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Pretending That There's A Future And That There's No Today
Pretending That There's A Future And That There's No Today
The rot began in 2017-18 when José Mourinho inexplicably left top-scoring Belgian international center forward, Romelu Lukaku, out of the Manchester United team that lost, 0-1, to Chelsea, and that 22nd minute Eden Hazard penalty in the FA Cup Final of 2018, after center back Phil Jones' reckless sliding tackle, which left the club without a trophy that season and led to the manager's dismissal halfway through the 2018-19 campaign.
The appointment as manager of former reds' striker, Norwegian Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who scored that last gasp winner against Germany's Bayern Munich to win the 1999 European Champions League Final, 2-1, seemed at first inspirational on the part of the club's owner from the United States, Malcolm Glazer, whose American Football franchise, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Florida, won the 2021 Super Bowl Final at home in Tampa's 'The New Sombrero', Raymond James Stadium.
The National Football Conference (NFC) qualifiers, finishing second in the NFC division South, and entering the play-offs as a 'wild card', that is, amongst the best three teams that weren't division winners, qualified as champions of the NFC by beating North division winners, the Green Bay Packers, 31-26, to reach Super Bowl LV, where they faced AFC division West winners, Kansas City Chiefs, champions of the American Football Conference (AFC), by virtue of their beating AFC East division winners, the Buffalo Bills, 38-24. The Buccaneers won the National Football League (NFL) Super Bowl against the Chiefs, 31-9, while Malcom Glazer's sons, Joel and Avram, remained co-chairmen at Old Trafford.
2021 wasn't such a celebratory year for Manchester United. After taking over just before Christmas 2018, Solskjaer had steered the team through to the quarter finals of the Champions League, defeating Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), despite drawing on aggregate 3-3 over the home and away legs of the tie in the round of the last sixteen clubs still remaining in the competition, and losing 0-2 at their Old Trafford stadium in front of the die hard fans of the Stretford End stand, because PSG were beaten in France, 3-1. Goals scored away from home counting double, United progressed to a quarter-final against Spanish giants, Barcelona, but lost 0-1 at home, and 0-3 at Camp Nou stadium, that is, 0-4 on aggregate. As Ole took over at season's midpoint, pundits reserved judgment on United's finishing 6th under his managership; at least until the conclusion of a full term.
Mourinho's legacy was significant. In his first season, 2016-17, the side won the Europa Cup, 2-0, against the Dutch club Ajax of Amsterdam at Friends Arena, Solna, Stockholm, Sweden, and the League Cup at London's Wembley stadium against Southampton, 3-2, with Sweden's center forward, Zlatan Ibrahimović, the inspirational free transfer from PSG, aged 34, rocking the stands with his ineffable goal scoring talent. Midfield general, Paul Pogba, who'd win the 2018 World Cup with France, 4-2, against England's semi-final conquerors Croatia at Moscow's Luzhniki stadium, where United had won the 2008 UCL Champions League, and had won four straight Italian Serie A titles with Juventus between 2012 and 2016, had been returned to United for a fee of €105m, where he'd won the 2011 Youth Cup Final, 6-3 on aggregate against Sheffield United (2-2, 4-1), with the away leg at Bramall Lane against 'The Blades' being played first, and alongside winger, Jessie Lingard, who'd score the injury time winning goal, 2-1, in the 2016 FA Cup Final at Wembley against Crystal Palace for the manager Mourinho replaced, former Dutch national team boss, Louis Van Gaal. However, José's lack of patience with Ibrahimović, whose cruciate ligament injury meant his missing most of the 2017-18 campaign, led to the forward being given a free transfer to the United States' Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise, Los Angeles (L. A.) Galaxy, and where he confounded doubters about his fitness to score 22 and 30 goals in consecutive terms, before returning to Europe and Italian giants, A. C. Milan, for whom he scored 10 and 15 goals in the two seasons before 2021-22.
Mourinho's replacement for Ibrahimović, Romelu Lukaku, coming from Everton on July 10th, 2017, for €88m, scored 16 league goals in 2017-18, but inexplicably didn't make the losing FA Cup Final team, and got 12 the following season when Ole replaced the eccentric Mourinho on December 19th, 2018. Romelu went to Internazionale of Milan, and along with similarly offloaded United talents, forward Alexis Sánchez of Chile, England left winger/left back, and former captain, Ashley Young, and Italian fullback Matteo Darmian, who'd played at left back in the Europa Cup Final victory over Dutch club Ajax in 2017, won the Serie A title in 2020-21.
Belgian midfielder, Marouane Fellaini, bought by Ferguson's immediate successor, David Moyes, from his previous club, Everton, for £27.5m on September 2nd, 2013, and Dutch defender, Daley Blind, bought from Ajax by Gaal for £13.8m on September 1st, 2014, both of whom had been instrumental in bringing the Europa Cup and League Cup to Old Trafford in Mourinho's first season, and had been in the team that beat Crystal Palace, 2-1, in the 2016 FA Cup Final, were deemed surplus to requirements by Solskjaer by the end of season 2018-19, although Brazilian Fred, bought from the Ukraine's Shakhtar Donetsk for £47m by Mourinho, and who'd made his debut in a victory, 2-1, over Leicester City, on August 11th, 2018, remained to give depth in midfield selection, Lukaku, Darmian, and Young, with Sánchez on loan at Inter before the move was made permanent, were let go by Ole by 2019-20 season's end. United's loss was Inter's gain and the club didn't win a trophy in 2020-21, although they did reach the Europa Cup Final against Spain's Villarreal. A 1-1 draw at Stadion Gdańsk, Poland, after extra time, was followed by a penalty shoot out in which United's Spanish 'keeper, David de Gea, was the only one of the twenty-two players on the pitch to fail, so the trophy went to Villarreal, 10-11.
Marcus Rashford was the teenage center forward that had emerged during Gaal's tenure, and Solskjaer's major addition to the squad inherited was Bruno Fernandes from Portugal's CP Sporting of Lisbon for €80m on January 30th 2020, an extraordinarily gifted attacking midfield player in the Paul Scholes mold to rival strikers for goals. Ole had made an attempt to resolve defensive issues with the arrival of England center back from Leicester City on August 5th, 2019, for £80m, Harry Maguire, and Wales' Daniel James had been brought from Swansea City on June 12th, 2019, for £15m to give width to the team on the right wing, while Mason Greenwood was emerging as a teenage striker to compete alongside Rashford for goals up front.
Only the addition of 33 year old Uruguay forward, Edinson Cavani, allowed to leave PSG, where he won six Ligue 1 titles, on a free, recognizably improved the squad for the 2021-22 season, as it was he that scored the goal to equalize against Villarreal, 1-1, in the 2021 Europa Cup Final, but hopes rose when super fit 36 year old Portuguese right winger 'CR7', Cristiano Ronaldo, agreed to move for the start of the 2021-22 campaign from Juventus to Old Trafford for £12.85m. Ronaldo, who'd brought more honor to the United number 7 shirt, made famous by 1968's inspirational European Cup winning winger, George Best, amongst others, including legod, French striker, Eric Cantona (1992-7), had arrived from CP Sporting for £12.25m for the 2003-04 season, and had been a Champions League winner with the club, defeating Chelsea, 6-5 on penalties in the 2008 Final a.e.t., and a 1-1 draw when normal time was up, thanks largely to CR7's 26th minute opening headed goal from a right wing cross from Wes Brown, in the right back position, before Chelsea's England midfielder, Frank Lampard, equalized just before half time, and Ryan Giggs winning penalty after Chelsea center back, John Terry, fell on his arse in the rain and hit the post when he could have won the trophy for 'The Blues'. Cristiano had been prised away from then United manager, Alex Ferguson, at the end of the 2008-09 season by Spanish giants Real Madrid for €94m, where he won another four Champions League winners medals (2014, '16, '17, and '18) before leaving for the 2018-19 season with Juventus of Turin, Italy, for €100m, adding two Serie A titles to his medal collection.
Solskjaer's first full season in charge, 2019-20, had ended with the club in 3rd place in the English Premier League, and the side reaching the semi-finals of the three cup competitions they were eligible for. Losing at home, 1-3, left it an almost impossible task against Manchester City in the League Cup, although United won the away leg at the Etihad Stadium in East Manchester, 1-0. The team lost to London's Chelsea in the FA Cup, 0-1, and to Spain's Sevilla in the Europa Cup, 1-2, despite being a goal up from a Fernandes' penalty on 9 minutes, after forward Diego Carlos' lunging tackle, as Rashford struck for goal, brought the United star down. Ole's team were getting a reputation for being a semi-side; not being able to go all the way. In 2020-21 the club again lost to Manchester City in the League Cup semi-final, despite it being a single tie staged at Old Trafford, 0-2, before losing the Final of the Europa Cup to Villarreal. Still not being able to go all the way, at least the side had proven it could progress beyond semis, and United finished runners up in the league.
Often criticized for his team selection, Solskjaer's bringing Jadon Sancho, the England winger, to United from German Bundesliga side, Borussia Dortmund, for €85m, before the commencement of the 2021-22 season, and after England's losing the postponed UEFA Euro 2020 Final to Italy, 2-3, on penalties, with Luke Shaw putting the home team ahead, 1-0, in the 2nd minute at London's Wembley stadium, July 11th, 2021, while Rashford and Sancho, both coming on in the 120th minute, gifting the game to gli Azzurri, failed to score with the third and fourth penalties, when the game proper had ended, 1-1, a.e.t., highlighted the problem.
Ole's mentor and predecessor, Alex Ferguson, flew to success on the wings of England's David Beckham and Wales' Ryan Giggs, so the acquisition of Ronaldo on the right, who'd replaced Beckham at United, ironically, when he signed for Real Madrid for €37m before the 2003-04 campaign, made Ronaldo and Sancho a logical wing combination. However, instead of playing Pogba and Fernandes in center midfield, with Ronaldo and Sancho on the wings, so leaving Rashford and Greenwood as the twin strikers, Solskjaer ignored the obvious and continued to select a midfield of Scott McTominay, a driving Scot with an eye for goal, who began to figure regularly in first team plans under Mourinho, and Fred.
Although Ole's strategy was itself logical, that is, with five or more substitutes available to deploy from the bench, wingers could be used any time if they didn't start, timing was the issue. If the substitutions needed to win games weren't made, pressure was on the manager either to play with wingers, or to explain why he didn't, when it was the United way so to do. Given the fact that United's semi defeats and inability to produce a Final climax were ultimately the result of a lack of goals, temerity could be seen as Solskjaer's major shortcoming, that is, an apparent willfulness in failing to accept his midfield options looked like over cautiousness representing fear.
Ole had undoubtedly built a team and a squad. Aaron Wan-Bissaka's arrival from Crystal Palace on June 29th, 2019, for £50m, filled the right back slot that had looked shaky since the departure of Antonio Valencia. On October 5th, 2020, Brazilian Alex Telles was signed from Portugal's FC Porto for £15.4m to give England's Luke Shaw competition for the left back berth. Although Wan-Bissaka started the Europa Cup Final defeat to Villarreal, Telles came on for him in a.e.t., at 1-1, on 123 minutes, scoring the team's second penalty during the 'sudden death' shoot-out. Solskjaer made five substitutes; the others being Axel Tuanzebe on 116 minutes for Ivory Coast center back, Eric Bailly, in the side because of concern over the fitness of Maguire; Daniel James for Paul Pogba on 116 minutes; Fred for Mason Greenwood on 100 minutes, and Juan Mata for Scott McTominay on 123 minutes. It was Mata that scored the first penalty for United, while Fred and James got the sixth and seventh, with Tuanzebe getting the ninth. Of those remaining from the starting line-up, Fernandes, Rashford and Cavani scored the third, fourth and fifth penalties, while Shaw, and Sweden's captain and center back, Victor Lindelöf, got the eighth and tenth. Unfortunately, 'keeper de Gea had his effort saved by Villarreal's Argentine 'keeper, Gerónimo Rulli, so the trophy went to Spain's El Submarino Amarillo, 'the Yellow Submarine'.
The problem with having a large squad is which players to select in order to give the team the best chance of success. Alex Ferguson's advice, after Ole's fielding a second string side had left the club ruing another early United exit from the League Cup, this time to West Ham, 0-1, in a 3rd round tie at Old Trafford on September 22nd 2021, where the rationale for defeat was that younger players needed to play and gain valuable first team experience, so it'd become a club tradition to sacrifice new lambs on the altar of useless principle, when the aim was to put silverware in the cabinet, 'Always play your best team.' Solskjaer isn't Ferguson, who'd have to move the European Cup, FA Cup, and Premier League Trophy, to make way for the League Cup, so it was important that Ole's team, which hadn't won anything, tried to win everything, and the omission of top scorer Ronaldo for the game against Everton on October 2nd, which the side drew, 1-1, when a win would have put them at the top of the league table, despite losing at home, 0-1, to Aston Villa on September 25th, with Fernandes missing a 93rd minute penalty, was symptomatic of a false belief in looking to the future, which ignored the fact that, if today there're no trophies, it's time to stop pretending and win.