Daniel James, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Mason Greenwood performances highlight a Manchester United problem – Tyrone Marshall
The shortlist for Manchester United’s first player of the month award told us a story or two.
The prize for August will be contested between Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Harry Maguire and Daniel James, identified as the club’s best three players of the embryonic season so far, all of them new additions at Old Trafford this summer.
Scott McTominay “just missed out” on the shortlist, according to United’s official app. While Mason Greenwood would have been further down the list – by dint of having played just 47 minutes in the Premier League so far – the 17-year-old has certainly caught the eye in his brief cameos.
Back to the three-man shortlist. Does it highlight how good United’s summer transfer business has been? Partly, all three have enjoyed bright starts to their careers at the club. But it also highlights another issue that has been plaguing United in recent years.
Throw in McTominay, still in the infancy of his own United career, and Greenwood, who is on the cusp of a senior breakthrough, and five of United’s best performers this season are all relatively new to the first team picture.
Where are the senior players, the long-term stars, in this list? This is part of the problem. How many players who have been at Old Trafford for any length of time have really improved since they arrived at the club? You certainly wouldn’t need more than one hand to count them up.
Paul Pogba is no better now than he was three years ago. Nemanja Matic has regressed, Jesse Lingard’s progress has stalled. In attack Anthony Martial has started the season well but it’s hard to make an argument he’s a better player now than he was when he arrived – he’s never matched the tally of goals and assists he managed in his first season at the club.
Marcus Rashford continues to frustrate in front of goal, while who knows how Fred‘s time at the club will be remembered. In defence Luke Shaw and Victor Lindelof are perhaps the two greatest improver’s in this squad, the success stories for the coaching at Manchester United, but neither have taken significant strides forward. The development has been gradual.
Elsewhere at the back Chris Smalling and Phil Jones have regressed, while Eric Bailly remains something of an enigma. Marcos Rojo’s United trajectory has followed a similar graph to Boris Johnson’s majority.
Wan-Bissaka, Maguire and James all deserve credit for the way they’ve started off at United, while their acquisitions are looking like success stories for the recruitment department, but the real challenge is going to be to continue that level of development and improvement in the Old Trafford maelstrom, which has stunted the growth of almost every player who has entered it in recent seasons.
This is evidently not just the fault of the players, but of the chaotic half-a-dozen years that have followed the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson.
Look at the Premier League clubs with a track record of improving players recently and the constant theme is a manager given the time to implement a clear style. Whatever that approach may be, the simplicity of the consistent message and the work that can be done, week in and week out, on the training ground is helping players improve, whether that is under Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp or Sean Dyche and Eddie Howe.
United haven’t been able to provide that stability. Instead they’ve lost their way since Ferguson left. There has been no distinguishable ‘United style’ – which is part of the reason they turned to a former player in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
While David Moyes was considered, wrongly, Ferguson-lite, the club then lurched to the sterile Cruyffian-ism of Louis van Gaal, to the anti-Cruyffian Jose Mourinho, and now to Solskjaer, who inherited a squad that weren’t fit enough to carry out his game plan and included players that just didn’t suit his plans. That’s a clear sign that there has been little long-term thinking at United in recent seasons.
Now the clock has been reset by Solskjaer. He is planning for the long-term, with a clear strategy and bold ideas of how he wants to play and the players he wants at the club. That should bring an environment that players can improve in back to Old Trafford and Carrington.
It will take time, and having wasted six years since Ferguson left, time isn’t a commodity that is readily in supply at Old Trafford. But for too long now the culture around the club and the attempts at short-term fixes haven’t been conducive to improving players. That has to change if United are to return to the top of the table.