Mind the gap – How Leicester City and Wolves could catch Manchester United

With the new season on the horizon, all is not well at Manchester United and there’s certainly a possibility it could get worse.

Their decision to follow up managerial heavyweights Louis Van Gaal and José Mourinho with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, a man whose only Premier League experience was taking down a poor Cardiff side, were met with a healthy amount of derision from fans and pundits alike.

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However, his record of nine straight wins in all competitions, including a spectacular victory at the Parc des Princes, temporarily put paid to this wave of criticism. Following this stellar start though, their form started to become indifferent as his team’s miraculous ability to outperform many advanced metrics began to wane.

The end of the season couldn’t come soon enough for the Norwegian and his men as a string of high-profile defeats in the run-in – including a 4-0 humbling away at Everton – threatened to derail the Solskjaer hype-train so early in its journey.

Now, with his summer holidays coming to an end, it is time for him to get back to work and figure out how to recapture the form United showed at the beginning of his tenure – a task that is certainly no mean feat.

Whilst all this goes on however, the teams outside of the conventional “top-six” will be waiting in anticipation to pick off the weakest member of that elite bracket and, on the current evidence, it appears that United may be the ideal target.

Trouble with transfers

Most sickeningly for United fans, this whole situation has been caused by teams like Leicester City and Wolves making the type of astute signings, both on and off the pitch, that they themselves were renowned for during the Ferguson era.

When it comes to high-profile transfer blunders there is little doubt that United have become leading experts in the past few years – just a cursory look at their recent transfer dealings reveals a litany of players that have failed to make an impact at Old Trafford.

Perhaps the most damning evidence of which was the signing of an aging Alex Sanchez who is currently pocketing a cool £350,000 per week, despite clearly not being anywhere near the level he was at during his stint at Arsenal.

Fortunately for Solskjaer, he is entirely blameless in this regard and, having already recruited Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James, it is clear to see that he has already nailed his colours to the mast with respect to changing up their strategy in the transfer market.

Namely, targeting young English players that can inject dynamism into what is largely an older squad.

Whilst this is a good idea upon first thought, it is difficult to say whether these players will be able to recreate their form for their previous clubs which could, given the pressure for United to stay competitive amongst the top clubs, become an issue sooner rather than later.

You can’t just build a team full of potential – you need some star quality to back it up when the chips are down.

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By contrast, Leicester City have already brought in a proven Premier League striker, Ayoze Perez, who almost certainly guarantees you an extra five to ten goals per season and a highly-rated central midfielder, Youri Tielemans, who impressed during his loan spell in the East Midlands last season.

With Paul Pogba looking like he’s on his way out of the club, it is difficult to make an argument that any midfield combination that United can cobble together is vastly superior to the trio of Tielemans, Idrissa Gueye and James Maddison that the Foxes may begin the season with.

In a similar to vein, the links between Romelu Lukaku and Inter Milan have intensified over the past few weeks and could leave United’s front line looking worryingly sparse.

Also, with Solskjaer looking like he’s dead set on playing Marcus Rashford as their main man up top, there are many expressing their doubts that the 21-year-old will be able to lead the line for a club of United’s stature.

When this is compared to a team like Wolves who have Raul Jimenez returning victorious from the Gold Cup where he bagged five goals in six appearances and are being strongly linked with everyone’s favourite Spanish hardman, Diego Costa, this also appears to be another area of the field they are lacking in.

A tactically inferior manager

One of the starkest contrasts between United and teams like Leicester City and Wolves is the clear gulf in class between the managers in terms of experience and reputation.

This is, admittedly, a staggering thing to be saying about one of the most prestigious clubs in the country, but it is an unequivocal fact that Solskjaer is one of the most inexperienced coaches to ever be handed the reins at a top club.

Whilst he is renowned for being somewhat of a figure of fun amongst the English media due to his notoriously bizarre quotes, there is little doubt that Brendan Rodgers is one of the best managers in the division.

After learning his trade under Mourinho during his first stint at Chelsea, Rodgers is perhaps best known for leading Swansea to the Premier League playing a surprisingly attacking style of football, and then later at Liverpool where he came very close to leading the club to their first title of the Premier League era.

With this experience under his belt, it’s clear that he is more than capable of competing at the top table of the league pyramid.

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Similarly, despite having less experience in English football, Nuno Espírito Santo has quickly established himself as one of the most exciting managerial prospects due to his exploits in the West Midlands.

After taking Wolves up to the Premier League at the first time of asking and with four games to spare, he continued this excellent run by finishing seventh in his maiden campaign in the top-flight and therefore qualifying for the Europa League.

Despite last season being positive overall, one of the hallmarks of their performances was their inability to dominate games against statistically poorer teams which held them back when it came to maximising their points haul.

However, with a summer to develop another way to play and the opportunity to bring in some fresh faces that may fit a more possession-based style, these may be the marginal gains that the club need to close the gap between them and United.

The chaos factor

Gone are the days where any of the world’s stars would drop whatever they were doing to pull on the illustrious red jersey of Manchester United.

One of the most likely reasons for this is their lack of a coherent plan when it comes to appointing managers.

This is most clearly evidenced by the less than glowing testimonies given by Van Gaal and Mourinho when they talk about their time as managers of the club.

From an outsider’s perspective, it seems fairly obvious that the conditions at the club are not conducive for sustained success so it’s hardly surprising that there is a feeling among some players that a move there may not be the best career decision.

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In addition to this scatter-gun approach to running the club from those above him, Solskjaer also has to contend with the breakdown in relations between the fans and the club’s owners, the Glazer family.

The reaction of fans on social media is hardly the best barometer by which to judge public opinion, however, with that said, it appears that the combination of poor on-field performances and the staggering levels of debt that the owners have saddled the club with has formed a truly toxic concoction.

The club’s hierarchy will certainly be hoping that match-going fans won’t bring this kind of dissent to the stadium as the hostile atmosphere could make games even harder for the team.

Aside from Newcastle United, this level of discontent is unmatched by any other club in the division and is just another piece in the increasingly large jigsaw that the manager will have to solve to make a success of next season.

Ultimately, Solskjaer is most likely to be judged by his ability to keep the club competitive in the race for the top-four and not by his win rate against the league’s truly elite teams.

Although that seems like a reasonable expectation, it’s clear that clubs like Leicester City and Wolves are having ideas above their station and are looking to break up the hegemony that the conventional “big six” has enjoyed for the past few years.

With that in mind, if they finally make this monumental leap at the expense of United then Ole might be better off releasing the wheel and assuming the brace position.

The Author

Jake Sandy

Jake Sandy is a full-time physics student and part-time freelance football writer. He is a Chelsea fan who mostly focuses on European football, especially the Premier League and Serie A. Despite being relatively new to football writing, he doesn’t shy away from having bold opinions – just try and tell him Frank Lampard isn’t the best midfielder of the Premier League era.

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