It would be fair to suggest a major changing of the guard will take place at Manchester United this summer.
If Juan Mata’s seemingly imminent departure wasn’t enough, some of the club’s longest-serving players could join him through the exit door. Jesse Lingard would benefit from a permanent exit after rediscovering himself at West Ham this spring, Andreas Pereira needs a fresh start and Phil Jones has been surplus for some time.
‘Clearing the deadwood’ was a phrase often used by United fans towards the end of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first season in charge and, harsh though it sounds, it undoubtedly applies to the aforementioned quartet.
Now, after exits in the past two years for Romelu Lukaku, Matteo Darmian, Alexis Sanchez, Chris Smalling, Ashley Young, Marcus Rojo and Ander Herrera, Solskjaer will feel his clearing-out job is almost complete.
Yet two more United stalwarts could join Mata, Lingard, Pereira and Jones in bidding farewell to Old Trafford this summer whose names weren’t in the original ‘deadwood’ plan.
It was, infamously, after a 4-0 defeat to Everton on Easter Monday in 2019 that Solskjaer saw the reality of the repair job he was undertaking at Old Trafford. The crushing fall from grace the Norwegian and United suffered in March and April of that year brought everything into sharp focus after Solskjaer’s initial dreamy honeymoon period.
“If you want to play at this club, it has to mean more,” Solskjaer fumed after watching a dismal United display at Goodison Park.
“I want my team to be the hardest working team in this league. I’m going to be successful here, and there are players there that won’t be part of that successful team.”
He was true to his word, shipping off Smalling, Lukaku, Young, Pereira and Diogo Dalot from the players that featured at Everton that day. He managed to turn the form of others — Victor Lindelof, Fred and Marcus Rashford — completely around, helping them become United mainstays.
But even though Pogba and De Gea were unarguably dire towards the end of the 2018/19 campaign — and at Everton — they always seemed central to the Solskjaer ‘cultural reboot’.
United batted away suggestions Pogba could leave in the summer of 2019, while Solskjaer stood by De Gea throughout the following season — and for much of this most recent term, too, despite some patchy form.
Now feels like crunch time for the pair of them.
De Gea ended a difficult season in miserable fashion with his abysmal display in the Europa League final penalty shootout against Villarreal, compounding his inability to save a spot-kick by missing one himself. Dean Henderson has been lurking for some time.
Pogba has played in spirited fashion for much of the campaign but the fact remains he’s out of contract in 12 months and his agent wants to manufacture a transfer. United could still get a decent fee for the 28-year-old.
The strangest part of all this — and it reflects well on Solskjaer — is United could probably cope with losing both men this summer. Two years ago that would have been laughable; they were United’s only world class players.
But providing the transfer funds are reinvested (especially in a midfield replacement for Pogba) you could argue United might actually be better off.
What seems certain is United will need the cash from selling both players to truly invest in areas of the squad that have required attention for some time: right-wing, centre-forward and defensive midfield. And a centre-back of course. The club’s transfer kitty and, thus, their power in another difficult summer market — with the continent still reeling from the covid-19 pandemic — may depend on sales, as much as that may rankle with the anti-Glazer feeling in United’s fanbse.
Swapping Pogba and De Gea for Jadon Sancho, Declan Rice and Raphael Varane? Most, probably including Solskjaer, would snaffle that up.