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29th Apr 2019

Criticism of Solskjaer, Pogba and De Gea isn’t going to solve Manchester United’s slump

Wayne Farry

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Another poor run of form, another round of the blame game at Old Trafford

Once the very definition of stability in football, keeping abreast with the goings on at Manchester United is now more akin to following the storylines in Home and Away or Hollyoaks.

Ever since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson – the patriarchal glue which held this house of cards together – the club has bounced from crisis to crisis, with only the occasional false dawn lifting the malaise.

Time after time, the manager at the helm has been blamed, as well as the footballers playing underneath him. Sometimes this has been fair – Jose Mourinho’s tenure was verging on toxic by the end – but it isn’t the whole story.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is the manager now and as such he is the target of ire from both supporters and the media, with many of the same pundits who were hailing him as the second coming of Ferguson when he first arrived now saying he’s out of his depth.

The mercurial and sometimes talismanic Paul Pogba is another target of abuse. The Frenchman was a player who came to define United under Mourinho, a man with whom – if rumours are to be believed – he did not enjoy the best relationship.

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Worst of all – and serving as an indication of just how desperate performances have become – we now see David De Gea, the club’s one consistent performer in the post-Ferguson years, coming in for grief from a section of fans who are grasping at someone to blame.

It’s understandable why De Gea and co act as a lightning rod for the fans’ frustrations, but it is the people in the background who must answer for the complete lack of direction at United over the past few years.

They are the people in the boardrooms, who are present at quarterly meetings and who collect their dividends; and each of them is ultimately responsible for the problems that have seen Solskjaer, Pogba and De Gea dragged through the mud.

A simple and logical look at each of their current woes illustrates this.

Take Solskjaer. He came into a club at its lowest ebb in years and immediately lifted the team almost entirely thanks to his force of personality. He loves the club, believes in promoting a philosophy of attacking football and is the sort of coach who avoids heavily criticising his players in front of the media.

But for all the man management heroics he worked at the beginning of his reign at Old Trafford, the fact remains that he is still working with a broken squad recruited on Ed Woodward’s watch. There are far too many players who wouldn’t even get close to the substitutes’ bench at United’s rivals.

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De Gea, usually a beacon of excellence, has recently begun to show that he is human, experiencing his worst run of form since he joined the club. This has led to some calls for the Spaniard to be dropped and replaced with deputy Sergio Romero.

There is no denying De Gea is struggling – that is clear for all to see – but this is a man who almost singlehandedly kept United competitive while the rest of the team was falling apart in front of him, season after season.

That is not to say that he should avoid blame out of blind loyalty, but rather that it’s amazing that it has taken this long for De Gea to crack under the pressure of shouldering the club’s defensive responsibilities.

As bad as De Gea has it right now, Pogba is probably the single most criticised player at the club, and has been since he returned.

That return itself left some supporters with a bad taste in their mouths, highlighting where United’s priorities now lie. The build up and announcement to #PogBack seemed more like a PR exercise designed to instil confidence in shareholders. Proof that United are indeed competing at the top level.

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Pogba was painted as the messiah, the man who would right all the wrongs of the Moyes and Van Gaal eras. But like most of the football decisions made by the Glazers, it was overly simplistic and not enough.

The Frenchman, who helped his country to the World Cup in 2018, has been regularly criticised for underperforming at United, but he has always shown – at every step of his career – that he is someone who needs quality around him. A plan to ensure he can deliver his best.

Pogba too must feel aggrieved. It is not unreasonable to believe that assurances were made to him prior to his return that the club would reinforce the team with players who would make them genuine challengers once more.

But since he joined the club, United have signed the sum total of two further central midfielders: Nemanja Matic and Fred. Decent players? Yes. But are they near the level of the likes of Marchisio, Hernanes, Kante, Matuidi, Vidal and Pirlo – players that have sat alongside Pogba in other teams he has played for? Not a chance.

Pogba is not without blame. Despite his goals and assists this season, he still possesses the propensity to go missing at times. But he is not a leader, nor has he ever claimed to be. He is simply one individual at a club with world class expectations and mediocre planning.

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He is not blessed with the luxury of playing alongside midfielders of years gone by such as Roy Keane, Nicky Butt, Michael Carrick or Paul Scholes, but is judged by many as if he is part of a far stronger collective.

All of these are football issues caused by a club hierarchy which has come to view United’s footballing operations as secondary to its money making. For all their talk of being an elite club operating at the top of world football, the real trophies for the people in charge are social following and brand partnerships.

Fans are aware of this, of course, but many opt instead to lament the playing and management staff because criticising the board can often feel like screaming into the wind.

But this criticism avoids the harsh reality that the problems at United are not created on the pitch, at the training ground or as a result of the attitude of pampered players. They are a direct consequence of a fundamental lack of strategy and a complete lack of balance between the boardroom and dressing room.

Until that attitude changes, until they start acting like a football club again from top to bottom, Manchester United will be doomed to repeat these cycles of failure and misplaced blame over and over again.