"Palace at home,” said Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in reference to last season’s 2-1 home defeat to the Londoners. “You could play that game 100 times and we’d win 99. That was the most freak result of the season, plus we lost Luke [Shaw] and Anthony [Martial]. So after three games there was a lot of negativity about. Everything gets magnified at Man United.”
Palace visit Old Trafford on Saturday for United’s first game of the 2020-21 Premier League season. The London club started last week with a 1-0 home win against Southampton, with former United player Wilfred Zaha, their star player, scoring only his second goal in 22 games.
Roy Hodgson’s team scored in the first half too, something they didn’t manage in 29 of their 38 league games last season when they finished 14th. Before last week’s game, Palace played four pre-season matches, as opposed to United’s one with half a team, though Solskjaer’s side were still playing competitive matches until August 16. That was the date Sevilla knocked United out of the Europa League - their third semi-final on the bounce.
Everything continues to get magnified at Old Trafford. Not without reason, United fans online are unhappy that only one signing has been made in the transfer window so far, Donny van de Beek, 23, from Ajax.
The club’s target has long been Jadon Sancho but Dortmund want €120 million (Dh522m) and United won’t pay that, especially amid the uncertainty surrounding decreasing revenues in a Covid world. That impasse has lasted months and United haven’t chosen to go for Plan B, C or D in that right-attacking position Solskjaer wants to strengthen.
Agents of potential targets have not had their calls returned, players have been left second guessing, and all the time the clock ticks down towards the October 5 transfer deadline. Maybe it will be a positive window for United, but it hasn’t been so far.
It’s true that United don’t link themselves with any player – there are enough outside influences to do that – yet the club makes full use of the massive social interactions from fans obsessed by transfers to sell sponsorship packages globally.
When Paul Pogba was signed four years ago, they showed sponsors the stats for the levels of interest when he was linked to United compared to Real Madrid. It was four times bigger. The same club now feels that transfer-obsessed online fans are adding to a negativity which wasn’t there at the end of last season. Can United have it both ways?
The prevalent mood among fans, the one the players experience, is usually set at matches, but not currently, for obvious reasons. Online is far more febrile, so a cycle has developed of United being linked to a player, which creates excitement and the promise of a dopamine hit for the transfer-obsessed – one which isn’t released when there is no signature on the dotted line.
After several botched transfer windows post 2013 when Sir Alex Ferguson departed, faith is limited in United's recruitment. England's biggest club had long identified, but didn't sign, emerging youngsters Erling Haaland or Jude Bellingham. Both chose Dortmund, guaranteed minutes and a life trailing Bayern Munich before a bigger money move to a richer league.
The Glazer family who own United have never been anything but unpopular following a highly leveraged 2005 takeover which should have never been allowed but was approved because of weak financial rules.
A tweet this week highlighting the amount of money they take out in dividends was aimed like a torpedo into a ship that is still trying to right itself after seven years of choppy waters. The Glazers extract money when other owners put money in but they’re largely ignored when the team is winning – for what is the Plan B if it’s not the Glazers? – but the mood turns quickly with poor results.
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It can turn equally quickly the other way. Fans, most of them anonymous, hollering abuse towards the Glazers or the club, vanish after a few wins or new signings. Their protests, which are almost always online and limited in real life at games, are also almost entirely dependent on the results of matches.
The mood was also positive among fans during lockdown. Maybe it was because there were no games for United to lose, but the club were rightly credited for engaging with its local community, supporting their staff, local hospitals and fans.
Ticket prices haven't increased in a decade, the club engaged with the support to improve the atmosphere, gave refunds they weren’t obliged to give and free trips for European travel. But that barely matters if you don’t attend games – and 99 per cent of the fans of football’s super clubs from Barcelona to United do not.
The Premier League has successfully sold itself to a global television audience, watching games on a screen has never been easier and United’s global fanbase adds to United’s bottom line via television subscriptions or being consumers in the markets where United sell sponsorship packages.
The mood was positive, too, when football restarted in June and United, headed by new signing Bruno Fernandes, who had settled into and lifted a team that had lost four games in the month he joined. Apart from the disappointing semi-final defeats to Chelsea and Sevilla, United were the only Premier League team unbeaten after lockdown.
Paul Pogba played again and didn't leave at the end of the season as many had expected. Promising goalkeeper Dean Henderson returned after a successful loan at Sheffield United, joining Mason Greenwood, the breakthrough star of last season.
Brandon Williams is another player to come from the youth system, and beating City and Chelsea away twice showed that United have a capable and talented first XI. But it needs strengthening, especially with the return to Champions League football.
The club maintain that they are on the right path back to success, that they have backed their manager, that the debt is manageable and their net spend on transfers from the last three windows going back to the summer of 2019 is €175m, higher than any major European club.
Real Madrid are offloading players to cut costs and pay for a Bernabeu redevelopment, Barcelona are making heavy cutbacks and anticipate a 30 per cent drop in revenue. Liverpool were already fully formed by 2019 so their circumstances are different, while Chelsea have sold for big money and bought for big money. United are struggling to shift big earners on major contracts who barely feature, though they did get rid of Alexis Sanchez.
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The Old Trafford club hoped to have 12,000 fans back for the Palace game as they worked towards getting people inside the stadium for home games which bring in £4m (Dh19m), but those hopes were scuppered last week. No matter how effectively United have decorated their home, the fans are missed.
Solskjaer faced the media on Friday before the Palace game. The vast majority of fans back him and support him, but they need to see continued evidence of improvement, though it’s implausible that United could finish higher than third this season.
Liverpool and City were so far ahead and United were often sixth and trailing the leading two so badly that they never felt like a third place team, just as they didn’t look close to winning the cups in any of the three semi-finals they reached.
The 66-point total from 38 games was poor, with far too many games drawn and a poor away record, but it was enough to get back into the Champions League. It was an achievement given United were 14 points behind Leicester in February.
Solskjaer maintained that he needed two or three top-level signings to get his team back challenging for a first title since 2013. So far, only one has arrived.
Despite the current clouds over United, Solskjaer is emboldened and spoke – as expected – with positivity ahead of the Palace game. He could hardly call out his frustrations that more players haven't arrived, but the recruitment policy still feels like it isn’t floundering when Solskjaer has actually signed well. He oversees a much improved youth system, too.
The first team squad like the Norwegian, several feel they have improved significantly under him and he believes his dressing room is far happier than when he arrived. His team averaged 2.14 points per league game from February 1 against a pitiful 1.5 before Fernandes joined at the end of January.
Solskjaer’s opinion that he could play Palace at home one hundred times and win 99 is hardly scientific, but his team lost last year and must win on Saturday.
Otherwise there could be a repeat of 2014 when United dragged their heels in the transfer window, lost the first game at home, before buying Angel di Maria and Radamel Falcao after the season had started.