It has been a strange, quiet pre-season for one of the biggest clubs in the world. When the curtains came down on Manchester United’s shambolic 2018-19 campaign with defeat at home to already-relegated Cardiff City, a summer of upheaval seemingly lay in wait. There was an entire squad of under-performing prima donnas to jettison away and the summer back pages were expected to be littered with transfers in and out of Old Trafford.
It has been anything but and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been careful to fly under the radar, unlike his flamboyant predecessors. Given the profile of the club and the scale of rebuilding activity needed at the club, he has done well to stay within the shadows. The brief has obviously been shared with everyone at the club, and it is understood that Jesse Lingard was at the receiving end of a tongue-lashing for an ill-informed social media video posted before the squad assembled back for the beginning of pre-season.
Antonio Valencia and Ander Herrera have noiselessly left the club; Daniel James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka have quietly joined. And Ole has gone about building the team in his mould in Australia and the Far East. In impressive performances, a semblance of a system has come into view. The Reds have used a 4-2-3-1 to good effect and Anthony Martial has been a revelation at number nine. He has interchanged with Marcus Rashford as the frontman and this could continue into the start of the season with the spare man dropping into the left of a three behind the striker.
The frontline have shown interchangeability, pace and most importantly, the intensity that the manager craves so much. He has been stressing since he took over on the amount of work-rate the top teams put in and it is clearly something that he has worked on with his squad over the past month. He has placed trust in the youngster, James, and surprised observers by playing him through the middle but is clear that Ole is willing to back youth in his pursuit of success. Effort on the training field is being rewarded, as has been the case with Lingard, who has had his share of detractors in recent times. Mason Greenwood, Tahith Chong and Angel Gomez have all impressed and until this week’s win against Kristiansund in Norway, all of United’s goals have been created or scored by an academy graduate.
None of this suggests that United do not have problems to address. They still need a centre-back to partner Victor Lindelöf and the Paul Pogba question has not gone away, even if it has not reared its head the way many expected it to. He may still find a way out of the club before the transfer window ends and it remains to be seen if he will accept the deeper-lying holding position that would be his if he decides to stay. For now, the Frenchman is doing everything that is expected of him and the club will hope that his professionalism comes through in the end.
In recent days, the names of Bruno Fernandes and Paulo Dybala have been linked stronger with the club and these are just the kind of big-name signings that could complement all the efforts to integrate youth into the squad. In addition to Harry Maguire, who has been courted all summer, these players would make United a stronger proposition over the course of the season and the rebuild may be well and truly on.
All it takes is one loss that matters for the glare to be fully back on though, and Ole will be painfully aware that for all the good work he has done over the summer, defeat to Chelsea on the opening day of the season will drag United back into the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Such is the nature of the beast. The manager is only as good as his last result.