It’s been another sobering week for Manchester United. Not that such a thing is a new proposition to the club’s players, or its fans, both of whom have long since been forced to become far more humble with their expectations over the last six years. The difference is what’s prompted this latest surge of reflection, as, for once, it wasn’t a United game; sure, Sunday’s dismal draw with Huddersfield Town was the final nail in the Top Four coffin, but after an extraordinary week’s football, it’s difficult not to take a look at the teams occupying the Premier League spaces above us and spiral down into sheer futility.
Perhaps that’s overly dramatic, but after watching Manchester City grind their way to a vital Premier League win thanks to a scorcher from their talismanic captain, seeing Liverpool engulf Barcelona or staring on as Tottenham Hotspur defied odds for the umpteenth time in Europe this season to beat Ajax, what feeling should one leave with other than envy? It’s jealousy, pure and simple, having watched three teams fight tooth and nail for their goals as the season reaches its climax, all playing for each other and all fully behind the vision of their respective managers. What United fans wouldn’t give for displays of unity on that level, to respond to setbacks with such guts and guile and to muster up moments of such magic with a little more regularity.
The joy provoked by those exploits in Paris, where the above was certainly on offer seems like a lifetime ago, and that has been this season’s biggest, and perhaps cruellest joke; the club’s support allowed itself to believe that United, the real one this time, were ‘back’, that the seemingly mythical and often unbeatable club that defined over 20 years of English football had made a startling return under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s stewardship. Of course, as it so often is, it was too good to be true and the subsequent months have been a harrowing tribute to almost everything bad about Manchester United since Sir Alex Ferguson’s return; frequently pensive, lacking in mental strength and possessing all of the direction, poise and vision of a stumbling drunk.
Positivity is in short supply at Old Trafford these days with another unwelcome but fully deserved Europa League campaign awaiting next season and the club’s best players unsurprisingly looking for success elsewhere. Ed Woodward is the face of an ailing footballing project that has failed to provide a single sustained Premier League title challenge in the six years since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, spends its money poorly and appears to possess no ideas as to how to climb out of the crevasse they threw themselves into (poor management, underperforming players and lecherous owners deserve their share of the blame, of course).
United aren’t a club that seemingly likes to learn lessons anymore, but if the club’s decision makers had offered collective glances to the thrilling Champions League semi-finals on offer this week, they’d have surely noticed that a route to the big time isn’t nearly as impossible as it seems. Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino both possess their fair share of world class players, no doubt, but look at the heroes of the last two evenings; Lucas Moura, Divock Origi and Georginio Wijnaldum, all three operating arguably above their level under a defined structure, under proper guidance and rewarding their managers richly. That fails to mention the likes of Xherdan Shaqiri, relegated with Stoke City last May and supplying a killer cross for Wijnaldum to even Tuesday’s tie with Barcelona at 3 goals apiece. Both teams are filled with players willing to work hard for each other and their manager, even when tactics are abandoned and recklessness demands a late goal.
The point here is that United have to stop looking for the flashiest options available, as has so often been the case, and buy players that can fit into a defined plan. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer marked out his philosophy early, for better and then for worse, with his aim to play an aggressive pressing style with a penchant for counter attacking quickly and overwhelming opponents with quick strikes; players need to be purchased with this framework and their suitability to it in mind, not their marketing appeal or their status. Both Spurs and Liverpool have taken a series of promising-to-quality players and improved them; after spending close to a £1 billion on inconsistent or woeful additions, what do United have to lose by adopting a different recruitment strategy?
A lot needs to happen to get United back to the domestic summit, let alone the continental; clarity is needed on which high-profile stars will be sold and upgrades are needed in midfield, right back, right wing, central defence…almost all over the pitch. No one at the club should be foolish enough to assume that such a project will reap instant dividends after this latest campaign, but with City, Spurs and Liverpool all offering varying examples of success with their own sporting structures, United don’t have to look far in order to get a few ideas of how this current malaise could receive even a modicum of improvement.
Of course, who knows what we’ll see this Summer? Given the lack of clarity, structure or appearance of any real plan, the off-season could be just as messy and jagged as the poisonous preparations of last year. Or maybe United are truly close to building a structure that could provide an eventual return to the big time? No single fan is likely to be betting their savings on the latter, but as Moura scored his third on Wednesday, as Origi smashed home Liverpool’s fourth the night before and with City one win away from retaining the league title, the overwhelming desire for United to buck up their ideas has never been more palpable.
The cynical takes regarding this year’s Champions League finalists often involved sneers at Klopp and Pochettino for having failed to win a trophy during their tenures; true though that was for a time, both clubs are a hell of a lot closer to the big honours than United are. That alone should be enough to jolt this ailing club into a change of approach.