Manchester United: Mixed feelings greet start of new Premier League season

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - "Palace at home,” said Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in reference to last season’s 2-1 home defeat to the Londoners. “You could play that game 100 times and we’d win 99. That was the most freak result of the season, plus we lost Luke [Shaw] and Anthony [Martial]. So after three games there was a lot of negativity about. Everything gets magnified at Man United.”

Palace visit Old Trafford on Saturday for United’s first game of the 2020-21 Premier League season. The London club started last week with a 1-0 home win against Southampton, with former United player Wilfred Zaha, their star player, scoring only his second goal in 22 games.

Roy Hodgson’s team scored in the first half too, something they didn’t manage in 29 of their 38 league games last season when they finished 14th. Before last week’s game, Palace played four pre-season matches, as opposed to United’s one with half a team, though Solskjaer’s side were still playing competitive matches until August 16. That was the date Sevilla knocked United out of the Europa League - their third semi-final on the bounce.

Everything continues to get magnified at Old Trafford. Not without reason, United fans online are unhappy that only one signing has been made in the transfer window so far, Donny van de Beek, 23, from Ajax.

The club’s target has long been Jadon Sancho but Dortmund want €120 million (Dh522m) and United won’t pay that, especially amid the uncertainty surrounding decreasing revenues in a Covid world. That impasse has lasted months and United haven’t chosen to go for Plan B, C or D in that right-attacking position Solskjaer wants to strengthen.

Agents of potential targets have not had their calls returned, players have been left second guessing, and all the time the clock ticks down towards the October 5 transfer deadline. Maybe it will be a positive window for United, but it hasn’t been so far.

It’s true that United don’t link themselves with any player – there are enough outside influences to do that – yet the club makes full use of the massive social interactions from fans obsessed by transfers to sell sponsorship packages globally.

When Paul Pogba was signed four years ago, they showed sponsors the stats for the levels of interest when he was linked to United compared to Real Madrid. It was four times bigger. The same club now feels that transfer-obsessed online fans are adding to a negativity which wasn’t there at the end of last season. Can United have it both ways?

The prevalent mood among fans, the one the players experience, is usually set at matches, but not currently, for obvious reasons. Online is far more febrile, so a cycle has developed of United being linked to a player, which creates excitement and the promise of a dopamine hit for the transfer-obsessed – one which isn’t released when there is no signature on the dotted line.

After several botched transfer windows post 2013 when Sir Alex Ferguson departed, faith is limited in United’s recruitment. England’s biggest club had long identified, but didn’t sign, emerging youngsters Erling Haaland or Jude Bellingham. Both chose Dortmund, guaranteed minutes and a life trailing Bayern Munich before a bigger money move to a richer league.

The Glazer family who own United have never been anything but unpopular following a highly leveraged 2005 takeover which should have never been allowed but was approved because of weak financial rules.

A tweet this week highlighting the amount of money they take out in dividends was aimed like a torpedo into a ship that is still trying to right itself after seven years of choppy waters. The Glazers extract money when other owners put money in but they’re largely ignored when the team is winning – for what is the Plan B if it’s not the Glazers? – but the mood turns quickly with poor results.

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Andy Mitten's Man United 2019/20 season ratings

MANCHESTER UNITED SEASON RATINGS. David de Gea - 5. Clicked through United 400 games recently in his nine-year United career, but how many more? Retains the support of his manager and a contract so vast that nobody would want to match his wages. But 2019-20 was his poorest season since he arrived from Madrid as a callow teen. Played every single minute of all 38 league games, but while once it was possible to pinpoint where he saved United points when he was player of the year four times in five seasons, now the focus is on costly mistakes. Needs to get back to his best and has built up enough credit to get the support while he does that. AFP

Aaron Wan-Bissaka - 7. His first season for United and he made more tackles than any other player as he started 45 matches and stayed injury free. It is almost impossible to get past him and the Londoner settled well, which isn’t easy. But he needs to improve his positioning, crossing and distribution if he’s to become a top full-back. An understanding with a quality winger in front of him would help, but until that happens we’ll still see the former Palace defender come inside with limited effect when United attack. Reuters

Harry Maguire - 7. The most expensive defender in the world played considerably more than any other of his teammates – 55 times in total – and became club captain. Improved after Bruno Fernandes’ arrival and began connecting with his free-kicks from set-pieces. United’s defence stopped conceding goals as the team’s form improved towards the end of the season – though it was poor against Sevilla on Sunday. Not the fastest and his partner Lindelof covers for him, but better to have a settled defence for the first time in years. Getty

Victor Lindelof - 7. The image of him arguing with Fernandes on Sunday in Cologne made headlines and United’s defence had an off day, but only Maguire played more games than the Swede this season. Crowned Swedish Player of the Year, he makes few errors (though against Olivier Giroud at Wembley he didn’t look great) and was excellent against Manchester City in both league derbies. Doubts remain whether he’s one of the best in the world because that’s what United fans have seen with Vidic, Ferdinand, et al. But he’s technically sound with the ball, reliable and should improve – especially his positioning – as he continues to play alongside Maguire. That’s not a prospect every United fan relishes, it must be said. Reuters

Brandon Williams - 7. Nowhere near the first team a year ago but the Mancunian teen went on to play 36 games. That was probably too many and it showed towards the end when he filled in for the injured Luke Shaw. He’s got much to learn and enthusiasm to curb. He went over after a tackle against Sevilla like he was playing in Spain, not merely against a Spanish team, but it’s a deserved new contract for the full-back who came through the youth system. EPA

Luke Shaw - 7. Player of the year last season, but not this. Decent for 33 games after missing September and October and the last weeks. The injury worries won’t go away and he’s had less luck than any player at the club in that regard, but he was missed in an awful autumn and United were better with him back after November. He was particularly impressive in a defensive three away at Chelsea. Needs to make more assists and more than one goal a year wouldn’t go amiss, but talented enough to be trusted. Reuters

Bruno Fernandes - 9. Signing of the season. Came out of this summer’s transfer budget from Sporting Lisbon and within five minutes of his debut at home to Wolves (ironically a 0-0) was showing an attacking intent badly missing from his team. Energetic and driven, he can tackle, shoot and score. He’s fine with the physical demands of the Premier League but it’s his eye for a quick pass which sets him apart. They don’t all come off, they don’t need to. The 25-year-old from Porto makes watching Manchester United more exciting and he was the best player of the second part of the season. If he can properly click with Pogba, and the early signs are promising, then United are on to something. Bruno also takes penalties. And he scores them. Lots of them, even with a hop, skip and jump. Reuters

Nemanja Matic - 7. Another who played in Portugal with Lindelof, Fernandes and the lesser seen defenders Marcos Rojo and Diogo Dalot. Matic had a nothing first half of the season when he was written off as past it. He showed he wasn’t as he returned for a super second half when he scored the winner in a Manchester derby, signed a new contract and refused to give the ball away. He’s not a Bruno style match winner, but brings balance and experience to the league’s youngest team. Form dipped a little after his contract was won, but remains an important United player. Getty

Fred - 7. Just as the most optimistic United fans were starting to doubt the expensive Brazilian and his non-performances, he came good. Very good. Man of the match in United’s best performance of the season - against Manchester City in December - when he overcame racist abuse to be the team’s heartbeat, Fred played more midfield games than anyone until Pogba returned. Scored twice against Bruges, probably won’t get 46 games next season as he did this. But then who expected the tidy midfielder to be a regular after a wretched first year? AFP

Scott McTominay - 6. Academy graduate who says the right things, has an excellent attitude, fitness levels and can be trusted to play against anyone. Five goals this season including the second against City in the last Old Trafford game to have a crowd. Injured over Christmas and then featured less as Matic became the main man in his position behind Pogba and Fernandes. Aged 23 and improving. Reuters

Anthony Martial - 8. The best of his five seasons at the club, more silk and speed than sulk. It helps when you have players like Bruno around you and the Parisian finished as the top scorer with 23 - the most goals scored in a season since the Ferguson era. Hugely talented and happier when he plays now, he scored six and made four assists in nine games after the restart. Usually chosen as the central striker in Solskjaer’s preferred 4-2-3-1, though not a natural No 9. Would Bayern Munich’s forwards have missed the chances he did against Sevilla on Sunday? Reuters

Marcus Rashford - 7. Contender for man of the year, if not always for what he does on a football pitch. Scored a career high 22 goals, the best a free-kick at Chelsea in the League Cup. Would have been more had he not broken his back in January. One tiny positive of the pausing of competitive football was that he came back to finish a season he didn’t expect to, but form was patchy – as it is expected to be after a serious injury. Much happier with Solskjaer as boss than Mourinho, he’s entering his sixth season in the first team. Still just 22, he’s learning to improve his all-round game by getting in more positions where goals are scored. Beautiful to watch when he’s running at players with pace, he knows he needs to add another 10 per cent to his game to be considered a world class player. AFP

Daniel James - 5. Started superbly with a debut goal against Chelsea in a productive first month where his speed hurt opponents but faded badly. Looked no better than a squad player towards the end and was told by his manager to get his head together over the break and come back focused. But, James played 46 games this season. He’s 22. He lost his dad before the season started. Cut him slack, he deserves it as his game hopefully improves. Getty

Paul Pogba - 6. Injury meant the Frenchman barely featured all season, but that didn’t keep him out of the headlines as speculation about his future hung around. Last season’s top scorer, he managed only one this term, but his impact was clear from when he came on as sub in the first game back at Spurs and played a ball forward which cut through four opponents. He started every league game thereafter. Bruno, form and a lack of suitors means he’s almost certainly going to stay. And a fit and in-form Pogba is a plus for any team in the world, with the skill to receive the ball in the tightest positions and come away with it. EPA

Mason Greenwood - 9. Eighteen-years-old and he scored 17 times for Manchester United in his first season. Let that sink in. Only started his first Premier League game in December, a key match at home to Spurs. Did well, but a callow kid from Bradford can’t be expected to perform week in week out. Greenwood’s limited effect in the cup derby win at City, combined with Rashford’s injury, saw Solskjaer move for an on-loan striker, yet Greenwood still started ahead of Odion Ighalo and justified it with accuracy in his shooting, goals and match winning performances. He’s bulked up to become stronger but needs to remain focused and listen to his coaches and more experienced teammates. EPA

Jesse Lingard - 4. Started 20 games and came on in 20 more. His stock remains very low among fans, his number of goals (one, in the final minute of the final game) and assists (none) too. Some spirited performances from the bench towards the very end of the season (he’d been left out of the squad for six games after the restart) where he showed his fitness may hold value. But his purple patches and cup winning goals at United are long behind him. Probably best for both parties if he started afresh elsewhere. Reuters

Andreas Pereira - 5. Frustrated squad player on the evidence of this season. Featured in 40 matches this season, which is more than his current ability merits. Man of the match in the win at Burnley away when he was given a specific job by a manager who likes him, but if you are an attacking midfielder for Manchester United you need more than two goals all season. Reuters

Juan Mata - 5. A lovely person - and he’ll hate to be known just for that. His cameo role against Copenhagen in the Europa League quarter-final showed he can still change a game and his experience and personality was needed in the dressing room. That he started eight games in both the Premier League and the Europa League showed his peripheral position in the squad – and that wasn’t really a surprise. He’s 32 and talented enough to be playing top level football every week somewhere, but he remains content at a club where he’s highly regarded by all. Reuters

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It can turn equally quickly the other way. Fans, most of them anonymous, hollering abuse towards the Glazers or the club, vanish after a few wins or new signings. Their protests, which are almost always online and limited in real life at games, are also almost entirely dependent on the results of matches.

The mood was also positive among fans during lockdown. Maybe it was because there were no games for United to lose, but the club were rightly credited for engaging with its local community, supporting their staff, local hospitals and fans.

Ticket prices haven't increased in a decade, the club engaged with the support to improve the atmosphere, gave refunds they weren’t obliged to give and free trips for European travel. But that barely matters if you don’t attend games – and 99 per cent of the fans of football’s super clubs from Barcelona to United do not.

The Premier League has successfully sold itself to a global television audience, watching games on a screen has never been easier and United’s global fanbase adds to United’s bottom line via television subscriptions or being consumers in the markets where United sell sponsorship packages.

The mood was positive, too, when football restarted in June and United, headed by new signing Bruno Fernandes, who had settled into and lifted a team that had lost four games in the month he joined. Apart from the disappointing semi-final defeats to Chelsea and Sevilla, United were the only Premier League team unbeaten after lockdown.

Paul Pogba played again and didn't leave at the end of the season as many had expected. Promising goalkeeper Dean Henderson returned after a successful loan at Sheffield United, joining Mason Greenwood, the breakthrough star of last season.

Brandon Williams is another player to come from the youth system, and beating City and Chelsea away twice showed that United have a capable and talented first XI. But it needs strengthening, especially with the return to Champions League football.

The club maintain that they are on the right path back to success, that they have backed their manager, that the debt is manageable and their net spend on transfers from the last three windows going back to the summer of 2019 is €175m, higher than any major European club.

Real Madrid are offloading players to cut costs and pay for a Bernabeu redevelopment, Barcelona are making heavy cutbacks and anticipate a 30 per cent drop in revenue. Liverpool were already fully formed by 2019 so their circumstances are different, while Chelsea have sold for big money and bought for big money. United are struggling to shift big earners on major contracts who barely feature, though they did get rid of Alexis Sanchez.

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Alexis Sanchez struggled throughout much of his time at Manchester United. Reuters

Alexis Sanchez goes down with injury during Manchester United's Premier League game against Huddersfield Town. Reuters

Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku were teammates at Manchester United before reuniting at Inter Milan. Reuters

Alexis Sanchez became Manchester United's highest-paid player when he joined from Arsenal. Reuters

Alexis Sanchez in action for Inter Milan against Napoli. Reuters

Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku celebrate a goal for Inter Milan. Getty Images

Inter Milan's Alexis Sanchez reacts after a missed scoring opportunity against Fiorentina. AP Photo

Alexis Sanchez in action against Fiorentina. Getty Images

Alexis Sanchez in action with Fiorentina's Rachid Ghezzal. Reuters

Alexis Sanchez during Inter Milan's game against Gnoa. Reuters

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The Old Trafford club hoped to have 12,000 fans back for the Palace game as they worked towards getting people inside the stadium for home games which bring in £4m (Dh19m), but those hopes were scuppered last week. No matter how effectively United have decorated their home, the fans are missed.

Solskjaer faced the media on Friday before the Palace game. The vast majority of fans back him and support him, but they need to see continued evidence of improvement, though it’s implausible that United could finish higher than third this season.

Liverpool and City were so far ahead and United were often sixth and trailing the leading two so badly that they never felt like a third place team, just as they didn’t look close to winning the cups in any of the three semi-finals they reached.

The 66-point total from 38 games was poor, with far too many games drawn and a poor away record, but it was enough to get back into the Champions League. It was an achievement given United were 14 points behind Leicester in February.

Solskjaer maintained that he needed two or three top-level signings to get his team back challenging for a first title since 2013. So far, only one has arrived.

Despite the current clouds over United, Solskjaer is emboldened and spoke – as expected – with positivity ahead of the Palace game. He could hardly call out his frustrations that more players haven't arrived, but the recruitment policy still feels like it isn’t floundering when Solskjaer has actually signed well. He oversees a much improved youth system, too.

The first team squad like the Norwegian, several feel they have improved significantly under him and he believes his dressing room is far happier than when he arrived. His team averaged 2.14 points per league game from February 1 against a pitiful 1.5 before Fernandes joined at the end of January.

Solskjaer’s opinion that he could play Palace at home one hundred times and win 99 is hardly scientific, but his team lost last year and must win on Saturday.

Otherwise there could be a repeat of 2014 when United dragged their heels in the transfer window, lost the first game at home, before buying Angel di Maria and Radamel Falcao after the season had started.

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