Having finished second last season, ahead of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool and Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur, United should have stepped it up a gear and become real challengers to Manchester City.
Yet before a ball was even kicked, it became apparent it wasn’t going to work out that way. Having been outspent by the likes of Fulham, Everton and West Ham, it was clear the club had already lost faith in Jose Mourinho, despite him extending his contract just months earlier, and United weren’t able to strengthen in the ways they needed to. The manager didn’t hold back on making it known how frustrated this left him and he then oversaw a disastrous decline, cutting a moody figure on the touchline, blaming the failings on everyone but himself and reportedly an extremely demoralising character behind the scenes.
While new signings were needed in a whole host of positions, it was the defence that Mourinho had been the keenest to strengthen. The club’s response was to sanction the signing of a Portuguese teenager at right-back and ignore the manager’s pleas for an established centre-half.
Pep Guardiola has spent close to £300 million on the defence alone since becoming City’s manager, with Aymeric Laporte at £57 million the most expensive buy, closely followed by the £52 million spent on Benjamin Mendy. Virgil van Dijk set Liverpool back £75 million and has proved to be worth every penny.
In contrast, United matched the outlay of £30 million spent on Rio Ferdinand 15 years ago on Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly in 2017. World-class defenders cost a lot of money, which United were prepared to pay pre-Glazers, but now the club is relying on defenders who wouldn’t even make the bench at rival teams.
Is it then any wonder that United have gone on to have their worst defensive season in 40 years, with the current tally standing at 52 goals against. This season the club have also endured their worst spell for a number of games without a clean sheet. The last time United went 13 games in a row without conceding was in 1971.
When looking to the future, it’s hard to see how United will avoid getting worse before they get better, with David de Gea a possible transfer out of the club, and Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo all on lengthy contracts, and Ashley Young renewing his deal a few months ago.
Yet United’s defensive woes are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to analysing the poor decision-making and recruitment that has gone on at the club in recent years.
United supporters have wanted Ed Woodward relieved of his responsibilities in the transfer window, with a Director of Football long overdue at Old Trafford. They didn’t have Darren Fletcher or Rio Ferdinand in mind though, given that both have zero experience of the role and their only qualification seemingly is that they used to play for United. Yet given the banter era that United now find themselves in, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if either are appointed.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer got off to a great start in his return to United, going on an incredible run and boasting impressive wins against the likes of Spurs, Chelsea, PSG and Arsenal. But it wasn’t long before the wheels came off, with the players either too exhausted after their fitness was challenged or not bothered enough to keep showing up in the final months of the season.
Solskjaer is painfully under-qualified for the job but those initial months show that he does have something about him, both in terms of his tactics and his motivation. But like Mourinho before him, he’s been left unimpressed with the attitude of many of the players and you have to wonder whether any manager can succeed in the conditions currently in place at the club.
Mourinho, for example, had won the league title with every club he’s ever taken charge of, and the Champions League with two of them, yet he only has two lesser trophies to show for his two years at the club. Granted, that’s more than Pochettino and Klopp have on their CV in England, but that is soon going to change for at least one of them by the end of the season.
Liverpool knocked Barcelona out of the Champions League, who had made light work of beating United in the previous round, while Spurs won against one of the most exciting and talented young teams in Europe. It’s remarkable to think that Ajax side were well-beaten by United in the Europa League final just two seasons ago. When you compare the trajectories of the two clubs since, it’s as impressive for the Dutch side as it is embarrassing for United, particularly when you consider the differences in money spent on signings and wages.
If United were to appoint any former player to the role of Director of Football, it should have been Edwin Van der Sar, who has enjoyed great success with Ajax.
“If I see something right, I say so,” he said in 2014 after taking his role with the Dutch club. “If you see something is wrong, you say why, too. We know where we are and improve.”
If only United had someone who could see what was going wrong and then have the knowledge of what to do in order to change it.
In terms of disastrous seasons, this is probably as bad as it’s got for United, not just because of their poor showings on the pitch, but because of how much better other English teams have been.
Their best-case scenario is that City win the league and Spurs win the European Cup. United fans will actually celebrate if that happens, illustrating just how far they have fallen. Looking to the other European final, rivals Chelsea and Arsenal will battle it out, with Chelsea certainly finishing above United in the table, and Arsenal needing a win on the final game of the season to guarantee the same. United’s failings are only further emphasised by the success of all the clubs around them.
From top to bottom, United need an overhaul. The manager needs to be trusted with a huge sum of money, the players who have badly let the club down this season need to be sold, someone with the first clue about football needs to oversee the transfers and the long-term planning, and Woodward should be trusted with the commercial side alone, the area he actually thrives in.
United fans will be hoping that they can look back on the 2018-19 season as the one that provoked a response from the club to remedy the decline they’ve fallen in to. But there are genuine concerns that this isn’t even as bad as it could get.