The Old Trafford boardroom is certainly not a place for the faint-hearted this summer.
After a pulsating flourish upon resumption of the 2019-20 season in which Manchester United swashbuckled their way to third place in the Premier League, in only a mere matter of weeks things appear to be falling apart.
United took to Cologne riding a wave of euphoria, with a promising new era appearing to be on the horizon. Heavy expectation had been placed on the side to win the Europa League as a result.
Yet defeat by Sevilla put paid to that, with a spiral of events following which looks to have placed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side in very precarious waters.
Now they look to be closing in on landing the talented midfielder Donny Van De Beek from Ajax. Is his arrival, plus a few more key signings, enough to turn the tide on what was shaping up as United’s worst summer in recent memory?
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer faces the biggest summer of his managerial career, and must move fast
United took a huge knock by limping out of the Europa League against Sevilla, despite the vast experience of the Spanish side in the competition.
United had finished the season on such scintillating domestic form that it almost felt like a certainty they would plough a route through to the final.
The mercurial form of Bruno Fernandes and the energetic zest of the youthful front three meant United were tearing strips off sides, and it seemed only right that such a consistent end to the season would result in silverware.
United stars slumped to Sevilla in Cologne, despite high expectations to win the competition
Alas, Sevilla showed their teeth and United surrendered. Solskjaer must now use the limited pre-season time at his disposal to get his team back in the right mindset.
The worst-case scenario now would be for the loss to have lasting effects, and show United’s rise over the last six months to have been a bubble of artificial confidence which has now burst.
But now is no time to develop an inferiority complex, particularly with the coming season arriving with little break. Early momentum is key.
Solskjaer has a short window in which to re-drill his troops once they arrive back from hastily booked summer holidays, however…
Captain behind bars
The one headache Solskjaer could absolutely have done without is throbbing away.
A huge player scandal, every manager’s greatest fear.
Except this time it is highly complex, and involves a player who would be the last of everybody’s picks when it comes to trouble-making.
Harry Maguire is one of the last people many would expect to get involved in a huge incident
While the details still remain disputed and it is important to highlight that Harry Maguire pleaded not guilty to the charges put against him following a fracas in Mykonos and is appealing the verdict, the repercussions are certain to have impact on United’s pre-season preparation.
On Tuesday Maguire was found guilty of assaulting and trying to bribe Greek police – as the prosecutor blasted the footballer’s ‘pack of lies’, forcing England boss Gareth Southgate into a humiliating U-turn to deselect the defender from the national team. Maguire has appealed against the convinctions but he could face a two-year wait until the retrial and a chance to clear his name.
While Maguire’s reputation was previously squeaky clean and the 27-year-old is renowned for his reserved and amiable personality, it has not been lost on anyone that he is United’s captain.
With the Old Trafford armband comes huge responsibility and the utmost importance on retaining public image.
The defender was holidaying in Mykonos when he got caught in an altercation with police
Now, with Solkskjaer having just seen his team rocked on the pitch, he is now faced with the painstaking decision process of making a call on Maguire’s immediate future, and more specifically whether he remains United captain.
It’s a headache the Norwegian could certainly do without, given that Premier League rivals are already starting to make a march with both their pre-season training preparations and heavy recruitment drives.
Whatever Solskjaer decides, it is a call he will be scrutinised by.
Incredibly, Maguire isn’t the only United defender to be caught up in controversy with what should surely be a simple task of going on holiday and staying out of trouble.
While Aaron Wan-Bissaka has not caused anything like the furore Maguire has, his decision to holiday in Dubai, which requires a period in quarantine on arrival back in the UK because the UAE is not part of the British government’s ‘travel corridors’, seems staggering.
Wan-Bissaka’s 14-day period of self-isolation, which will start when he flies home later this week, means that he is now in danger of missing the start of pre-season training.
This was all entirely avoidable, as United provided travel advice to their players as to where would be suitable holiday destinations without the need for quarantine on their return. Why on earth did Wan-Bissaka fail to follow this?
United’s pre-season training starts next week, with the squad due to report back to Carrington on Wednesday, and it looks all but certain that their right-back will miss a big chunk of their preparations for the new campaign.
Solskjaer must have his head in his hands.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka is facing a period of 14 days in quarantine after travelling out to Dubai
A reminder as to why quarantine and self-isolation rules are necessary came on Thursday with the shock news that Paul Pogba had tested positive for coronavirus.
Unlike many of his team-mates, Pogba had not travelled abroad during the super-brief close season, instead spending his time off with family and friends in London.
Confirmation of his positive test came just days after he was pictured outside a restaurant having dined out with his heavily-pregnant wife and friends. There are concerns Pogba may miss the birth of his second child.
Pogba is understood to have been symptomatic and he must now self-isolate for at least 10 days, so will miss the start of United’s pre-season training. That is bad news for Solskjaer and the club but their primary concern will be that Pogba returns to full health as soon as possible.
Paul Pogba has contracted coronavirus and must self-isolate while he returns to full health
All this, and we haven’t even yet arrived at transfers. Or a lack thereof.
It has been no secret that United’s top transfer target this summer, above all others, is Borussia Dortmund starlet Jadon Sancho.
Seen by many as the ultimate coup, it would represent United bringing one of Europe’s most exciting talents to Old Trafford and show a signal of pure intent, while getting their hands on the biggest regret of rivals Manchester City, who let Sancho go from their youth ranks.
United made Jadon Sancho their top target but missed Borussia Dortmund’s clear deadline
United, as they have done historically with most big signings, courted Sancho rather publicly. Solskjaer and chiefs above him have never once dispelled talk of a transfer, though have remained respectful to Dortmund and their players.
What United did fail to do though, most pertinently, was meet a deadline of August 10 set down by the Bundesliga club.
Dortmund made clear they would do business this summer, under two keys terms. The first being that their price tag of £108million (€120m) would not be compromised on, and the second being that a deal was to be swiftly concluded before the squad linked back up to fly to Switzerland for a pre-season camp.
United paid no heed to the deadline, and now look to have compromised themselves massively.
Sancho will now be remaining in the famous yellow of Dortmund, the club have insisted
Sancho is contracted to Dortmund until the summer of 2022, meaning the club have no real pressure to secure a transfer fee this summer. They can, of course, sell him in 12 months time – though there is a risk of giving the player too much bargaining power given he will then be only six months away from negotiating with clubs for free.
But after seeing United disregard their deadline so openly, Dortmund appear to be playing hardball. The Germans have now publicly stated Sancho will be remaining at the Westfalenstadion for the coming season.
Given United’s current fragile state and the frenzy regarding their captain, the capture of England’s wonderkid would have provided both a huge morale boost and a welcome press distraction.
Now, it seems, they won’t be getting either. And United’s fans are not happy with chief Ed Woodward’s transfer strategy, yet again.
With everything going on, United must be careful of not getting overwhelmed by their current situation.
Some very experienced heads operate within the upper sanctum of Old Trafford, though this doesn’t mean they get everything right.
If one thing is undeniable right now, it’s that United are losing ground on their rivals… and fast.
The recently concluded season set up a thrilling race-to-the-wire between Leicester, United and Frank Lampard’s Chelsea for European football, though since it has been the Blues who have responded most aggressively.
United’s rivals Chelsea have already stolen a huge march, signing the likes of Timo Werner
Now able to sign players once more, United’s rivals have taken to the transfer window with a brutal battle plan. Top talent is being harvested for Stamford Bridge and the west London club are showing no signs of slowing down.
The exciting names of Hakim Ziyech, Timo Werner and Ben Chilwell have already been acquired, while Kai Havertz looks to be close.
Chelsea are also on the cusp of confirming the arrival of Thiago Silva on a free transfer, in order to bolster their suspect back line. The Blues’ spending is coming up to £231m and there is still well over a month remaining.
And yet in comparison United are stood motionless, watching the world go by at rapid pace.
Other rivals, including noisy neighbours City, have also gone about their business early doors. Already Nathan Ake and Ferran Torres have been acquired for a combined sum exceeding £60m.
Noisy neighbours City also moved quickly, signing Nathan Ake, while United have stood still
And just imagine if, as looks increasingly likely, Lionel Messi joins on the most incredible free transfer of all time.
Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, who broke United hearts last season by finally getting back on their perch to become champions of England, have likewise already briefly dipped their toes into the market, despite making clear their finances had been hugely cut by the coronavirus pandemic. Even without bringing in big names, Liverpool are miles ahead of United.
United therefore must move fast. The club could yet still be unveiling Sancho this summer, despite the protestations of Dortmund, though must now bend over backwards to appease the German giants.
United have reportedly reached a verbal agreement with Ajax to sign Donny van de Beek
There have been some glimmers of hope that United will bolster their squad soon after reaching an agreement with Ajax to sign midfielder Donny van de Beek for around £40million this summer.
The talented midfielder, who scored 14 goals from midfield for the Dutch outfit last season, has reportedly committed to a five-year deal and would add some added quality in the middle of the park after impressing in the Champions League in recent season. Earlier reports from Spain had claimed he has told team-mates he will be heading to Manchester.
United must do their business sooner rather than later. Solskjaer cannot risk is the process of finding himself entering the final days of the window while still scrabbling around for a marquee name.
Solskjaer is now very much aware he needs to bring United’s hellish summer to a rapid end
Despite chief executive Woodward publicly stating that United must curb their spending this summer, teams around the world will be acutely aware that the Red Devils have the money to cough up, if needed.
Negotiating around the £100m mark for Sancho all summer, only to then low-ball offers around to other teams in a panic spree on the final day, certainly will not sit well either with the prospective clubs in question or with United’s loyal fan base.
Solskjaer is now a man facing myriad problems which each must be addressed almost instantaneously.
The United job was once seen as the envy of all of football. Now, the club legend in charge is feeling the strain.
The hellish summer must blow over quickly for Solskjaer, or this season could be over before it has even begun.