing it and the club continues to display a desire to stockpile promising young talent with the captures of Amad Diallo and Facundo Pellestri.

But why were these four signings completed on deadline day? Why wait until early October to seal deals for two players that were needed prior to this campaign’s beginning? Why spend months pursuing Sancho when Borussia Dortmund had made their terms crystal clear?

We all know why, of course. Chaos is King at Old Trafford and with co-chief executive Ed Woodward and Head of Corporate Development Matt Judge at the helm, it’ll reign eternal. This is a club led by people obsessed by image, perception and posturing; it bristles at criticism and employs naked PR tactics to diffuse legitimate questions as to its actions. These have been mainstays of life in the Woodward era since the former investment banker took charge in 2013, and little else should be expected with such characters steering the ship.

This summer’s haphazard recruitment strategy has left Solskjaer battling player fitness, an uneven, bloated squad and his own tactical inadequacies in a perfect maelstrom that culminated in Sunday’s 1-6 thrashing by Tottenham Hotspur. It leaves the Norwegian and his staff with real work to do ahead of a challenging set of fixtures that includes Paris Saint Germain, RB Leipzig, Chelsea and Arsenal; one need not make a significant mental leap to guess who will suffer first should United flounder during this period.

The problems for Woodward run deeper than potentially having to replace another manager should his latest managerial project fail, however. Having committed to Solskjaer’s ‘cultural reset’ last summer yet managed a measly net spent a year later, a clear message has been sent to the club’s players and fans that many already knew; this is not an institution that is serious about challenging for top honours, whatever it may try to tell you. This is a club that watched their rivals strengthen this summer and was content to stand still ahead of a bloated goliath of a season that will stretch their manager’s squad like no other. Qualifying for the Champions League appears more important than participating in it, and such a flagrant lack of ambition is taking its toll.

Woodward’s role in United’s misfortunes has never been under greater scrutiny. In the past, Louis van Gaal’s anodyne football and Jose Mourinho’s toxicity offered reason enough to show them the door and most of the club’s fanbase accepted the decisions as the correct cause, albeit with some mitigation. That landscape has changed; there’s acceptance that Solskjaer may not take United much further than he already has, but should the former fan favourite be sacked prior to the year’s end, he’ll receive more understanding and sympathy from the club’s supporters than any of his sacked predecessors. It would amount to arguably the biggest failure of Woodward’s error-strewn tenure; another manager hired and fired on his recommendation, and one that will mostly serve to bring him more unwanted attention.

The coronavirus has at least spared him from coming face to face with such vitriol at Old Trafford these last few weeks. Silver linings, eh?

The broader picture at United looks as bleak as it ever was. With the Glazers in charge, this is a club that will aspire to be unremarkable, that will exploit a history of success that gets further and further away each year and will flounder, again. With Woodward at the helm, the cycle will not be broken; Solskjaer’s successor will likely see a short-term uptick until the time to push on arrives, and he’ll be undermined in the same fashion as those that came before him, because this is a club that is only interested in revisiting the heights of yesteryear via flashy video compilations for a few social media likes.

In the short term, Solskjaer will soldier on until results take a deep nosedive. There’s plenty of desire for him to succeed in his role, but that comes with an understanding that his own limitations and the club’s framework will likely stop him achieving much more than he already has.

But what of those left behind? Old Trafford will likely sit empty for the foreseeable, but as the match-going routine has been broken so abruptly by COVID-19, will fans all return when it’s safe to do so? Some may wonder whether another costly season ticket renewal is worth it after another managerial circus, this time involving a bona fide club legend. It may never be easier to stay away from the Theatre of Dreams and make a significant impact on the club’s ownership when match attendance is eventually allowed again.

But that’s all conjecture, isn’t it? The Glazers have shown little in the way of ambition during Woodward’s tenure or a desire to scrutinise his actions, so will anything change? Say the scorer of one of United’s biggest goals ever is relieved of his duties; it’s likely that this whole sordid affair will simply repeat, with the hope that one day we wake up in the arms of Andie McDowell in the bed of a Bed and Breakfast in Pennsylvania, freed from a psychotic, repetitive curse.

One can dream.

Going back to Murray’s attempts to woo McDowell, I’ll happily make another suggestion for a recent release that riffs on the same concept. Palm Springs features two trapped wedding guests replaying the same nuptials to maddening effect until one of them attempts to understand their predicament and (spoiler alert) breaks that endless cycle. Self reflection, accountability and affirmative action bringing a positive long-term conclusion!

…no, you’re right. That’s beyond this club.

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