Michael Owen believes Manchester United fans might not get the clear-out they are hoping for this summer as a lack of Champions League football and players on big contracts will limit manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s options.
United won only two of their last 12 games to finish the Premier League season in sixth place, 32 points behind rivals Manchester City – a hugely disappointing end to a campaign that promised much more over the winter when the Red Devils won 14 of Solskjaer’s first 19 games in charge.
Those results, which included eight straight wins after replacing Jose Mourinho on an interim basis before Christmas, helped the Norwegian secure the job permanently in March but the season’s last two months witnessed an alarming loss of form.
That has prompted many fans and pundits to predict a massive overhaul at Old Trafford but Owen, who spent three seasons with United towards the end of his career, is not so sure.
Speaking to Press Association Sport, the BetVictor brand ambassador said: “It’s quite hard to get rid of more than three or four players in one window, particularly if you want something in return.
“I thought I had a better handle on United in that I believed they were a better team than they had shown under David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal and Mourinho.
“And we saw that for a dozen games or so when Solskjaer came in but then there was a relapse.
“I still think the players are better than that but the squad obviously needs some surgery and it won’t be easy without Champions League football next season – great players want that. So I just don’t think it’s realistic that they’re going to be able to make 10 changes in one summer.”
Midfielder Ander Herrera and captain Antonio Valencia have already announced they are leaving the club, with defenders Matteo Darmian and Marcos Rojo widely expected to follow.
But the bigger headache is what to do with the likes of Romelu Lukaku, who cost £75million two summers ago, and top-earner Alexis Sanchez, as they are both under contract but surplus to requirements. Shipping them on without making a big loss appears impossible.
Owen, however, is more optimistic about United’s long-term future.
“One thing I’m sure we’ll see next year under Solskjaer is a big push on youth,” the 39-year-old said.
“I expect we’ll see four or five of their talented youngsters step up from the academy and I think one or two of those could go on to be proper Manchester United players in the future.”
The most likely graduates in this class of 2019 are the teenage quartet of Tahith Chong, James Garner, Angel Gomes, and Mason Greenwood, although Owen also believes United will “have to sign a couple of players, too, as they were so far off the pace at the end of the season”.
But Owen, who scored 17 goals in 52 games for United, is less certain that Real Madrid and Wales star Gareth Bale will be one of those signings, as has been suggested.
The 29-year-old Bale has spent six mostly successful seasons at the Bernabeu but his stay in Spain seems to be coming to an end as he has spent most of this season on the bench and is known to have a difficult relationship with Real’s recently returned boss Zinedine Zidane.
Owen moved from his boyhood club Liverpool to Real in 2004 but, despite scoring 16 goals for the Spanish giants, he only spent one season there before signing for Newcastle.
“I wouldn’t want to be somewhere I wasn’t wanted and if Gareth feels he isn’t getting the love he deserves then maybe it is time he came back,” said Owen.
“But his problem will be that there aren’t many teams who can afford him. I’m sure there are lots of clubs that would love to have him but he’s at the point in his career when he’s not an investment anymore – there would be no sell-on value, signing him would be about the here and now.
“That will tempt some clubs but I suspect he still might have to take a pay cut and that is not an easy decision. Some players decide to go for it if there is a chance to win something but others say ‘I’m going to live for another 60 years and that £5million I’m owed is important to me and my family’.
“I would also add that he might not be getting the appreciation he thinks he deserves from some but I bet that when he walks down the street in Madrid he still gets fans who want to give him a cuddle for scoring a famous goal or helping them win a few Champions League titles.”
Michael Owen is an ambassador for www.betvictor.com