Manchester United have flown 9,000 miles to Australia to begin their six-match pre-season tour but if manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer thought the distance would provide an escape from the problems that have been piling up at Old Trafford, he was sadly mistaken.
It is fewer than two months since United finished their campaign by collecting a single point from Premier League matches against relegated duo Huddersfield and Cardiff and, in the build-up to their game against Perth Glory at the Optus Stadium on Saturday, their issues remain all too visible.
A picture of the club’s wantaway £89m midfielder Paul Pogba was on the front page of the local paper on Wednesday, emphasising the huge interest surrounding the rocky relationship between United and their star player.
Doubts persist, too, over the futures of striker Romelu Lukaku, at £75m the second-most expensive player in United history, and goalkeeper David de Gea, who is about to enter the final year of his contract.
Only two players have been added to the squad that finished sixth last term. And, while £60m may have been spent signing 21-year-olds Aaron Wan-Bissaka from Crystal Palace and Daniel James from Swansea, it is a fact that 18 months ago neither had played a single senior game as a professional.
BBC Sport takes a look at the issues Solskjaer has to work through before United open their Premier League campaign against Chelsea at Old Trafford on 11 August.
The Pogba problem
It is inescapable that Pogba’s future will dominate this trip and, without some kind of definitive resolution, will do so until 17:00 BST on Thursday, 8 August when the Premier League’s transfer window closes, and possibly beyond that given Spanish clubs can still sign players until 23:00 BST on 2 September.
Pogba and his advisor Mino Raiola, twice, have stated the France World Cup winner’s desire to leave Old Trafford. Real Madrid and Pogba’s former club Juventus are keen. But neither has made a bid, let alone suggested they could reach United’s valuation, which exceeds £150m.
Uncertainty looms large and Pogba is the centre of attention.
A clip on United’s own social media account of Pogba apparently having a row with Jesse Lingard during a walk close to the team hotel after Monday’s arrival in Australia was seized on as evidence of unease within the camp. A further extended clip was eventually released showing the pair laughing.
Yet such is the swirl of interest around Pogba, Solskjaer had to deal with the issue at his first media engagement at the Waca Stadium on Wednesday. Speculation over the row, said the Norwegian, was evidence of a media agenda against Pogba.
Solskjaer said United have no need to sell their most expensive player. He didn’t say they would not though. He can’t. At this stage, no-one can.
Squad issues to resolve wherever you look
If Pogba was the only squad issue Solskjaer was wrestling with, it would be a manageable irritation.
The truth is, it is not.
Lukaku is in the same situation. Again there is interest, from Inter Milan, whose new coach Antonio Conte thought he was bringing the Belgium forward to Chelsea in 2017, only to discover United and Jose Mourinho had done a deal instead.
In Lukaku’s case, Solskjaer is more open to a deal given the player is not a regular starter and any money generated can be used to strengthen elsewhere.
However, as with Pogba, there is no bid – leaving both player and club in limbo.
Talks have been taking place for months with De Gea’s advisers. Their position is clear – the Spain goalkeeper is open to staying at Old Trafford.
But in order to do so, he wants a salary befitting not only his status as one of the world’s top keepers, but also as United’s player of the year in four seasons out of five to 2018.
So that means getting somewhere near the estimated £400,000 per week United pay Alexis Sanchez, who has been such a disappointment.
The clock is ticking. In January, De Gea will be able to sign pre-contract terms with any non-English suitor.
There are others in Solskjaer’s squad who have little or no future: defenders Marcos Rojo, who is in Perth, and Matteo Darmian, who did not fly out for personal reasons, being the most obvious. Yet transfers have proved elusive.
“There is no quick fix,” was Solskjaer’s response on Wednesday when it was put to him he had said as recently as April that United needed to be “ruthless” in reshaping their squad this summer.
Instead, the only players to leave Old Trafford so far have been those, like midfielder Ander Herrera, whose contracts were at an end.
It means a decision cannot be made over the short-term future of young defender Axel Tuanzebe, who excelled at Aston Villa last season and has just signed a new contract with United until 2022, because Solskjaer does not know what his options are going to be.
Negativity is growing among the fans
It is not hard to find negativity among the United fan base, particularly because doubts remain over the wisdom of appointing Solskjaer full-time in the first place.
His managerial record was good in two spells with Norwegian club Molde but terrible in nine months before he was sacked at Cardiff.
His work as an interim boss at United was phenomenal. Eight successive wins at the start of his tenure extended to a run of one defeat in his first 17 games, culminating in that amazing Champions League comeback against Paris St-Germain when his side overturned a two-goal home defeat to reach the quarter-finals.
United won just twice in 10 games after Solskjaer had been appointed permanently though. They collected two points from their final five Premier League games, when another six would have been enough to secure Champions League qualification.
Solskjaer’s status as a club legend means he retains the goodwill of supporters but many wonder if United erred by not securing the services of a more experienced replacement for Mourinho.
Yet if most are willing to give Solskjaer the benefit of the doubt for now, attitudes around executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward and United’s owners, the Glazer family, are hardening.
Fairly or not, Woodward is being viewed as the man responsible for United being in their current predicament. The absence of a technical director, something the club themselves privately said was a priority in the wake of Mourinho’s dismissal, is seen by some as evidence of Woodward being unwilling to relinquish the power of negotiating transfer deals.
His apparent lack of football knowledge is cited as a flaw in United’s set-up, even if the reality – that Woodward’s input is part of a process and targets are identified by the club’s scouting department and vetted by the manager before signings are attempted – is somewhat different.
Beyond Woodward, the Glazer family are being targeted by a concerted social media campaign.
Until the matches start, particularly at Old Trafford, it will not be known just how extensive ‘Glazer Out’ has spread. United’s owners are accused of allowing more than £1bn to drift out of Old Trafford through a combination of share dividends and interest payments since their takeover in 2005.
However, it has to be remembered that in 2009-10 a very visual green and gold campaign may have succeeded in getting former England captain David Beckham to wear a scarf, but it did not dislodge the American family.
It’s not all bad
It would be easy to view United’s position as being totally bleak.
The truth is less straightforward. Despite not sustaining a single Premier League title challenge since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013 – albeit winning the FA Cup, League Cup and Europa League during that period – United remain one of the biggest names in world football and command a reach only Barcelona and Real Madrid can claim to match.
The Victoria and Western Australia local governments were both desperate to get them to play in their area this summer. Western Australia won the battle and in excess of 110,000 fans are expected to attend the two games they will play in Perth, on Saturday against A League side Perth Glory and on 17 July against Leeds United.
On Thursday, 12,000 paid for tickets to the club’s only fully open training session during their 10 days down under.
Unlike last season, when they barely had any interaction with supporters at training sessions in the United States, United’s players happily signed autographs and posed for ‘selfies’ at the end of their 90-minute session.
At home, all 52,000 season tickets sold out in record time and a waiting list remains in place.
The club’s overall revenues for 2018-19 are forecast to be up to £630m, a record for the English game and a figure only exceeded by Real Madrid. Their impressive commercial department, the club insist, exists to reinforce Solskjaer’s squad, not to line the owners’ pockets.
United would rightly argue there is four weeks remaining of the transfer window and until that point is passed, it is unfair to judge their dealings. It is also an inescapable fact that results can change perceptions and while it would be unwise to place any real significance on Saturday’s game in Perth or the other five friendlies that follow, pre-season victories can help ease tension.
It is worth noting, however, that of the six previous pre-season campaigns since Ferguson called time on his stellar career, United have lost their opening fixture just once, at the start of what turned out to be David Moyes’ ill-fated reign, in Bangkok against the Thai All Stars.
For his own benefit, Solskjaer could do with avoiding a similar fate on Saturday.
- Pogba has agenda against him – Solskjaer
- Pogba travels with squad for pre-season tour
- Man Utd sign Wan-Bissaka in £50m deal