JANUARY : TAKEOVER RUMORS SWIRL & CUP INSANITY
December finished with a decent run of games, a 1-0 win at Wolves would be followed by a 3-0 win against Watford at Old Trafford. A sad 0-0 draw at Newcastle would finish the year off on a bit of a sour note, but three games without allowing a goal would still be good news. The new year would open with an FA Cup match at home, but the game would be quickly overshadowed by fan protests.
Months of wild speculation seem to be approaching a resolution as a Saudi takeover appears to be taking shape. Mohammad bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, was strongly linked with a bid for the team in 2018 prior to the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi agents. Despite lodging a number of bids believed to be in the range of £3B, the Glazers were reluctant to sell and the international outrage surrounding the murder pushed them further away from a deal. Avram Glazer was scheduled to attend the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyad, but the Glazers quickly distanced themselves from bin Salman along with a number of high profile businesses and government agencies.
Apparently all it took was a year for everyone to forget why they stayed away in the first place as the Glazer family attended the 2019 conference in late October. Both parties denied any progress with the Glazers firmly stating they were not interested in selling at this time, but that did nothing to stop the explosion of rumors. The past three months have been filled with a cacophony of chatter on the subject ranging from no sale to a £7B swoop by bin Salman.
The first home game of 2020 became a perfect opportunity for United fans to make it clear how they felt with wide spread gameday protests. Fans crowded the grounds of Old Trafford with grievances ranging from human rights violations to the Khashoggi murder, and to top it off the Glazers were getting their fair share of animosity. The decline of the club has done little to mask contempt surrounding their takeover and the debt loaded on the club. Whether the club is sold or not, neither party has released any real information, it seems like a lose-lose scenario for some of the fans. The numbers being tossed about would make Manchester United the most valuable club in the world, just barely passing the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys.
Emirates FA Cup (H) : Manchester United 3 - Oldham 1
The protests outside, and at times inside, would prove a bigger hurdle than Oldham. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would make use of his 2nd squad, Oldham are a League Two side after being relegated last year so in theory this shouldn’t have been an issue. There would be some non-protest excitement as Eduardo Camavinga suited up for his first game as a Manchester United player, the ‘Next Pogba’ would get the benefit of a low pressure debut.
Phile Jones, as he is wont to do, made the game more interesting just 3’ into the game. A cross into the box ended with Désiré Segbé Azankpo flattened near the penalty spot and an incredulous looking Jones as the ref looked ready to book him. Filipe Morais would knock the penalty in and Oldham had a 1-0 that would leave Solskjaer with a stern look on his face. That look would not go away until the second half as he watched his team run circles around Oldham but fail to do anything with it. It didn’t help that Manchester United had a penalty called in their favor, Alex Iacovitti and Tomas Egert came together to make a Tahith Chong sandwich almost right at the left goalpost, but Daniel James had his kick blocked by Gary Woods. Iacovitti earned a booking and James earned some whistles, but United’s problems extended beyond that.
It didn’t take long after the half for United to turn things around, Ashley Young would thread the needle on a nice through ball to Mason Greenwood at 47’ to pull even 1-1. Oldham had managed a rough possession split with United in the first half, but that quickly crumbled after Greenwood’s goal. United came alive and really poured it on, Camavinga showed his quality by racking up (8) key passes and an assist as Chong put United ahead 2-1 at 57’. Oldham were already mentally and physically defeated at that point and Chong’s second just before stoppage time wasn’t a surprise. The (eventually) easy win would allow United to advance to Round 4 for a date with Reading.
Carabao Cup (A) : Watford 0(0) - Manchester United 3(3)
A trip to the Carabao Cup final would be enough motivation for Solskjaer to start the 1st team for this game. Manchester United do not look like they can challenge for the league this year, though finishing in Champions League qualification is important, so Solskjaer looks to be setting up the 2nd squad for their next game against Norwich who are currently one of the worst teams in the league.
Right away United’s primary defensive issue reared its ugly head when Watford were given a solid shot on goal in the first 1’ off Route One football. David De Gea had some choice words for Maguire and Victor Lindelöf, Watford would be trying that again and United couldn’t afford to leave them an opening. Luckily for Solskjaer one of United’s all-time scoring leaders came back to help the team win, after a solid showing at the 2018 World Cup Own Goal would step in at 12’ to give United a lead they wouldn’t surrender. Aaron Wan-Bissake would send a cross in near the penalty spot to hit Anthony Martial who would collide into César Montes, Craig Dawson, and Ben Foster as the ball arrived. It could have been any of the four, but Montes was the last one to touch it as it bounded off his thigh and trickled into the goal. Things got really weird as Own Goal made it a double, Bruno Fernandes put a free kick into the box that was headed wide of the opposite post. Maguire rushed in to catch it at the post, but José Holebas blocked him off only to have the ball land on his foot and head toward the net. Holebas tried to get it back as Foster held his hands up to indicate he wasn’t going to touch it, the rebound caught everyone off guard and United were up 2-0.
Watford definitely got the memo about Route One, despite being dominated 66-34 in possession they were a frightening 5:5 with shots and shots on target. On the other sides, outside of Own Goal, United had (6) shots and only one of them troubled Foster. Whatever Solskjaer said at the break, maybe it was a rousing speech by Own Goal, it worked really well in terms of taking control of the game. The game was very one-sided up until Luke Shaw made it 3-0 at 72’, and it never got better for Watford who looked defeated and ready to walk off the pitch. The win would be good, but Maguire and Shaw would miss the second leg through yellow cards collected. The road goals would also put Watford in a serious bind, even when United loses they tend to keep the score very low.
Premier League (H) : Manchester United 0 - Norwich 1
The win against Watford, Paul Pogba and Maguire out on suspensions, and the incredible return of Own Goal must have made United overconfident as they looked to an FA Cup game and the second leg of their Carabao Cup semi-final. This game might be in the Hall of Fame for Wasted Opportunities.
Norwich would come in to this game 16th in the league, likely headed for relegation, but they didn’t get the memo on laying down. The first half was a blizzard of shots, through balls releasing players on goal, and Ralf Fährmann having the game of his life in goal. Solskjaer couldn’t buy a goal as everyone looked incompetent around the net. Surviving the onslaught and going into the locker room 0-0 emboldened Norwich, and they came out swinging in the second half. They tightened up their passing and managed a near 50-50 split in possession, and at 55’ they got exactly what they needed. Jamal Lewis would boot the ball into United’s third and find Emi Buendía running free behind the back line, and he made it count beating De Gea one-on-one just tucking it inside the far post.
Solskjaer’s 1000 mile stare made a return as he had to watch Norwich hold a 1-0 lead at Old Trafford. Despite logging almost (30) shots and (12) of them getting to Fährmann they couldn’t get a single goal as Norwich registered a solid upset. United also managed to waste (18) key passes and (10) chances created on their way to this turd of a result. This wasn’t what the team needed heading into two cup games, hopefully Reading didn’t catch this game. Something needs to be done about the defensive frailty shown by the back line.
Cup victories can’t paper over the disappointment of this loss.
Emirates FA Cup (A) : Reading 0 - Manchester United 4
Reading were feeling good about this game two weeks ago, the loss to Norwich seemed to deal a blow to United’s psyche and their weakness to Route One was more than obvious. Things are different now, United went on a solid three game run that saw them shut out every opponent while doing enough to win themselves. Beating Leicester 1-0, Brighton Hove & Albion 2-0, and Watford 1-0 with great ease seems to have put Solskjaer’s team back on track.
“I think we are in a much better place,” said Solskjaer responding to a question about morale. “We have been able to focus lately, and the team looks ready to win.”
The 2nd squad would play today, the second leg of the Carabao Cup semi-final would be in a few days and the 1st squad would be used to finish what they started. Reading definitely did their best to follow the blueprint set forward by Norwich, piling up a number of shots and holding a decent amount of the ball, but United turned clinical and got it done. Shaw would be first to score at 30’ followed by Mason Greenwood at 38’. By the second half Reading resorted to tactical fouling, piling up (22) fouls, but United managed to add (2) more goals late to seas this one.
The biggest concern coming out of this game was Chong injuring his knee, though taking him out led to Antonio Marin scoring. United would draw Blackburn Rovers for the next round, another opponent they should be able to beat with ease. Though that’s what everyone said about Norwich.
Carabao Cup (H) : Manchester United 2(5) - Watford 0(0)
The 3-0 lead United enjoyed after the first leg put a ton of pressure on Watford and made this relatively easy for Solskjaer to manage. Scott McTominay started his PoM campaign, and basically clinched a ticket to the final, when he would score a cracking goal just 2’ into the game. Wan-Bissaka would pick him out from the end line as he came into the box and McTominay would blast the ball into the far side of the net. Needing to win this game 4-1 at this point was too much and Watford basically folded after Marcus Rashford scored at 36’.
Most of Watford’s shots came early in the game as they came out swinging, but nothing landed and United easily parried their attacks. Once the hole they were in grew too big the visitors shut down and Solskjaer was happy to control this game all the way to the finish. Wolves would enjoy a similar kind of matchup with Chelsea, winning 2-1 today after taking a 3-0 lead at Stamford Bridge in the first leg, and would be United’s date in the final at Wembley.
Solskjaer will have his hands full against Wolves.