It was presumed Manchester United had already plummeted to rock bottom back in December in the wake of a 3-1 defeat at Liverpool which flattered the visitors. That coupled with the general sense of listlessness enveloping Old Trafford was provocation enough for Ed Woodward to fire Jose Mourinho and with an uncharacteristically tight squeeze of the trigger, and a sharp turn of the wheel, it was thought a corner had been turned. Four months on, however, United find themselves even deeper in the sh*t.
Seven defeats in nine matches – United were lucky to win the other two – have left everyone in absolutely no doubt where the Red Devils stand in the grand scheme of the Premier League. Their 4-0 aggregate defeat to Barcelona added some European context, if it were needed, and highlighted just how far United have to go from where they have fallen in recent years.
During the first half of the season, there was perceived to be an easy fix: get rid of a manager seemingly at odds with everyone other than perhaps three members of his playing squad. It was a simpler time for Woodward and his cronies on the board. As unpalatable as it may have been to pay off a manager they had not a year previously offered a pay-rise to, it become impossible to defend Mourinho in light of poor results and worsening relationships.
But with Mourinho gone, and so too now the euphoria which greeted his departure, United have learned a far harsher truth: it’s not him, it’s them.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer sits between a playing squad which is not fit for purpose and a board about which you could say exactly the same, from a football perspective certainly. Upon axing Mourinho, Woodward spoke of the club’s desire to appoint its first technical director, the search for which resembles the rest of the club’s approach to recruitment in recent years. No one seems quite sure what they are looking for, never mind where to look.
The failing United hierarchy is as culpable as any previous manager for the squad that is driving Solskjaer and the supporters to despair. It has been found out to be a collection of underperforming big names living solely off reputations alongside sub-standard players performing at exactly their level, which is a long way from what United should expect or accept.
It was a suspicion for a long time but everybody knows now for certain that United are a soft touch. Absolute confirmation has come during a week in which Solskjaer accepts his side have suffered different types of defeat: at Everton, owing of a lack of effort; and to City because of a vast gulf in quality. At Barcelona, it was little of one and plenty of the other. It must be hard for Solskjaer to know where to start.
On Sunday Manchester United didn't want it enough. On Wednesday they wanted it, but were miles away from being good enough.
Both are separate problems, neither are easy to solve, and nothing so far suggests that this club is clever enough to solve either.
— Daniel Storey (@danielstorey85) April 24, 2019
Presumably the manager has been in the dressing room for long enough now to know who are the ‘bluffers’, as Roy Keane labelled them, and which players are simply out of their depth. As Gary Neville said, everyone outside the club can see it and such are the depths United have plumbed, no one is afraid any longer about calling them out on it.
“It was the result I expected,” said Jurgen Klopp after United had failed to do Liverpool a favour in the derby. “They tried what they could. They were unlucky in moments but then they couldn’t stand City.”
Being patronised, whether intentionally or not, by the Liverpool manager about their inferiority to Manchester City should infuriate and inspire the United players, but no longer is that thought possible of too many occupants in the dressing room. If Solskjaer was to pin Klopp’s quote up on the wall, some individuals might seethe, others would simply shrug, and a few wouldn’t bother to read it.
Klopp wasn’t interested in offering Solskjaer any advice – why should he? – especially when, as he said while trying to change the subject to something of more interest to him: “I think the financial power of United is enough to sort the problems.”
That’s what Woodward and the United board have presumed since Sir Alex Ferguson left. But while the club has been counting its riches for the last six years, they have lost sight of the importance of the personnel they are investing some of that money in, and the credentials of the individuals who decide how they spend it.
United have hardly been left behind in the spending stakes. The City players who trampled all over their United counterparts on Wednesday night cost only £14million more – just over a quarter of a Fred – and it is widely accepted that United will spend big again this summer.
Two immediate problems with that approach: who at United is deciding which recruits they spluff their money on, and can they still attract the calibre of player required to improve the squad?
A change – yes, another one – in approach to recruitment is said to mean that United will focus on investing in younger talent like Jadon Sancho, Declan Rice and Callum Hudson-Odoi, but while these players would certainly improve the technical quality in the squad, at their tender ages, it seems unlikely they could affect the mentality in the dressing room, which is undoubtedly Solskjaer’s most pressing concern, as it was for Mourinho and Louis van Gaal.
That should be what keeps Woodward awake at night too but we know that, to the board, the balance sheet is more important than the team sheet. “Playing performance doesn’t really have a meaningful impact on what we can do on the commercial side of the business,” the executive vice-chairman told shareholders in May.
Those investors would have been forgiven for doubting Woodward in December by which time their struggles on the pitch had coincided with around a third of the PLC’s value being wiped from its share price between a record high in August and Mourinho’s sacking. Woodward probably did not expect his theory to be put to the test quite so rigorously quite so soon but, whether he is right or wrong, such a lack of foresight and anticipation is typical of the modern day United.
The Glazers are used to settling so long as their troughs keep being filled – we know this from their stewardship of Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Perhaps United are doomed to mediocrity while the owners remain. But if Woodward and the Old Trafford suits are not prompted to aid Solskjaer now, while everyone not of a United persuasion is laughing at them, they never will be. The priority must be to fill the football expertise void within their own ranks before funding both a clear-out and a thoroughly-planned recruitment drive. More inertia or further hamfistedness will leave them even further behind City, Liverpool and plenty of other clubs besides.