Newspaper reports of manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer being under fire and of dressing room cliques and unrest have come at a very convenient time for Manchester United’s executive vice chairman Ed Woodward and controlling shareholders, the Glazer family.
At a time when the fans should be raging about the board’s refusal to back Solskjaer in this summer’s transfer market, focus is being redirected to the players and the boss.
United, who were previously reported to be in a better position than most clubs to survive the financial crisis brought about by COVID-19, were in 12th place in the Premier League in terms of transfer investment this summer.
Woodward managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by playing mind games with Borussia Dortmund over Jadon Sancho and ended up losing the main transfer target of the summer. He failed to secure either a centre-back or a defensive midfielder, two of Solskjaer’s other top priorities, lost out on Sergio Reguilon to Spurs and then allowed his negotiator Matt Judge to faff around until deadline day before buying Alex Telles and Edinson Cavani and selling Chris Smalling.
Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo, Jesse Lingard, Tim Fosu-Mensah and Sergio Romero were not sold or even loaned, as should have been the case, and Diogo Dalot and Andreas Pereira could only be loaned rather than sold, as the club reportedly wanted.
It was one of the most disappointing transfer windows in living memory and spoke to an ownership unwilling to invest in the club and an incompetent board devoid of any understanding of how football works.
And yet all the paper talk now is about Bruno Fernandes being upset at half-time against Spurs, how Romelu Lukaku left the club because of cliques, how the players doubt Solskjaer’s ability to manage a top club and how Woodward would be willing to make the unpopular decision to fire Solskjaer and replace him with Mauricio Pochettino if results don’t improve.
It has been well-documented that Woodward hired a PR firm headed up by former Sun journalist Neil Ashton last season to improve his image, and that of the Glazers, with the fans.
And some of the frankly ludicrous stories that have come out of Old Trafford since have a distinct whiff of Ashton’s penmanship behind them, even though they go out under the names of other journalists.
This all started with some blatantly pro-Woodward pieces by writers such as The Sun’s Neil Custis earlier this year which were pure propaganda.
Woodward and Ashton would then appear to have led everyone on a merry dance this summer, with story after story about reasons why Sancho had not been signed – blaming intermediary Marco Lichtsteiner for delaying the negotiations, then blaming Sancho for making massive wage demands and his agent for asking for extortionate fees – none of which were true.
The simple truth of the Jadon Sancho story is that Dortmund set a minimum fee of around €100 million plus €20 million in bonuses and a deadline of August 10th to sign Sancho, but Woodward and Judge ignored both demands, said they would not be hurried or held to ransom, and everything that we read in the papers after that August 10th date was rhetoric and misdirection on their part as they slowly realised their plan had backfired and sought to shift the blame elsewhere.
Now, again, luckily for them, United have had a poor start to the season including a 3-1 home loss to Crystal Palace and that fateful 6-1 drubbing at the hands of Spurs. Whilst it is true that the manager and players United have at their disposal should be able to do much better than that, the results can also be seen, in part at least, as a reflection of the confusion and frustration within the dressing room about what has gone on this summer.
This is not to excuse Solskjaer or the players for those performances but to say that they came at a very convenient time for Woodward, as it has taken all the focus off his failings and made it very easy for his PR machine to turn fans’ attention away from the appalling lack of investment from the board and bungling incompetence from the negotiators.
Solskjaer spent much of the winter of 2019 without top players Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba and had to play the same eleven players in two or even three matches a week post lockdown, because the board had not allowed him to improve the depth of his squad. The fact that United finished third with the squad at the Norwegian’s disposal last season was a fantastic managerial achievement.
Lukaku left the club because he himself tried to be a ringleader who turned players against the manager – a bold decision by Solskjaer – and Bruno Fernandes’ angry outburst at half-time in the Spurs game was a passionate rant from a player who actually cares about the club, a man who wants to win. There is no dressing room divide at Old Trafford.
As Manchester United fans we will not be confused by these or any other smokescreens lit by Woodward’s PR men. We know exactly where the problems lie at Manchester United, and they are not in the dressing room.
This summer’s transfer window was one of the strangest in living memory. So cast your mind back to less stressful days and test your knowledge of past United arrivals and departures in our quiz below.