One good result never made an entire season, but there is a crackle of excitement in the air at Old Trafford. From the very moment that young Daniel James scored, to put Manchester United 4-0 up against Chelsea at Old Trafford back on 11 August, there were notable differences between this Manchester United team and the world-weary apologists of 2018/19’s limp end.
For one thing, Marcus Rashford looked like a man reborn in the final third, ensuring that Chelsea got precisely zero rest. Flanked by Martial and James, he was a breath of fresh air compared to Romelu Lukaku, who had spent much of his Old Trafford endgame as a shadow of his former self, being borderline immobile – and utterly anonymous – when the going was tough.
The defence also seemed far more composed, with Harry Maguire showing exactly why he commanded such a hefty fee for his summer transfer from Leicester. On early evidence, Aaron Wan-Bissaka has also settled well within the squad, and offers the degree of energy that positional elder Ashley Young can no longer consistently produce.
Though title talk is still somewhat farfetched at this stage, United cannot fail to improve on last season’s showing if they continue to emulate their opening day performance throughout most of the season. A top-four finish is certainly attainable, and once the Red Devils are back in the Champions League, the Old Trafford faithful will once more feel qualified to hope for a return to the glorious 1990s.
Indeed, the league title win of 1992/93 that started United’s early monopoly over the Premier League came after a much longer wait for top-flight glory than the one currently being endured. The 26-year gap that separated their seventh and eighth historic league titles seemed more like 26 centuries, but it was well worth the wait, with further glories forthcoming – culminating in unforgettable drama at the Nou Camp, with that unforgettable Champions League triumph against Bayern Munch in 1999.
Mourinho vs Solskjaer
The successes continued into the new millennium, up until Sir Alex Ferguson left the club in 2013, but trophies have been a lot rarer since then. Naturally, many United fans thought that Jose Mourinho would bring the good times back to the club but that simply didn’t happen.
Clearly a man who will either be loved or loathed by players in the dressing room, Mourinho’s former charm and charisma was conspicuous in its absence during his spell at Old Trafford. That lack of personal flair was also reflected in his struggle to fit square pegs into round holes, during his time at the home of the 13-time Premier League winners.
Paul Pogba’s signing, for instance, was a classic ‘busted flush’, with the Frenchman never truly finding his best role in a side that was duty-bound to play with greater tempo than his former club Juventus. One year later, the signing of the aforementioned Lukaku – for a similar price to Pogba – proved effective only in the short term.
While Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been given the same high-spending opportunities, he has instead chosen to invest in players with the foresight to buy a vision, built on a foundation of historical success. Such players need not necessarily be superstars, but the likes of Maguire, Wan-Bissaka and James have not yet become ‘marketing tools’ like Pogba, wrapped up in their own hype.
Though successful in the Premier League, Solskjaer is also much more of a realist than Mourinho. Having played under Sir Alex Ferguson, he knows the value of straight-talking honesty, and this marries well with his efforts to tip the balance of stardom vs camaraderie drastically in favour of the latter.
In enjoying a greater sense of unity, with the only sacrifice being a £75m passenger, the squad will ultimately be happier. The first sign of this is a greater sense of urgency in their play, which will also ease the transition of more youth players – such as Mason Greenwood and Tahith Chong – when the time comes for their more frequent involvement in first-team matters.
The Legends who Lived and Breathed United
Solskjaer’s self-evident endeavours to give youth players a chance mirror Ferguson’s own values, as he reacted to Manchester United’s trophyless 1994/95 season by utilising the ‘Class of 92’ with greater intensity. After an underwhelming start, that decision would soon be vindicated. A young, new-look United famously took just three months to erase a 12-point deficit to Newcastle in 1995/96, going on to do something of almost the same magnitude to Liverpool the following season.
Having joined United as a player that same season, Solskjaer will also undoubtedly appreciate the galvanising effect of the team’s spine – both now and in glory days past. In goal, Peter Schmeichel was the man of the 1990s, while Edwin van der Sar’s clean sheets were priceless, as United resumed control of the league in the later 2000s, after a period of dominance from London’s ‘big two’.
While the stats show that David de Gea unquestionably endured a nightmare end to 2018/19, there were undoubtedly mitigating circumstances at play, and he could easily end up as United’s most improved player come spring 2020.
In defence, the partnership of Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister was crucial towards United’s early successes in the Premier League, and it stood as the bar for greatness for a long time, until Ferdinand and Vidic partnered for United to the same great effect years later. Harry Maguire’s aerial presence reminds a lot of United fans of the same mastery Vidic once boasted, but again, one promising debut never justifies comparisons to the rock-solid Serb, though they do already exist.
While Maguire can grow as a defensive all-rounder, one asset that Man United remain short of is leadership in the defensive half of the pitch. Accomplished a leader though Vidic was, the one that a comfortable majority of United fans will toast as the immovable king of the pitch is Roy Keane.
A midfield general with even half of Keane’s deadly venom would automatically see United’s title odds tumble, but such a figure is an increasingly rare one in the current era.
What it Means to Play for United
In the last few years, United haven’t been the team that everyone fears, and they’ve not had the culture of success many of their younger fans once took for granted. However, nothing has changed in terms of what it means to play for the club.
Even during the aforementioned barren spell without a top-flight title, the core values of the club never changed. Any man who cherishes brotherhood, endeavour and fearlessness – while combining those cornerstone values with raw skill and talent – has always been a natural fit for the Red Devils.
Given how he spent this summer’s transfer budget, and utilised the club’s pre-existing muscle to acquire the likes of Wan-Bissaka and Maguire, Solskjaer evidently cherishes those values to the same degree of the man that introduced him to English football more than two decades ago. Again, this cannot fail to reignite a collective sense of belief that United’s next title will most certainly not wait another 26 years.