Monday 19 August 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Forget Man City and Liverpool - Man United are the most interesting team ahead of new season'

Ole Gunnar Solksjaer. Photo: EMPICS/PA Images via Getty Image
Ole Gunnar Solksjaer. Photo: EMPICS/PA Images via Getty Image
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Manchester United are the team to watch in this year's Premier League. For the first couple of months at least.

Last season's title duel between Manchester City and Liverpool showed how much every point matters, yet early season setbacks will not lead Guardiola or Klopp to push the panic button. The element of tension will be largely missing for the first few weeks at the Etihad and Anfield.

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It's different for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. His start to the season will be compelling viewing. It'll be like watching a man walking a tightrope between two skyscrapers with no safety net beneath him. There is very little room for error.

Things escalate quickly at Old Trafford. Despite the previous season's runner-up slot, last term Jose Mourinho's goose was essentially cooked after two defeats in the first three games. After the 3-0 home defeat by Spurs on August 27 everything else was essentially endgame, though the agony was prolonged for three and a half months.

A tricky opening begins with a home game against Chelsea next Sunday followed by an away match against Wolves eight days later. They're both fixtures with the potential to put the manager instantly under pressure, the kind United could win but are also capable of losing. The next three, Southampton, Crystal Palace and a home tie against Leicester City are kinder and may provide an opportunity for some 'Crisis? What crisis?' headlines.

September ends in trickier fashion with a visit to West Ham and a home tie against Arsenal, yet a United team capable of making a mark should be able to negotiate both of those. A meeting with Liverpool on October 19 is an obvious pitfall yet it's followed by matches against Norwich City, Bournemouth, Brighton, Sheffield United and Aston Villa, the kind of easy run which enabled Solskjaer to get his caretaker reign off to a flying start.

The fixture computer has been kind to a manager in need of a bravura beginning. Not until December 7, when they travel to Manchester City, will United face one of their top six rivals away. Their first meetings with Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Spurs are all at home.

If they're not in the top four by Christmas things are unlikely to improve after that. Not for Solskjaer at any rate.

Had United waited until the end of the season before naming Mourinho's successor, they probably wouldn't have selected Solskjaer. Instead, carried away by the euphoria which reigned as the team took 32 points from a possible 39 and knocked Paris St-Germain out of the Champions League, they made the appointment permanent.

Everything quickly went pear-shaped. After Solskjaer's appointment, United garnered just eight points from eight games, a decline which made Mourinho's 26 points from 17 games look a glittering accomplishment by comparison. Replicated across the season, that performance by Ole's Red Devils would have seen them finish level with Brighton and avoid the drop by two points.

The result is that Solskjaer finds himself back at square one with every bit as much to prove as he did when becoming caretaker last season. Once more his presence as boss seems a temporary thing as he vies with Roy Hodgson and Graham Potter for favouritism in the Premier League sack race.

His fate may largely depend on two men, only one of whom he has control over. Even then it's questionable how much control the manager can exert. Last season, Paul Pogba's and Manchester United's form mirrored each other almost exactly. In the first third of the season, both player and team seemed unhappy, directionless and unconvinced that Jose Mourinho deserved to be calling the shots.

No player did more than Pogba to get Mourinho dismissed, something the Frenchman seemed to gleefully acknowledge when gloating after the manager's departure. And no player did more than Pogba to get Solskjaer the job. During that 13-match spell, no Premier League midfielder was better than Pogba. As a result, United looked like title contenders rather than a side scrapping for a top-four place.

Pogba's inclusion in the PFA Team of the Year was controversial yet he was undoubtedly United's best player, leading the side in both goals and assists. The rub is, however, that eight of his 13 league goals came in the 10-match spell after Mourinho's firing. There were only two, both penalties, in the 12 after that.

It was as though, having proven his point to Mourinho and other critics, Pogba lost interest. As United finished with a winless run of five games, capped by one point out of six against relegated Huddersfield and Cardiff, he seemed to already be thinking of greener pastures.

Yet, despite all the hints from the player and statements from his agent, Pogba remains at United. He would be a massive loss to them, but it seems touch and go as to whether he will stay or leave for Real Madrid.

Uncertainty over Pogba makes it crucial that United land their main transfer targets. At the time of writing, the club have agreed a fee to sign Harry Maguire, while they are also expected to sign Paolo Dybala and Bruno Fernandes. The last named is a midfielder of real quality, a superior version of the departed Ander Herrera. At £80million plus add-ons, Maguire may be massively overpriced, but a back four containing him and Aaron Wan-Bissaka would represent a significant upgrade.

Dybala was one of the best strikers in European football two seasons ago but is coming off a rocky season where a move away from the main striking role at Juventus to accommodate Cristiano Ronaldo saw his form nosedive. He is both the signing with the biggest potential upside and the one with the most question marks around him. The eagerness with which United have pursued him betrays a belief that for all their eye-catching qualities, neither Marcus Rashford nor Anthony Martial is likely to score at a Salah or Aguero-type rate.

Yet, as Alexis Sanchez, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao have shown, top quality signings can count for nought in a side bedevilled by uncertain management. Should United land Fernandes and Dybala, the pressure to deliver will be all the greater on Solskjaer.

There will also be pressure from another quarter. After Mourinho left, the smart money was on the caretaker merely holding the fort until United snapped up Mauricio Pochettino in the close season. Solskjaer's appointment seemed to end any chance of the Argentinian coming to Old Trafford. It seemed another top club would snap him up.

Yet Pochettino remains at White Hart Lane, his reputation higher than ever after the run to the Champions League final, which was his greatest achievement yet in making the most out of limited material. The signing of Tanguy Ndombele from Lyon for a club record £63m suggested Spurs are finally about to loosen the purse strings so their manager can compete on a level playing field with the game's elite.

Or are they? Pochettino's frustration over the delay in signing Giovani Lo Celso from Real Betis was obvious last week when he declared: "Maybe the club need to change my description now because my job now is to coach the team. I am the boss designing the strategy to train, to play, the methodology, the philosophy in my area. But in another area . . . today, I think I am the coach."

This was an obvious shot across the bows of Spurs chairman Daniel Levy and Spurs' insistence that Pochettino plays a key role in a four-man transfer committee will hardly assuage the manager's unhappiness. The impression remains of a manager whose potential and ambitions may have grown too big for his club to hold him.

United fans will keep a keen eye on Spurs' results. Tottenham's first 10 games include trips to Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool. Should they get off to a mediocre start which increases Pochettino's frustration, the pressure on Solskjaer will grow further. The Spurs boss has become a king over the water figure for the United fans. It's safe to say that when they clamoured for the replacement of Mourinho, Solksjaer was not who they had in mind.

United seem to already have been discounted as title contenders, their ambitions limited to a scrap for Champions League places with Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs. Yet their failure to thrive in the post-Ferguson era remains one of football's most compelling sagas. The suspicion continues to grow that they are in danger of entering the kind of long-term slump which affected Liverpool when that club's greatest era ended.

Solskjaer's personal position is also fascinating. Handed his dream job, he now finds himself regarded as an interloper, perhaps even an imposter. It must bring back memories of his time at Cardiff City and the relegation battle he eventually lost. Every defeat carries potentially lethal consequences from now on.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. Uneasiest of all on the throne at Old Trafford.

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