‘All five arrivals under Solskjaer have made a good impression and that only strengthens the idea that, actually, United already have a de facto director of football in the Norwegian.’
To give credit to Laurie Whitwell of The Athletic, you get the impression that this ‘idea’ is not necessarily one he embraces himself, but he has clearly been briefed from within Old Trafford that the Manchester United narrative remains that the position of manager is ‘paramount’ and maintains the same ‘level of authority’ as Sir Alex Ferguson. It seems that billing is not earned but conferred as part of the job title along with the parking space he turned down.
United’s form going into football’s postponement was such that this enforced break has been populated with stories of Solskjaer’s brilliance in the transfer market, with an 11-match unbeaten run blurring the image of a Premier League table featuring Manchester United in fifth with the kind of points total that would have seen them a distant seventh last season. Whatever some would have you forget and thus believe, this has not been a successful season for Manchester United; they have spent the bulk of £200m to pick up considerably fewer points. If the season was either voided or abandoned with the current standings, they would remain outside the Champions League. Again.
“To lift the Premier League trophy again is what we expect, what we’re used to, what we’ve done so many times,” said Solskjaer on his permanent unveiling just over a year ago, when a resurgent United were two points behind fourth place and blessed with precious momentum. Let’s not pretend that he – or anyone at Old Trafford – would be happy to find themselves in pretty much exactly the same position 12 months later. And they are only clinging onto the coat-tails of Chelsea because Chelsea have their own self-inflicted issues.
And yet we are told that those 12 underwhelming months have seen United abandon the idea of appointing a Director of Football to work alongside Solskjaer and Edward Woodward and instead double-down on the old-fashioned idea of manager as, well, manager rather than coach – even though this approach only worked with one of United’s four managers before Solskjaer. And that one manager was a legendary anomaly.
Crucially – as far as United are concerned – those 12 months have seen five incoming transfers that could all be described as a success, though none would have featured in a PFA Team of the Year set to be missing a United representative for the first time since the David Moyes season. For a combined £130m, you might expect either your right-back or centre-half to make a better case for inclusion. But still, cautious thumbs-up can be flicked in the direction of Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James, though all were obvious targets bought for sums that only United could offer. No rabbits have been pulled out of hats here.
That we made Bruno Fernandes our Manchester United player of the season despite his January arrival tells you everything about his brilliance but also the paucity of competition among those who have toiled since August. What if he had joined last summer and United had not waited months to complete a transfer for pretty much the same money? Could that deal have been done by a Director of Football? That delay alone should raise questions about whether United should have faith in their current structure. As should a January scramble for a striker that took them to all corners of Europe before somebody remembered that Odion Ighalo was in China.
Again, nobody else was in the market for those players at those prices, just as nobody will be able to match the money they can offer if Jadon Sancho leaves Borussia Dortmund and decides that the Premier League is his preferred destination. No magic. No innovation. And nothing to suggest that United are capable of signing a James Maddison or a Wilfred Ndidi before everybody knows their name.
But perhaps we are making the mistake of thinking that United want to sign little-known players for bargain prices or have even half an eye on their sell-on value. Perhaps just identifying high-profile young players and paying the highest price is enough to make Solskjaer a de facto director of football.
If there is a choice, should Manchester United buy Jadon Sancho or Harry Kane? Is Tanguy Ndombele a funny shape? These questions and more are pondered as the F365 Isolation Show returns for another episode. We miss the pub. Like, subscribe and all that gubbins.