Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Philosopher George Santayana
Two home draws against Southampton and West Ham have left Manchester United four points behind where they should have been by now in the Premier League table and safely qualified for next season’s Champions League.
The tired side now has to get a point at rivals Leicester City to clinch that top four spot – or hope Wolves manage to beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and do for the Red Devils what they don’t seem to be able to do for themselves.
Of course, these are extraordinary times and due to the pandemic, this season has been like no other. And yet, there is a strange sense of déjà vu about what is happening at Old Trafford despite the change in calendar and you can be forgiven for having a sense of foreboding as Sunday approaches.
Last season, United went on a fantastic run under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer before fading at the end of the season. That decline was put down to fitness – and that has supposedly been addressed. Just eight days ago, Solskjaer declared the side fitter than it had been for years.
‘It was a big thing towards the end of last season, when we felt our team wasn’t fit enough and we got a few injuries,” he said (BBC.com).
‘We’ve not had that kind of problem this season. Our lads have not felt as fit as this year.’
This is not a fit team. It is true that they have had to play a game every three or four days, but so have all the other teams in the Premier League. And it does come on the back of three months’ rest. West Ham and Southampton can hardly be said to have as strong a squad as United and yet they looked decidedly fitter. Why does fitness remain such a problem? Why has it not been resolved?
Another reason given for last season’s fizzle-out was that there was a lack of strength in depth in the United squad. So United spent £145 million in the summer on Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Dan James and another £68 million in January on Bruno Fernandes, but yet are still unable to rotate.
Why are the likes of Scott McTominay, Fred, Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata not better than, say Pablo Fornals, Thomas Soucek and 33-year-old Mark Noble, for example? And if they are better, why is Ole Gunnar Solskjaer failing to rotate his squad for these games?
A string of errors and shaky performances from David de Gea cost United vital points toward the end of last season. Solskjaer stuck by his keeper then and again this term when history started to repeat itself. Despite the fact that by all measurable statistics – not to mention the naked eye – De Gea is now one of the weakest keepers in the Premier League, he is still between the sticks for this United side.
Loyalty and ‘sticking together’ are laudable traits, but a manager has also to have a ruthless streak. Sir Alex Ferguson axed keepers who were underperforming, dropping Jim Leighton for the 1990 FA Cup Final replay, sending new signing Massimo Taibi packing after a number of howlers and even dropping De Gea himself a couple of times, for instance in 2012 after a high-profile error against Fulham.
One of the arguments used in De Gea’s defence last term was the weakness of the Smalling/Jones centre back pairing in front of him, the same argument used to defend him this season, although the personnel have changed and it is now Maguire and Lindelof. Meanwhile, Smalling has been one of Serie A’s top defenders this season. So what is the problem here? Why are we still having the same discussion a year on?
Another complaint last season was that Paul Pogba was inconsistent and/or not being used in the right position – he was dropped by José Mourinho before having a renaissance under Solskjaer, only to fade again toward the end of the season.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – Pogba, whose ideal position is left hand side attacking midfield, is playing back as a right defensive midfielder or deep-lying playmaker. His form has dipped dreadfully, there are no forward runs and that earlier exciting partnership with Bruno Fernandes looks a million miles away – as does their distance from each other on the pitch.
If United somehow scrape by on Sunday, all this will be forgotten – at least until next season. But for all the good things Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has brought to Manchester United, he will never be able to take them that one step further until he stops repeating his mistakes.
18-year-old Mason Greenwood has been setting the world on fire for Manchester United this season. But how much do you know about other teenage stars that have played for the Red Devils over the years? Take our quiz below to find out.