With a tough run of games coming up, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s inconsistent side could have little but pride left to play for by the end of the month
Manchester United’s season could be over before the January transfer window has even closed.
It has already opened with the club’s plans worryingly unclear.
Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer admitted after the New Year’s Day defeat at Arsenal that “one or two additions would do nicely” but United are already on the back foot when it comes to both buying and selling.
Obviously, the most pressing concern is the future of Paul Pogba, given the Frenchman’s departure would have an impact on arrivals.
Solskjaer revealed earlier this week that the midfielder was likely to have an operation, and one would expect that to keep him out for at least a couple of months.
Given his unconvincing commitment to the team over the last couple of seasons, it is possible that Pogba has played his last game for United, with many at the club expecting him to leave in the summer, if not sooner.
With Scott McTominay also sidelined with his own ligament injury for a similar period of time, United are presently without their two best midfielders for a key part of the campaign.
Andreas Pereira, Fred and Nemanja Matic were comfortably outplayed by a mediocre set of opponents at the Emirates on Wednesday night, which merely served to hammer home something that we have known for a long time: United are in dire need of midfield reinforcements.
Leicester City’s James Maddison and Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen are two options for the No.10 role but it seems unlikely that either will arrive at Old Trafford this month, even though the latter’s contract is expiring.
A deal could perhaps be done for Gedson Fernandes but it would be asking too much of a 20-year-old to make an immediate difference, even one as talented as the Benfica starlet.
Of course, United thought that they would already have a new striker at this point. They stood and watched as former transfer target Mario Mandzukic left Juventus for Qatar, as they were ready to welcome Erling Haaland from RB Leipzig.
It may never be known why exactly the 19-year-old striker instead opted to join Borussia Dortmund, with Mino Raiola rejecting reports that United had refused to agree to certain stipulations regarding buy-out clause.
But it’s no longer really important why Haaland went to Signal Iduna Park. The only thing that matter is that he’s not at Old Trafford, where he was so desperately needed.
Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford were both ineffective at the Emirates on Wednesday night and they need more than just Mason Greenwood in support.
Solskjaer would like to bring two players in, and many fans are starting to suspect he will not even get one new player.
Amid such uncertainty and discontent, United face arguably the most important games of their season.
They host Wolves on Saturday, counterintuitively more at risk because they are playing at home. If Nuno Santo’s side come to counter-attack, it would be no surprise if a side that excels on the break were able to pull off the kind of smash-and-grab win that United themselves have specialised in this season against the biggest teams in the Premier League.
One could argue that the FA Cup is hardly a priority for a club that desperately needs to secure a return to the Champions League via top-four finish but it is a trophy that retains a cultural cachet that is not yet entirely extinguished.
As Arsene Wenger demonstrated for a couple of seasons, an FA Cup win can prevent a club from pulling the plug on a manager on life support. Losing a potentially invigorating cup run will not help United’s manager.
While the FA Cup can buy a coach time, the League Cup rarely does the same. However, it can rally a side. It is proof to players that the methods do bring some kind of tangible reward.
In 2016, Jose Mourinho managed turned a Carabao Cup win and success in the equally maligned Europa League into momentum that brought him to second place in the league the following season. For all his faults, the blame for failing to build on that largely rests with Ed Woodward’s transfer impotence the following summer rather than the Portuguese’s pragmatism.
Still, what makes Tuesday’s League Cup semi-final against Manchester City so important is not the prize on offer but the identity of the opponent. Knocking out their neighbours would be extremely satisfying for United fans, not least because it might help send Pep Guardiola on his way to another sabbatical.
What’s more, there remain legitimate concerns over Solskjaer’s tactical aptitude, meaning another win over the best manager of the era would head off some criticism.
After the two cup games comes an easy league game; af ‘gimme’. United entertain Norwich City, one of the teams most vulnerable to relegation, and even more vulnerable to teams that display rudimentary competence.
Even if United fail to have any new players by this point, it should still be no obstacle to collecting three points, and remaining within touching distance of fourth place. Lose, and it probably won’t be Solskjaer’s last game, but it could be his penultimate one.
On January 19, United travel to Anfield to take on runaway Premier League leaders Liverpool. Even if Solskjaer’s side play at their best, they could be humiliated by the most dangerous side in European football. A battering is entirely conceivable, the kind that Solskjaer would be unlikely to survive.
To United’s credit, they have been Liverpool’s most effective opponent in the league all season, but there can be little hope of repeating last year’s draw on Merseyside.
Before the frenetic last week of the transfer window kicks in, and very possibly before United have even entered into serious talks for one or both of the midfielders their current manager needs, there are fraught times ahead. Three successive defeat could effectively end the club’s interest in three different competitions.
Woodward has tried to convince the press that Solskjaer is his man come what may, but he has never managed to stick with his support for any previous manager.
We would be entering familiar territory at Old Trafford if Solskjaer does not get the results he needs from the next four fixtures.