Three games into the 2020-2021 Premier League season, Manchester United look to be in trouble. Once one of the powerhouses of European football, the Red Devils have gone seven seasons without lifting the Premier League trophy, dating back to their title victory in the 2012-2013 season when legendary Scottish manager Sir Alex Ferguson retired.
“Fergie,” as he was known to the United faithful, had managed the club for 25seasons and led his side to 13 Premier League titles, two UEFA Champions League victories, and five FA Cup trophies. Beyond being an excellent tactical manager, Ferguson had an unbeatable eye for talent, helping United to recruit players like Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, Cristiano Ronaldo and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
After Ferguson’s departure, United ran through managers, starting with Ferguson’s hand-picked replacement David Moyes, then Dutchman Louis van Gaal, followed by the infamous Portuguese manager José Mourinho. Mourinho was ultimately replaced in 2018 by one of the very players Sir Alex Ferguson had brought into play at United – Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Solskjaer initially took over for Mourinho in an interim role while club executives sought a more permanent fix. But after winning 14 of his first 19 games in charge, including an important away win against Paris St. Germain in the Champions League, Solskjaer was given the permanent job by the United brass.
United’s hot start under Solskjaer quickly faded, and the club lost three of its final five games of the 2018-2019 season to finish in a lowly sixth place. Despite calls for Solskjaer to be replaced over the summer, the club stuck with him, and he guided United to a third place finish in the 2019-2020 season. The team looked especially sharp after the restart in June, with United winning the most points of any team during that period.
Expectations were high for the 2020-2021 season, with some pundits even predicting that United would reclaim the league title, despite finishing an astounding 33 points behind runaway champions Liverpool last season. United’s front four of Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood had been electric down the stretch, star midfielders Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba were dovetailing excellently in the middle of the park, and the defense looked stable and likely to improve.
United fans also had set their sights on securing several high-profile signings over the summer, including RB Leipzig center back Dayot Upamecano, Aston Villa midfielder Jack Grealish and Borussia Dortmund winger Jadon Sancho. None of these signings materialized, however, as United instead only signed Dutch midfielder Donny van de Beek from Ajax before the season began.
The club’s misfortune in the transfer market would be a sign of things to come in the league. Despite possessing the ball 76% of the time against Crystal Palace in their first match, United lost 3-1, looking uninspiring and flat in possession, and lackluster defensively. In their next game, United snuck away with a 3-2 victory over lowly Brighton, winning with a controversial penalty kick that proved to be the last kick of the game. Brighton ran roughshod over United’s defense all game and were unlucky not to score more goals, hitting the woodwork five times.
But United’s worst performance came last weekend, when they were utterly embarrassed at home by Tottenham Hotspur and Mourinho. After taking the leader with a penalty less than a minute into the game, United fell apart. Tottenham scored in the fourth minute after shambolic defending from captain Harry Maguire, then scored again three minutes later to erase United’s lead by the seventh minute.
United’s frustration was obvious, culminating when striker Anthony Martial received a red card in the 29th minute for hitting the throat of Tottenham winger Erik Lamela. An already-defeated United completely capitulated to the London side, ultimately losing 6-1. With only three points on the season, United currently sit in sixteenth place, with tough fixtures against Chelsea, Arsenal and red-hot Everton ahead.
In the aftermath of the Tottenham game, United were able to finalize a few signings before the transfer window ended, bringing in Portuguese left-back Alex Telles from Porto and Uruguayan striker Edinson Cavani from Paris St. Germain. But signing an attacking-minded full back and an aging striker well-past his prime does little to address United’s key problem — its defensive frailty.
In the season following Fergie’s retirement, United lost defenders Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand as well. The pair had anchored United’s defense for eight years, and their departure led to a revolving door of defenders trying to live up to their legacy. The most notable of these signings is current captain Harry Maguire, whom United signed from Leicester City for £80 million, making him the most expensive defender of all time. Maguire has never fully settled in at United, and has been calamitous at worst, stop-gap at best this season. He has never been able to settle into a stable partnership either, sometimes playing next to Frenchman Eric Bailly, sometimes next to Swede Victor Lindelof. An excellent crosser of the ball and set piece specialist, new signing Alex Telles might offer United some attacking power, but will do little to help their defense that’s currently shipping over three goals a game.
United’s other key issue is that their best player, French midfielder Paul Pogba, doesn’t seem to want to be there. Pogba was once the most expensive signing in the world, moving from Italian side Juventus to Manchester United for almost £100 million, and is a world-class talent who helped the French national team win the 2018 World Cup, but throughout his time at United has always flirted with a move away, especially to Spanish giant Real Madrid.
After United’s dismal start to the season, Pogba admitted that it was his “dream” to play for Madrid, fueling speculation that he will try to leave this winter. On the field, meanwhile, Pogba has looked uninterested and unwilling to track back in defense or press to win the ball back after being dispossessed.
Beyond issues with the squad, the biggest question at United is whether Solskjaer is the right man for the job. He came in as a club legend, having scored the added-time goal that won United the 1999 Champions League final, which undoubtedly has given him more wiggle room as boss. But United’s recent form has been unacceptable from a team that was once the best in Europe, and with more experienced managers like Massimiliano Allegri and Mauricio Pochettino available, Solskjaer may already be living on borrowed time.