Manchester United are the next visitors at Carrow Road, as they face Norwich City for Sunday’s late Premier League kick-off (4.30pm).
Ahead of the game, canaries.co.uk caught up with Charlotte Duncker, Football Writer at Manchester Evening News to get her thoughts on United’s season so far, their ambitions for the rest of the campaign, and Norwich City.
canaries.co.uk: The season hasn’t gone the way United fans would expect. How would you sum it up so far?
CD: They started so well with the 4-0 win at home to Chelsea and there was some element of people getting a bit carried away because it was the first full season with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer being in charge from the start. He had been given money to bring in new players, he’s got a philosophy that he wants to put back into the team and there’s a way that he sees them playing. They went out on the opening day and thrashed Chelsea, so everyone thought ‘maybe this is going to work.’
Everyone has seen how it’s gone. They can’t pick up points on the road, they’ve been struggling, they’ve only won twice, and I think it’s a weird vibe for with the fans at the minute because some are clearly very disappointed that United are closer to the relegation zone than they are to the top of the table, but others have more realistic feelings in that it is a rebuild.
Solskjaer has been given the money, he needs to rebuild the squad over a few transfer windows and see where it gets them. Also, they’ve had so many injuries, and I know I’m not going to get any sympathy from Norwich supporters for saying that! But they’ve had to throw a lot of young players in and I know Solskjaer wants to bring young players through but for someone like Mason Greenwood there has been pressure on him to come in and perform from the start rather than off the bench.
It’s not been an ideal start for United by any stretch of the imagination, but the performance against Liverpool was an improvement. They’ll be hoping they can build on that now in a string of away games.
canaries.co.uk: It can be a bit of a blessing in disguise to have to play those younger players. Chelsea’s transfer ban has forced them to realise how talented their youth prospects are, for example.
CD: Definitely, but Chelsea are playing players like Mason Mount who have been out on loan in the Championship, so he’s had good experience. As for the players Solsjaer is throwing in, they’ve played in the academy for the under-23s. That’s not a very good level anymore, and now they’re being thrown in in the Premier League when United are losing to try to salvage a point. It’s a lot of pressure on them.
canaries.co.uk: As for the manager, some fans don’t want the club to be chopping and changing as frequently as they have been, while others think it might be time for him to move on. Do you think the club should keep faith in Solskjaer?
CD: It’s a hard one. Personally, I don’t think they should have appointed him on a full-time basis when they did. If they had waited until the end of the season and saw how the results went, would they have done that? I’m not too sure.
In my opinion, you can’t say that you’re going to give someone time and the chance to rebuild a club with money and transfer windows, and then when things aren’t going your way after nine league games get rid. Then you’re starting again with someone else.
Arguably they would, could, and should get a more experienced manager in, but if the board believe in what they’re doing then they need to stick to their guns. All the word coming from Old Trafford is that they are sticking by him and they understand it’s a long-term rebuild. They’ve got no plans, despite the dreadful start to the season, to get rid of him.
canaries.co.uk: As for the business that took place over the summer, what do you make of how Daniel James, Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka have got on since signing for the club?
CD: Those three players have done brilliantly. United were in desperate need of an experienced centre-back for years and Maguire fits the mould for that. Wan-Bissaka provides plenty of pace down the right and was used to good effect against Liverpool, but James has arguably been the signing of the summer for United.
There’s a ridiculous stat that he’s been involved in the majority of United’s Premier League goals this season and the only ones he wasn’t involved in were scored when he wasn’t on the pitch and a penalty. He’s been really influential for United and that just shows where they’re at. Bringing a young lad in like that, you’d think maybe he could be an impact sub off the bench, but he’s the sort of player that Solskjaer is having to rely on to put in good performances week in, week out.
canaries.co.uk: Marcus Rashford has been involved in a few goals as well. Do you think he’s better when played as a striker or a winger?
CD: I don’t think he’s a number nine. I think he’s better out wide. It was interesting in the game against Liverpool that he was playing with a bit more confidence and I’m not sure whether that was because he was playing in a two and had James to play off. Maybe it was because he’d just come back from international duty and got the confidence boost from playing for England.
I don’t know whether it’s the pressure of him being the number nine, because United didn’t buy a replacement for Romelu Lukaku in the summer, so there’s going to be pressure on their forwards. Lukaku was their top goalscorer and they didn’t replace him.
Anthony Martial said that Solskjaer told him he has to pick up the goals, but with him out that means all the pressure falls on Rashford. I think maybe it’s got too much for him but playing as a two like he did with James maybe alleviated that pressure. It wasn’t just him who was the target man, but from what we’ve seen over the season I definitely think his best position is out wide cutting in rather than as a number nine.
canaries.co.uk: Do you predict a lot of activity in the January transfer window or will Solskjaer stick with what he’s got?
CD: I think they’re looking, but it will depend if who they want is available and for the right price. There are plenty of names being linked with United, as there were in the summer. They looked at bringing in a replacement for Lukaku, but the targets they wanted they just couldn’t get over the line. I think that’s going to be a similar situation for January.
There’s no point bringing in stop-gap players that aren’t going to fit with what Solskjaer wants to do and waste a load of money. Notoriously, United haven’t been very good at buying in the January window so if they do buy, I think it will be probably one or at a stretch two players. Expect more business next summer rather than in January.
canaries.co.uk: With all of that in mind, what’s a realistic aim for where the club should be at the end of the season and where would fans be happy for the team to finish?
CD: Fans would be happy with United finishing in the top four, but realistically it just doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen. Maybe fifth or sixth would be a good season. They’ve just got to hope that they can progress in the Europa League and win that like they did under Jose Mourinho and get back into the Champions League that way.
It’s not just about United being bad this season; they need the other teams to slip up as well. Who would they push out of the top four? You just can’t see them bettering the other teams that are in there so I’d say fifth or sixth and winning the Europa League final would be a good season.
canaries.co.uk: As for Norwich, what are your thoughts on how we’ve done this season?
CD: I was actually at Carrow Road for the Manchester City game, and the atmosphere was absolutely amazing! I watched them in the first game of the season against Liverpool and I was actually quite impressed. I know they got beat but they had a strategy and they were good going forward. It’s hard to know how well they would have done if they hadn’t been blighted with so many injuries.
The game this weekend, not that it’s a tougher test for United than the Liverpool game, but it is a bigger test for Solskjaer. In that Liverpool game, United were going against the champions of Europe who had been on a long winning streak while United were playing rubbish. Were they expected to win that game? No. Going to Norwich, it’s going to be a tough test for them.
Norwich had a string of bad results after the Man City game, but the confidence will be coming back after last week’s draw. United just can’t win away from home.
canaries.co.uk: Finally, what’s your score prediction for Sunday’s game?
CD: Solskjaer said Paul Pogba isn’t going to play on Sunday but he also said David De Gea wasn’t going to play against Liverpool and he did. Does that mean Pogba’s going to start? He makes a big difference to the team. I’m going to go for a narrow United win, 2-1.
You can follow Charlotte on Twitter @CharDuncker.