There was an anecdote the American philosopher William James liked to tell about a regular user of laughing gas. When he was under the influence, he believed, everything fell into place and he understood the secret of the universe, but as soon as he came round it was lost. So one night he left a notepad by his bed and, half‑waking from his dream, wrote down his vision before slipping out of consciousness again. When he fully came round, he reached eagerly for the pad. What had his great insight been? He looked at his words and read: “A smell of petroleum prevails throughout.”
There was a spell towards the end of last season when it briefly looked as though Ole Gunnar Solskjær had also cracked it, that the doors of his perception had been flung open and all the doubts had coalesced into a coherent tactical pattern. Here was the answer. But now, in the cold light of early autumn, as he prepares for Sunday’s meeting with Tottenham, he looks at the pad by the side of his bed and reads only the enigmatic words “Bruno Fernandes”.
In the context of the past two weeks, what happened to Manchester United in June seems almost incomprehensible. How could the addition of one player ever have been thought to have made such a difference? What was it in those back-to-back wins over Sheffield United, Brighton, Bournemouth and Aston Villa that kindled such optimism at Old Trafford?
Yes, the arrival of Fernandes allowed Paul Pogba to play deeper and that gave a balance to the midfield. Yes, the front three dovetailed and all hit form simultaneously. But was that it? Was the two-footed brilliance of Mason Greenwood in that slightly delirious time when football emerged from lockdown really enough to distract from the problems that were apparent even in July and August?
By the end of the domestic season, it seemed Solskjær essentially trusted a first XI and not much beyond it, an extraordinary indictment of transfer spending that totals £500m net over the past five years. Not surprisingly given the compressed schedule, his side were exhausted by the time they beat Leicester on the final day to qualify for the Champions League.
Defeat to Sevilla in their Europa League semi-final was probably partly conditioned by that same fatigue but it also betrayed perhaps Solskjær’s greatest failing as a manager, the lack of attacking coordination. Faced with an organised team defending deep, United were bereft of inspiration and, more worryingly, the structured interactions of forwards that characterise the very best sides. That same problem undermined them again in their first game of this season, the home defeat to Crystal Palace.
There is some mitigation. None of the sides who played in Europe in August have begun well. They may benefit in the long run from their delayed start to the season but in the short term, Manchester City, Chelsea, Wolves and United have all looked underprepared. But what should alarm United is the sense that they have slipped back to where they were pre-lockdown. They have some excellent players who can score stunning goals, as Marcus Rashford did against Brighton. The pace of their forward line means they will always be a threat on the break. Donny van de Beek has clearly strengthened the squad. But that isn’t really enough.
That doesn’t mean an extra player or two, no matter how talented, will solve their problems. United are right to haggle for Jadon Sancho and they would be right to set a price beyond which they will not go. But the problem now is that, after such a protracted and public courtship, to not get him will feel anticlimactic – and the executive vice‑chairman, Ed Woodward, is alarmingly sensitive to public perception.
January, when United signed Fernandes (albeit on the final day of the window and for a higher fee than hoped) and loaned in Odion Ighalo as a useful back-up striker, again looks the exception. For all their expenditure, United are somehow still short of a wide forward, a left‑back and a centre-back and even if they do land them it will (again) be late in the window, making the bedding-in process harder.
Central defence is a major concern, particularly given how much money has already been spent on the position. Nobody is quite sure about David de Gea any more, especially given his evident discomfort when United attempt a high line. And then there’s Pogba.
It’s one of those issues, like the Lampard-Gerrard debate or England’s left-sided problem, discussed so much that discussions of it have a tendency to become discussions of the discussion rather than of the issue itself. But while it may be true that other players from other backgrounds or with less eye‑catching haircuts may be treated differently, it is also true that Pogba has performed nowhere near consistently enough over the four years since he rejoined United for £90m.
It is probably unfair to judge anybody on the first month of this season, given how unusual the circumstances are, and Pogba particularly, given his positive Covid test that further disrupted an already disrupted pre-season. And it is true Pogba was very good towards the end of last season after returning from his ankle problem. But it is also true that Pogba has been poor in both league games this season and, most worryingly for United, poor in a very familiar way. Worse than that, given he is 27, and given football’s global financial retrenchment (from which the Premier League has seemed oddly exempt), there is not even a realistic option to sell him.
Perhaps United will rediscover their rhythm but the Palace defeat and the fortunate win at Brighton suggested none of the old problems have really been solved. The ownership is dysfunctional, recruitment is questionable, the squad is patchy and the manager has done little to suggest he is of the requisite standard. In retrospect, the Bruno bounce looks as illusory and unsustainable as the initial Ole bounce did. Nothing really has changed. Sooner or later, United are going to have to wake up and smell the petroleum.