Ole Gunnar Solskjaer did not get what he wanted in the summer transfer window.
This is a point that needs to be stressed at the start of any discussion about his Manchester United team selections right now. Because Solskjaer’s recent decisions to leave Paul Pogba, Donny van de Beek, Mason Greenwood and Edinson Cavani on the bench for United’s 0-0 draw with Chelsea — with Van de Beek remaining an unused substitute throughout — have brought an unprecedented level of criticism, all of it aimed at one man.
Most managers face something of a balancing game every week in regards to this. Do you play all your best players at once? Or the ones who make up the more cohesive unit?
In the wake of United’s barnstorming victory over Paris Saint-Germain, Solskjaer opted for the latter. But he has risked supporters’ fury, with many eager to see new signings Van de Beek, Cavani and Alex Telles included more often. There is a sense of mystery surrounding the Van de Beek situation in particular. Some cannot understand the manager’s thinking.
Many of the questions posed to Solskjaer after the Chelsea stalemate, therefore, centred on those who didn’t play rather than the 11 who did start at Old Trafford.
Gary Neville and Patrice Evra questioned why Van de Beek has not been more involved, after arriving for a £35million initial fee in the summer.
“Don’t worry about that, he’ll get his games,” was Solskjaer’s retort.
“It’s easy to say who should be playing and more difficult to say who shouldn’t.”
Setting aside the (very fair) argument that says Solskjaer was entirely justified to pick whoever he wanted, on the basis of United’s performance against PSG — when Fred and McTominay solidified the midfield and Pogba was more effective as a sub — it is interesting that supporters are targeting the Norwegian seemingly more than ever before.
Many have often claimed Solskjaer is out of his depth, citing his lack of elite level managerial experience before arriving at Old Trafford. And selection is an easy stick with which to beat him when United drop points. His supposed lack of tactical acumen is another sore for some supporters, though that didn’t hold up after PSG.
So, again, it’s worth stating what Solskjaer wanted in the transfer window. He and his staff were desperate for United to recruit Jadon Sancho and a world class centre-back in the summer. Neither arrived.
That is not to say Solskjaer did not want Van de Beek, Cavani or Telles, but surely fans should be more critical of a board who did not grant their manager his wishes after a very creditable third placed finish? Solskjaer can only play the hand he has been dealt.
Ed Woodward is usually an easy target for the wrath of unhappy United fans and indeed a contingent made their feelings clear on the executive vice chairman and the Glazers on John Gilbert Way, near Old Trafford, before kick off. A ‘Glazers out Woodward out’ banner was unfurled, restating the point that many made on social media during a dissatisfying summer transfer window.
But that argument should not dwindle or go quiet merely because the window has closed. It was telling that Woodward recently addressed accusations that the club had not given adequate financial backing to their manager in a statement.
“We have a clear strategy under Ole to build a successful, committed team, with a core of homegrown talent blended with high-quality recruits that plays fast flowing, attacking football,” he said.
“Added to the arrival of Bruno Fernandes earlier this year, these [summer] recruits underscore our continued commitment to strengthening the squad.”
Perhaps Solskjaer would have a better idea of how to use his deadline day signings Cavani and Telles if they had arrived earlier in the window, rather than in a last-gasp trolley dash. Perhaps he saw Van de Beek as someone who could complement Sancho, or perhaps he simply needs more time to assess the Dutchman. Perhaps United are now waiting for Facundo Pellistri to develop into a viable right-wing option, or for Amad Diallo to arrive from Atalanta.
Solskjaer has always championed himself as a manager who values the person as much as the player. In an interview during lockdown, he revealed the words he values most in his United squad are “trust” and “respect”, which he noticed instantly with Bruno Fernandes and no doubt saw in the much-coveted Sancho too.
If the United manager is taking a little time to integrate his new signings into his squad, that is fair enough. It’s something Sir Alex Ferguson did with success through his legendary Old Trafford tenure.
The current Premier League season is only five games old. And while United fans rightly harbour concerns that their side are without a victory in three home games, it is too early to judge the manager, particularly on how he’s deploying new signings.
It’s worth remembering that Solskjaer’s preference for a drawn-out and considered strategy in the transfer market was not matched by the club’s decision-makers and maybe that is impacting the current selection debate.