Lee Sharpe Exclusive: United Will Regret Letting Lukaku Leave


Following Manchester United’s draw to Arsenal in the week, and ahead of both team’s European fixtures, Premier League winner and Manchester United legend Lee Sharpe shared his exclusive thoughts with MetaRatings. Sharpe gave his thoughts on why allowing Romelu Lukaku to leave was a huge mistake for The Red Devils, why United should have made a move for Chelsea star N’Golo Kante to bolster their team and why only Pogba and Maguire would get into today’s Liverpool side.

What were your thoughts on the United v Arsenal game last night?

I thought it was a little bit of a slow start but there were passages in the second half were United were decent and looked a bit of a threat. I think that everyone realises that they are not the finished article at the moment, but as Ole said he’s trying to build a new team and a new process so it’s about being patient, but I thought they did alright in the second half.

Just how far away is it from the title-deciding match that a game against Arsenal at Old Trafford used to be?

It was far away and now Liverpool and City are in that boat. I’m not sure how far off both teams are. I think if United can buy some world class players in the next two windows and if a few of these young lads show a bit more potential and shine a bit more, then I don’t see why next year couldn’t have them challenging.

Fergie would only bring in one or at most two new players a year into a United side. Do you think there’s an issue that United need to overhaul more than that level of players at the moment?

I think that the recruitment policy over the last five years or so at the club has not been great. Too many players that have not fitted in, but I don’t know if that’s because the managers have changed so frequently, where ideas, ethos and systems have changed so players under contract have not quite fitted in. There have been older players that can’t quite get into the team as much, you’ve had players that have failed to produce what they were brought in to do, so it’s imperative that they get the transfers right with who they buy, and that it fits into a system that Ole wants to play. With one or two world class players, we could see a big improvement in January and then with another couple next summer, the young lads all of a sudden have got more experience having played more regular first team football with a few world class players coming in to help them out, then it could be totally different.

The year that you opened up the season with a brace against Everton, Giggs came through on the left and you played on the right until David Beckham came through. The level of competition was enormous.

It was, and the difference was with those lads coming through, there was a lot of experience in the team, there were leaders in the team and captains in their own right although they didn’t have the armband but they could quite easily have been given it. When we first got into the team we had the likes of Paul Ince and Bryan Robson in midfield, Mark Hughes and Brian McClair up front, Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister behind us and Peter Schmeichel in goal, so you had an experienced captain-driven spine of the team. AS young lads, myself, Giggsy, David Beckham, Scholesy would play now and again and Nicky Butt played a little in the middle, Gary Neville would play fullback, we had an experienced team to help guide us through matches, whereas the young lads now are given a lot more responsibility as there aren’t that many older, wiser, experienced players around them. It’s not easy when the club is under pressure and there is a lot of negative publicity.

McTominay scored a beautiful goal for United; just how good can he be?

He looks fantastic. He’s a good young player but his form is a bit up and down, but that will come as he gets a little bit older and learns a little bit more. Technically, he looks very good as he can sit in as a holding player, pass, keep hold of the ball and break things up and he can also get forward and score from edge of the box situations. All of the tools are there, and I think it’s just a matter of getting game-time under his belt, getting experience and learning from the mistakes he is going to make as a young player. He looks capable of becoming a really good player.

Does McTominay remind you any other player from United when you were there or since your time at United?

When we played we had more box-to-box players like Roy Keane, Paul Ince or Bryan Robson who were more box-to-box than a holding midfielder, but he’s got a little bit of that. I believe that he can get forward a little bit more than he is being allowed to at the moment, but I think that’s to do with the way midfielders play now and you don’t generally get someone that does everything; you’re either a holding midfielder and a tackling player but don’t get to do both. But, I think that he can do that, box-to-box, covering loads of ground. He has it in his armoury and if he’s allowed to do it, then he definitely could.

Have United missed Ander Herrera? Or has McTominay more than filled that void?

I think at the moment, McTominay is doing a good job, but as a squad I think they miss Herrera – his legs, getting around the pitch, his enthusiasm and hustle of players and breaking things up, I think he was valuable to the club. They probably have missed him a little bit, and his experience. It’s a new team and a young team that Ole is trying to build, and you have to make way sometimes and allow the young lads to make mistakes and give them time on the pitch, and that will bee invaluable for McTominay.

Mason Greenwood came on late in the game but didn’t get the chance to impact the game; how excited should people be by his talent?

I’ve not seen a lot of him, but I’ve heard good reports about him coming out of the club. I know he is a proven goal scorer, and I know that he didn’t get a lot of the ball and a lot of time on the pitch, but as soon as he gets half a chance he is looking to score and knows where the goal is. Ole will be very clever about when he plays him and try and give him as much game time as he can and I think we will see goals from the lad. He’s just one of those players that has plenty of confidence in his ability and he can score goals. It’s just about getting him in the team, when he’s playing well enough and whether results are going for us, as it’s difficult to put a young player in the team when you are losing games. I think in a year or two he will be a vital member of the team and I think he will score some massive goals.

Rashford shot on to the scene with a brace against Arsenal 3 years ago now; how do you assess how he’s done and what he offers currently to the club?

I think he’s a bit of a marked man, as people know he’s the danger-man, so he gets more attention than most. I’d like to see him score more goals, as everybody would, and I think he has got a bit more of that to come. When he’s a bit older and with a bit more composure in front of goal, I think he will score more, but I think his pace getting in behind the back four is unbelievable, and so threatening. I think just a little bit more composure and a little bit more education of the game, which he has the right manager for in Ole.

If there’s anyone to help you with your finishing, surely there’s no better than Ole Solskjaer?

As a centre forward and with a manager as a centre forward, it’s always going to help. I think we still have the best of Rashford to come, but we have seen sparks of it and we just need to see a few more goals.

Would you expect Rashford to be United’s top scorer this season? How many goals do you expect him to reach?

I think if he stays fit he will (be the top scorer at United), and I’d like to see him score 20, and he will have chances to score that many.

Is the lack of a proven goal-scorer United’s biggest failing? Whereas Liverpool have Salah and Mane, and City have Aguero and now a free-scoring Sterling, do United seem to be lacking a clinical finisher?

I think it’s pretty obvious that United haven’t got an out-and-out goal-scorer at the moment. I think letting Lukaku and Sanchez go was a bit of a risk. I think for some reason Ole wasn’t happy with Lukaku, although he wanted to play a quick tempo, balls into the channel game which suited Lukaku for me, rather than having his back to goal and being expected to hold it up. I think the way they are playing now would have suited Lukaku a little bit more and I think they should have kept him until they could get someone else in. I can understand letting Alexis Sanchez go because he’s been in-and-out with injuries and lack of form, but Lukaku I think they should have kept until they found a replacement.

Lukaku has started impressively at table-topping Inter, whilst United are stuck in first gear without him. Do you think the club should regret allowing Lukaku to leave?

I think there have got to be regrets, as they are short in the centre forward department anyway. Lukaku is a proven goal-scorer and the only issue with Lukaku is the way the team play and set up. You need to play to his strengths, and his strengths were not like a Mark Hughes who played with his back to goal and holds the ball up. Lukaku is better playing on the shoulder of the defender, looking for the ball in behind and over the top, looking for crosses coming into the box and at the moment, United seem to be wanting to play that way to Lukaku’s strengths, but they haven’t kept him and wanted him to be a part of that. Ole had different ideas and evidently wants to go down a different route with the players that he has got, but without being able to buy someone in the summer, I think it was a huge mistake.

Was it similar to how United bought Fellaini and played him as a centre midfielder, rather than off the striker?

I think Fellaini was a panic buy from David Moyes because he hadn’t bought anyone. You have to have the right players in the right system, and Lukaku wasn’t in the right system at United. I think for him to play in a two up-front with Rashford or Martial, I think it would have worked wonders. He would only get one centre half marking him rather than two, and it becomes a different ball game.

Some pundits have suggested that Lingard doesn’t provide enough goals and assists for the club. How do you assess his current role in the team?

It’s been really difficult for Jesse. I think he had a good couple of seasons but it’s difficult when you’re not playing regularly and not up to the pace of the game. Sir Alex always said that you need 10-12 games to get up to the speed of the game and to read the game. He really hasn’t had that much regular football, coming on as a sub, gets one or two games and then he’s out of the team again, so it’s difficult without a consistent run of games. He’s part of the blood of the club and has Untied running through his veins and will bee desperate to do well, and I think we can expect a little bit more from him; a few more assists, a few more goals. But to do that, he has to be spending time on the pitch, and he’s not getting a consistent run at the moment.

Does Lingard need to start producing or run the risk of his time at Old Trafford being cut short?

He needs to play more often to be given a chance. He’s got Paul Pogba and McTominay in front of him so it’s very difficult for him to get any game time, so it’s a bit of a catch-22 for Jesse at the moment.

Do you believe that Solskjaer remains the right man for the job? Do the club have to continue to back him?

I didn’t think he was the right man when he got appointed full-time, but I think that if the fans and the board are prepared to give him the time and transfer windows that he needs to see his plan through to fruition, and to buy the players that he wants in January and the summer, then we can asses eight or nine months down the line from now where we are at. He obviously knows the club; how the club wants to play, how successful it has been and where they need to get. We can see that he has a plan and it’s just going to take a little bit of time to get into place, but they need to back him and give him the time that he needs, because changing the manager in a few months, will only set us back to square one again.

Who would you have gone for as a manager at the time, instead of Solskjaer?

I would have gone for Pocchetino and signed out his buyout clause. I don’t think he was happy at Tottenham.

Would you have had Arsene Wenger at United?

I think he’s too Arsenal. I think he is a great manager, very wise and knowledgeable about the game, and I think he probably would have been good for United, but he’s just too Arsenal. He was there for too long and too much of the Arsenal furniture.

Mourinho said that finishing second with United was one of his best achievements with the squad he had; are his comments starting to look ever more true?

I think everybody was a bit critical of Mourinho, being unhappy and not being happy with the transfers, but I think he did do well coming second. It was never about Mourinho’s ability, but more about the style of football that he played. You have to play to the strengths that you’ve got and the players that you’ve got, but the way he never smiled, the way he moaned, never bought a house, played negative football; I just don’t think it worked for the fans and for the board. It probably was a great achievement for him to come second, but when you’re going against what everybody is suggesting and the fans wanted things differently, you’ve got to go and win and prove that your way makes that happen. He didn’t bring the title, so they’ll argue that he wasn’t quite right in what he was doing. I don’t think Mourinho was ever right for the club.

What needs to change to get United back to where they belong challenging for titles.

I think a couple of transfer windows to get a couple of world-class players in, but this is difficult when you’re not in the top four and the Champions League, and when they do become available you’ve got the top 6-8 sides in Europe all chasing them. Not being in the Champions League, even being one of the biggest clubs in the world, you might not be as big a pull as some of the other clubs are. It’s difficult to get the players that we need, but Ole has a great philosophy of playing quick, high-tempo football, with hungry players that want to play for the club. We need the world-class, standout player that can create in big games, so it’s going to be a very fine balance on who you can get in, who is going to improve the team and we will have to see if Ole can pull that off with his management skills. People have got to be patient and they may finish out of the top six, but if it means improving the players that are there and then add to them in the summer, then they can start again next season.

Is there anyone who particularly has the qualities that you’ve mentioned and would fit in at United?

I don’t watch a lot of European football, so I’m not too sure what’s around, but I certainly think a proven goal-scorer. They probably need a bit more creativity in midfield, and then I don’t think they can go far wrong after that. I’d have gone and bought Kante from Chelsea when he wasn’t doing as much before Lampard, but Kante would have been good. In regards to a centre forward, go and smash the bank and buy Harry Kane for whatever it takes.

After Kane’s breakout season, there were a lot of rumours of Kane joining United for £40million, and they may regret not splashing out back then.

If they could have got Harry Kane for £40million, they certainly should have offered the money and he certainly would have scored the goals. He does go quiet in games, a bit like Cantona for us back in the day; he went quite in games for 70-85 minutes at times. But when times got tough, he would invariably come in with a goal from nowhere and won us games 1-0 a lot of times. That’s what they’re paid to do, and that’s why they’re such special players.

Is there a lack of leadership within the squad? Can you imagine anyone in the United side having the impact of a Roy Keane who could raise the levels of performances of the squad.

I think De Gea has been one of the leaders, although you don’t see a lot of it because he is in goal. I think Maguire has come in and he is a natural born leader, and Lindelof probably does a little bit as well. I don’t think Pogba is a shouting type leader, but he’s probably one of the only world-class players that we’ve got, and needs to get involved in the game a bit more and play further forward. McTominay could grow into a leader. Rashford has to start becoming one now he has had two years in the team. There are players that can be and are leaders, I just don’t think the game is what it used to be, with players flying into a tackled and crunching people, setting the standard as a passionate, aggressive leader, who grabs people by the scruff off the neck.

Some pundits suggested that De Gea was made captain not for his leadership qualities, rather to ensure that he remained with the club. What did you make of that?

I’m not sure about that and if De Gea would stay at the club just because he was made captain. I think what he needed to see was a vision from the manager of where they are going and his role within that vision and forward-thinking process. I think he’s been given a good wage and wants to play Champions League and that is the goal they are heading towards, and I think that he will be a massive part of that. I think being captain helps but I don’t think it would have been the decider.

Is there also the lack of a Rooney, Ronaldo or another World Class player who can take games away from opposition single-handedly?

I think Pogba can on his day and we’ve seen that a bit, but that’s probably because the team that he’s playing in isn’t as strong as the teams that Rooney and Ronaldo played in, so it hasn’t allowed it to happen. I do think that they need one or two more of them. It’s a shame they couldn’t bring Ronaldo back, instead of him going to Juventus, could they bring Gareth Bale over. How many players round the world actually do that week in week out? There are a very limited number of them, and when you’re not in the Champions League, how do you pull them in to the club?

Even with a peak Ronaldo in the current side, would United still be well off the pace set by Liverpool?

I think they would still be off the pace, but they wouldn’t be that far off with someone scoring 25-30 goals a season. We saw that with Liverpool with Suarez a few seasons ago, how much it changes things. If you’ve got a player that can run from the halfway line and score when you’re under the kosh, and someone that can score tap-ins, headers, volleys and from outside of the box, an array of goals that can come from one player, then you’re always in with a chance. The amount of chances you’ll create at a club like United, chances are that you’re going to score more than you’ll concede. If you’ve got a Ronaldo or a Messi, even a Harry Kane, then you’re never going to be too far off the pace.

Which current United players do you feel would get into the Liverpool team?

I think that Pogba probably would. Maguire may play alongside Van Dik. The goalkeepers are a pretty even match. Would Rashford get in ahead of Firmino? I’m not sure. Liverpool and Man City are two unbelievable teams at the moment and they have set the standards, and would be difficult to replace anyone in their teams. With Oxlade Chamberlain and Lallana coming back, they look even stronger with another two creative midfield players.

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