Ever since the era of David Moyes and certainly under Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho, Manchester United players have had their mentality questioned frequently. Under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, this had changed for a while and although it was criticised by some as promoting “Passion and vibes” over talent, most people appreciated the mentality shift under Solskjaer and understood that hard work always beats talent.
In fact, for a long while, I called Solskajer’s United the most likeable squad of players the club have had in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era. That was true until this season, however, where we have constantly seen poor on the pitch body language and leaks of an unsettled, divided dressing room.
On one hand, we can look at the previous one or two seasons and remember how much we all adored this group. An on-form leader in captain Harry Maguire; one of the best players in the world, the star man and vice-captain Bruno Fernandes; the man nobody can hate, who performed on the pitch too – Marcus Rashford; Edinson Cavani, the experienced one of the group who every United fan adored. These were just some of the most popular players and very few in the squad were disliked by the majority. The players were also happy on the whole and dedicated to doing well at the club.
Now, though, things are very different. One rumour suggested as many as 11 first team players actively want to leave the club – which is both far from ideal and far from how things were last season. There are even whispers of players being unhappy with Ralf Rangnick already which is incredibly premature.
So how did this change? How did a united, dedicated, motivated and happy dressing room turn seemingly divide, apathetic and unsettled?
Some would point blame at just one individual – be it Solskjaer, Ronaldo or even Darren Fletcher (Yes, you heard that right). But the truth is it’s far more than that – it’s a culmination of poor decisions from management and a lack of resilience from players among other things.
The biggest reason for the toxic dressing room atmosphere reported is the results on the pitch this season – there is no doubt if the team was performing well it would improve a lot. However, there are still several problems with players who feel they haven’t been treated right, or feel poor decisions have been made.
But do they have a point? This wasn’t such a big problem last season after all. Donny van de Beek and Jesse Lingard are two players Solskajer promised were in his plans, but only started three games under him in total this season. Diogo Dalot, Eric Bailly and Alex Telles were also said to be unhappy due to lack of game time until a defensive injury crisis meant they were given a chance under Michael Carrick and Ralf Rangnick. Others like Anthony Martial, Juan Mata and Dean Henderson have also been given a very low amount of minutes, rightly or wrongly.
You would think that if a player wasn’t in a manager’s plans, they would be let go, but that wasn’t the case. Maybe it was the fault of those negotiating sales, and Solskjaer had to pretend he wanted many of these players when really it was the board who wouldn’t sell; either way, it was a real problem and caused huge dressing room unrest.
Some rumours suggested the belief was, among some players, that the starting 11 wasn’t picked on merit, as much as it was through favouritism or status. Cristiano Ronaldo for example hasn’t exactly impressed consistently in the Premier League since his return, but even at age 36, he won’t be left out of the team because of the man he is.
So, the players aren’t completely out of turn to be unhappy with some of the decisions made. However, they also must do a much, much better job of doing what they are paid to do. They are not paid hundreds of thousands a week to complain, after all, but to play football professionally and to a consistent level. And while the management has been far from perfect this season, the player performances have been extremely poor in many cases.
Pointing the finger is not the answer for the players of Manchester United right now – looking at themselves and what they can do better is.