Jose Mourinho’s two-and-a-half-year reign was catastrophic for Manchester United. Forget the League Cup and Europa League that United had won under the Portuguese manager. Mourinho destroyed the United-way, and in the process damaged the dressing-room culture as well.
Both Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial were regressing under him. Paul Pogba was sulking. David De Gea was unhappy, and Mason Greenwood probably would have been plying his trade as a loanee at a Championship club if Mourinho were still in charge at Old Trafford.
Rashford, Martial and Greenwood now form arguably the most exciting front-three in the Premier League. Credit goes to Ole Gunnar Solskjær for reviving the careers of Rashford and Martial, and unearthing Greenwood. When Solskjær took over from Mourinho in December 2018, he came into a fractured dressing-room. His big-spending predecessor had destroyed the dressing-room equilibrium by bringing in Alexis Sanchez on a reported £560,000-a-week deal from Arsenal. Solskjær quietly offloaded Sanchez at the first available opportunity. Little wonder then that after securing a permanent move to Inter Milan, the Chilean striker took a dig at United.
“I ended up signing without much information about what was happening in the move. The first days that I was with my colleagues, sometimes there are things that you do not realise until you arrive.
“The first training I had I realised many things. I came home and I told my representative: ‘Can’t the contract be terminated to return to Arsenal?’ They start laughing and I told them that something did not sit right with me. It (the contract) had already been signed,” Sanchez told his fans through an Instagram post.
Seemingly a prisoner of his ignorance, hopefully someday the 31-year-old will understand the significance of playing for United. Solskjær had to get rid of the mercenaries. He did that. Under him United finished third in the Premier League last season, although with 66 points, they were 33 points shy of the champions Liverpool. Still, it was a season of real progress. Right players were brought in. A world-class acquisition was made in Bruno Fernandes. The process continues with Donny van de Beek’s arrival from Ajax this term. One of the reasons why United are holding firm in their deal of £120-million rated Jadon Sancho is that the club has learnt from its mistakes and it will not pay over the odds. Solskjær’s United are gradually returning back to the United-way.
Solskjær’s challenge this term would be to reach the next level. A Covid-induced market has restricted transfer activities for all the top clubs except Chelsea. There would be no squad overhaul at United this term. Then again, the Red Devils are back in the Champions League and they have to raise the standard of their football. Beyond the starting XI, United have very few quality players on the bench. Solskjær’s job would be to improve the likes of Fred, Brandon Williams, Scott McTominay and Daniel James. Eighty points in the league, a Cup triumph and a decent run in the Champions League will see the team build on the last season’s performance. To become serious title contenders, United need some defensive reinforcements and two more transfer windows.
Defending champions Liverpool so far have made just one low-key signing – Greek defender Kostas Tsimikas for about £11.7 million, as a back-up option to Andy Robertson at left-back. And yet, Liverpool have the ability to defend their title, thanks to Jurgen Klopp’s managerial genius. The 53-year-old German is almost as good as Sir Alex Ferguson in terms of developing the players and making the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
The development of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Robertson, Mo Salah and Sadio Mane attests to Klopp’s managerial success.
Manchester City finished 18 points off Liverpool last season. Their manager Pep Guardiola was keen to fill the left-sided centre-half void and brought in Nathan Ake. Winger Ferran Torres has come in as a replacement for Leroy Sane. City are expected to respond and a failure in that regard could be deflating for Guardiola.
The crazy shopping spree notwithstanding, Chelsea will have to defy steep odds to win the Premier League. The Blues have already forked out £200m to sign up midfielders Hakim Ziyech and Kai Havertz, striker Timo Werner and left-back Ben Chilwell. Defenders Thiago Silva and Malang Sarr have come on free transfers. And Chelsea are still reportedly going after Rennes goalkeeper Edouard Mendy and West Ham midfielder Declan Rice. But bridging a 33-point gap in one season usually doesn’t happen in football. New players take time to gel with the squad.
Both Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur would do well to finish top-four. Unlike last season, hopefully it wouldn’t be a one-sided title race this term. The world’s most high-profile league is back. It now needs fans inside stadiums to raise the pitch.