Another weekend, another victory for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United, and supporters can hardly believe how much their situation has changed.
Just two months ago former United manager Jose Mourinho claimed it would take a miracle for his team to finish in the top four, yet that’s exactly where the club find themselves following Chelsea’s embarrassing 6-0 thrashing at the hands of Manchester City on Sunday.
When Mourinho was sacked, United were 11 points behind Chelsea and eight behind Arsenal. They’re now one point ahead of both. Even more startling than United overtaking these two teams in terms of points is the change in goal difference.
Chelsea’s goal difference bettered United by 21, Arsenal’s was 14 more, yet now United’s is superior to both teams by one goal.
While the most obvious reason for this, alongside the meltdown of Emery and Sarri’s sides, is the increased number of goals United have scored, their defensive record has also improved. Mourinho won seven of the 17 league games he was in charge of, while Solskjaer has won eight from nine. Mourinho oversaw just two clean sheets while Solskjaer has enjoyed four.
The mood around the club is just completely different, seemingly in both the stands and the dressing room, with the players getting the spring back in their step.
Seeing Anthony Martial extend his contract with the club was great for the supporters, particularly given Mourinho was open to selling the talented forward last summer. There is genuine excitement over how good the 23-year-old can become in their shirt.
The next big name on the list is David de Gea, with reports claiming the goalkeeper wants to stay in Manchester but is insisting on the top salary. You would struggle to find any United fan who disagreed with De Gea being the club’s highest earner, given how regularly he has saved the team over the years, and you would imagine that the club will resolve this.
However, one deal many United supporters were less impressed with was Phil Jones being offered another four years by the club. If he stays for the duration of his new contract he will be two years over earning a testimonial.
While Jones has played his role in some of United’s successes and has gone through periods of looking like a top player, he can never maintain that on a consistent basis. There’s always a huge error or an injury in him, with him proving to be a player you cannot rely on.
It’s hard to see what the player has done to earn a contract extension, particularly when you consider the pay rise he’s been rewarded with. Would a player like Jones get anywhere near the squads of the teams United want to be competing against in England and Europe? It’s unlikely.
Some fans have criticised the club for failing to make the decisions that will allow them to challenge for the title again in the future. If you contrast United’s business to that of rivals City, who may well win back to back titles for the first time in their history this season, it’s easy to understand the frustration.
Pep Guardiola identified the defence as an area of weakness, so the club has given him £280 million to spend on goalkeepers and defenders. Those who were deemed inadequate, like Pablo Zabaleta, Gael Clichy and Barcary Sagna, were all moved on.
In contrast, United are failing to reinforce the defence in the ways required to become a real threat, rather taking the cheaper option of extending the deals of average players. The likes of Jones and Ashley Young are being given new contracts, instead of the club searching for better players to fill their boots.
Almost 17 years ago, United spent £30 million on Rio Ferdinand, with that deemed the sort of fee demanded to bring in a world-class defender with great potential for the future. Since then, the most expensive defender United have bought is Victor Lindelof, who cost just £1 million more. When you consider he was totally unproven and had no experience of playing in the top leagues in Europe, it puts into perspective how little attention the owners have paid to this area.
Rivals Liverpool have more than doubled the sum United have spent on their most expensive defender, bringing in Virgil van Dijk for £75 million. City have several defenders who cost more than United’s most costly, including £57 million Aymeric Laporte, £52 million Benjamin Mendy, £47.5 million John Stones and £45 million Kyle Walker.
With that in mind, maybe United fans should be relieved that Jones is staying.
It seems clear the Glazers are not fans of reinvesting, so Jones is better than no one.
They can hope his role will be as a squad player or that the club have only extended his deal to ensure they get a fee for him when they sell him.
Marouane Fellaini signed a new contract in the summer when his deal was expiring but was then sold months later, so the same fate could befall Jones. However, that will be a problem in the summer.
United have much more pressing issues ahead, starting with Tuesday night’s Champions League game against PSG. The thought of Jones trying to keep Kylian Mbappe away from United’s goal is rather scary. The fans can be relieved that Neymar and Edinson Cavani won’t add to his worries, given what a mess he made of stopping Eden Hazard is last season’s FA Cup final.
Sir Alex Ferguson once famously claimed that Jones may one day go on to be the club’s greatest player of all-time, which seemed a fairly ridiculous assessment at the time, and has proven to be a wild overestimation of Jones’ ability. If United want to get back to where they where during Fergie’s reign, they cannot afford to keep deadwood in the squad and watch their rivals outspend them.
Jones turns 27 this month and should be at his peak. If this is as good as it gets, then United shouldn’t be the club for him.