A couple of weeks ago I wrote what was to be the first of a two-part article about which players might leave Manchester United this Summer. After what I’ve seen since, I’m scrapping that article, because it now seems clear that there really is a serious problem at Manchester United that can only be resolved by a radical and unprecedented overhaul of the playing staff.
First, there is the Paul Pogba issue. People who are presumably in the know, such as Gary Neville and Roy Keane, have this week pretty much confirmed what José Mourinho said when he left: that Paul Pogba is a “virus” and that there is a group of players, including Rashford, Lingard, Martial and Lukaku, who look up to Pogba and follow his lead. Depending on which Pogba decides to turn up, these players will also either perform, or not perform, accordingly.
When José Mourinho left and the team suddenly started to perform for Olé Gunnar Solskjaer, it seemed that it had just been a personality clash between Pogba and Mourinho, and that, having been forced to choose between the two, Executive Vice Chairman Ed Woodward had made the right decision. However, now, after one of the worst periods of player apathy I’ve ever seen, and with the likes of Keane and Neville “saying it how it is”, it seems obvious that Ed got it wrong – he should have backed Mourinho and offloaded Pogba, rather than the other way around.
It has become clear this week that Pogba has to go, it’s as simple as that. We’ve all lost patience now. Many fans would be glad to see Solskjaer just send Pogba straight home for the rest of the season to send out a zero tolerance message to the rest of the squad, but commercial concerns will probably prevent that from happening. The fact that Pogba is in the PFA team of the year this season is a joke, and a shocking vindication of this type of self-obsessed, all fur coat and no knickers type of footballer.
But selling Pogba is just the start of the chemotherapy required to get this pervasive cancer out of our football club. The squad of players that downed tools in Louis Van Gaal’s second season in charge of the club did not include the Frenchman, who was bought by Mourinho. We have to face the fact that the attitude problems that have cost great managers such as Van Gaal and Mourinho their jobs – and made many fans turn against them – go deeper than just the influence of one player.
Remember Van Gaal dropping David de Gea at the start of the 2015-16 season, because he believed his focus was on a potential move to Real Madrid? Many people slated Van Gaal for that decision, but with contract renewal talks again an issue now and coinciding with four mistakes in the last three games, you have to wonder, in retrospect, whether he was right. And I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist but, as that was the season where everything went so horribly wrong for Van Gaal, could it be that the four times Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year didn’t like being dropped and might have caused unrest in the dressing room to get back at the Dutchman? It makes you wonder.
The fact is that De Gea is once again unsettled and is making mistakes that are costing Manchester United points. Solskjaer has also publicly stated that he wants players who will give their all for the badge, so whether or not De Gea is part of the attitude problems at the club, it might be time to let him move on and for United to replace him with more of a leader – another Peter Schmeichel or Gigi Buffon-type character.
It is also time for some more of the Spanish-speaking contingent to follow. Ander Herrera and Juan Mata are demanding large pay increases, despite having been in poor form for most of this season. Marcos Rojo is not worth even half of his £150,000 a week salary, and Alexis Sanchez’s time at the club has been unhappy for everyone. With Antonio Valencia already leaving, six of the squad’s core of seven Spanish-speakers (Sergio Romero being the seventh) could be, and should be, sold or let go. Solskjaer might find that passion for the club and pride when wearing the shirt may be easier to build when recruiting a core of more locally-produced players.
Solskjaer will also need to make a decision about Romelu Lukaku and Anthony Martial. He may feel that Martial is too talented to let go, and hope that being surrounded by mentally tougher teammates will bring out the best in him. Lukaku is another matter. He is not a mercurial talent, he is the type of player whose value is purely based on the hard work he puts in. He is not doing that anywhere near regularly enough and should be sold.
It would be a massive overhaul to replace this group of players, but it would not necessarily need to be all that expensive. For example, De Gea could be replaced with Jordan Pickford or Kasper Schmeichel, Pogba with Christian Eriksen, Herrera with Ruben Neves, Sanchez with Jadon Sancho, Lukaku with Mason Greenwood and Mata with Nicholas Pepe. A general is needed at Centre Back, so if the likes of Koulibaly are out of reach, Rojo could be replaced with a strong character like Harry Maguire, or the incredibly gifted Axel Tuanzebe could be given a chance to finally make his mark in a United shirt.
Of course, all this is speculation, but one thing is for certain: wholesale changes must be made this summer. The board will have to back Olé Gunnar Solskjaer to the hilt, as much in terms of outgoing transfers as in terms of incoming players.