After a rather tumultuous few seasons, and an iffy first half of this season, Manchester United fans are starting to have a little hope and optimism. In the last 11 games before football was suspended as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ole’s reds registered 8 wins and and 3 draws (one of which was the ultimately inconsequential first leg of the Europa League tie with Brugge). We are keeping clean sheets, scoring goals en masse, continuing our good record against the top teams, and putting the lesser teams away comfortably. Depending on who you ask, the break in the season came at the worst or best possible time.
One positive of this suspension in play is that we can begin to digest what Ole has been trying to do with his squad. Ole talks a lot about reinstating the culture that we all grew up on. So I thought it might be interesting to see what comparisons this squad has with one in the run-up to our last great successful rebuild. Everybody remembers the wonderfully successful three seasons from 2006-07 to 2008-09 fondly, but they were preceded by quite a bit of pain. The most painful of those was the 2004-05 season where United finished third (yes, that was considered bad back in those days), and a whopping 18 points behind champions Chelsea. A mere 2 season later United were crowned Champions of England, and a year later Champions of England and Europe. So what did Fergie do to make this happen? What similarities does this current squad have that the 2004-05 squad had? Are there indications that Ole is replicating Fergie’s process?
Taking a look at both squads, one thing that screams out is the sheer number of what could be considered first team squad members. Those being players who are considered for regular first team selection, have been in the past, or are touted as legitimate first team prospects. The 2004-05 squad had 32 players with the midfield and striker positions ridiculously overloaded. The 2019-20 squad has 34 players with the likes of Dean Henderson, Alexis Sanchez, Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo not even included.
Looking at them side by side, in spite of how bloated the 2004-05 squad was, it pales in comparison to what we currently have on the books.
|Position||2004-05 Squad||2019-20 Squad|
|Goalkeepers||Tim Howard||David de Gea|
|Roy Carroll||Lee Grant|
|Joel Castro Pereira|
|Defenders||Gary Neville||Victor Lindelöf|
|Phil Neville||Eric Bailly|
|Gabriel Heinze||Phil Jones|
|Rio Ferdinand||Harry Maguire (c)[a]|
|Wes Brown||Chris Smalling|
|John O’Shea||Marcos Rojo|
|Mikaël Silvestre||Diogo Dalot|
|Gerard Piqué||Luke Shaw|
|Midfielders||Ryan Giggs||Paul Pogba|
|Roy Keane (c)||Jesse Lingard|
|Liam Miller||Andreas Pereira|
|Eric Djemba-Djemba||Bruno Fernandes|
|Kieran Richardson||Angel Gomes|
|Darren Fletcher||Nemanja Matić|
|Quinton Fortune||James Garner|
|David Jones||Scott McTominay|
|Forwards||Cristiano Ronaldo||Alexis Sánchez|
|Wayne Rooney||Anthony Martial|
|Louis Saha||Marcus Rashford|
|Ruud van Nistelrooy||Odion Ighalo|
|David Bellion||Mason Greenwood|
|Alan Smith||Tahith Chong|
|Ole Gunnar Solskjær||Daniel James|
It can be argued that the number of academy prospects available is inflating the squad size a little, but it cannot be denied that there is an awful lot there that isn’t good enough to take us forward.
Separating the wheat from the chaff
Like Fergie’s team, Ole is trying to evolve a squad from multiple previous teams, primarily those of Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho (with a dash of Fergie and Moyes to boot). The advantage that Fergie had is that his jumbled up mix of a squad were all selected by him. Be it Giggs, Scholes, Keane, Solskjaer and the Nevilles from his mid to late 90s successes; or Ruud van Nistelrooy, Mikael Silvestre, Rio Ferdinand, Quinton Fortune and Diego Forlan in his attempt to get out of the Treble team’s shadow; or his diabolical attempt to break out of the post Beckham era with the likes of Tim Howard, Gabriel Heinze, Kleberson, Djemba-Djemba, Alan Smith, and David Bellion. All selected by one man. Ole’s task is immeasurably bigger. The majority of the players mentioned here were no longer at the club for the 2006-07 season, and certainly not members of the 2008 European double winners. But some were. And therein lies one of Ole’s biggest tasks.
It is clear now (or it should be) who Ole likes and who he would rather ship out. The likes of Smalling, Rojo and Sanchez should already know their fate, with Jones, Lingard and Dalot having appearance numbers that should have them concerned too. It also appears that there’s still one too many a centre back around, with one of Axel Tuanzebe and Eric Bailly probably losing out to one another or possibly even a new signing. Before his incredible renaissance and undeniable positive impact on the team, there were serious doubts over Nemanja Matic’s future. Juan Mata who struggles for regular game time as it is, will no doubt be concerned about playing time going forward with new signings incoming. Does Paul Pogba fancy sticking around and is the Raiola circus that follows him more trouble for Ole than its worth?
Identifying who has something to offer going forward and getting rid of those who don’t is vital.
Signings for the here and now
Looking at this current squad, there are many that have contributed to the failures of our recent past and present, but first team signings like Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Harry Maguire and Bruno Fernandes address a specific need, and are taking us in the right direction. Similarities can be drawn with the important signings of Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic and Michael Carrick in the year or so following the 04-05 season.
What Fergie did in this period was identify where the first team had its greatest need and bought players at or approaching their peak. Park Ji Sung, Carlos Tevez (bastard), Edwin van der Sar, Owen Hargreaves were “does exactly what it says on the tin” signings. The goalkeeping department in that era was a true shocker, with a trio of Tim Howard, Roy Carroll and Ricardo tasked with keeping opponents at bay. In the next few years Fergie replaced every one of them, with Edwin van der Sar, Tomasz Kuszczak and Ben Foster coming in. Thankfully the goalkeeping department isn’t a problem that Ole has to fix, but with the volume of quality available, some hard decisions will have to be made sooner rather than later. There is also a vital lesson he can learn. If they aren’t good enough, replace them. Ruthlessly.
Right wing is clearly an area that needs fixing, and with Jadon Sancho a heavily rumoured target, it’s clear that Ole has recognised this fact. Ole also tried to sign Haaland in January, so he clearly thinks that centre forward is an area he wants to strengthen. The brilliant form of Ighalo on loan may allow Ole to find another priority area to fix, but I suspect that Ole would like to add a top class centre forward with different attributes to the squad going forward.
Signings for the future
Speaking of going forward, Sir Alex didn’t allow his immediate goals distract from his long term vision for the squad, continuing to sign a plethora of young players. Fergie took a load of chances, and while most of them failed (Dong Fangzhou, Manucho), some did make contributions in the years to come such as Anderson and Nani. The signing of Dan James could well be in that bracket, with the young Welshman contributing a very good assist return in his first season in the English top flight. With targets such as Bellingham, Sancho and Haaland, it is clear Ole’s intention is to continue adding the best young talent in the world to his squad.
Developing young players
But it can’t all just be about signings. There is a necessity of course to improve the players already at the club, whether from the academy or purchased previously. The most noteworthy of similarities between the two squads are the presence of two immensely talented young forwards. What Fergie achieved with Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney is the benchmark for Ole with young stars Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial. There is no doubt their trajectories could follow those of Ronaldo and Rooney, that’s what they should be aiming for… the talent is there but they will need a coach to push them. Their performances and returns this season should give every red optimism.
The maturation of Scott McTominay, Brandon Williams and Mason Greenwood in this ¾ completed season are further evidence that Ole is up to the task. Perhaps even more than Fergie was at the time with only Gerard Pique, Giuseppe Rossi, Johnny Evans and Darren Fletcher making any waves in the years to follow. Ole certainly has a tremendous amount of young quality to work with, perhaps the best batch of youngsters since the famed Class of 92. More cause for optimism.
In just one incomplete season, 5 signings, a few sales, and a crop of young talent have changed the way we think about this squad. Had the season ended in January this article might have been very different. The signing of Bruno Fernandes alone turned the season on its head. What if we sign that ever elusive right winger? What if Greenwood explodes into an undroppable goal machine? What if Marcus and Anthony both achieve 30 goal seasons? What if Eric Bailly can stay injury free? What if Fred, McTominay and Matic can create a new iron curtain? And if Bruno and Pogba can work together?
Sometimes you are a lot closer than you appear to be. Sometimes it’s just around the corner.