It might not feel like it quite so soon after being pummelled 4-0 by Everton, but a defeat described as “rancid” by Gary Neville could turn out to be in Manchester United’s best interests in the long term.
Such was the Red Devils’ wretchedness, it is hard to think of a single positive to come out of the worst performance of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era. It took until the 87th minute, by which time they were lucky to be only four goals down, for United to register a shot on target. But more than any easily-measurable metric, the disgraceful lack of application on behalf of players from whom a response was expected should seal the fate of a few of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s cowards.
The manager spoke on Friday of four defeats in their last six and a miserable surrender at Barcelona serving as a “reality check” but the depths to which United have plumbed came into even more stark contrast at Goodison Park. The embarrassment, if Ed Woodward is capable of such introspection, should focus minds on exactly what has to be done to begin a huge rebuilding job at Old Trafford.
Solskjaer has been given the project manager’s job for three years, and though United’s form since has led many to castigate the club for moving prematurely to confirm his appointment, anyone looking towards the bench as the root of United’s problems is wilfully disregarding the glaringly obvious.
Solskjaer is now the fourth manager since Ferguson to have been woefully let down by these United players’ recurring loss of appetite. Some players have spanned all those reigns; most just two or three. Regardless, it is impossible now to ignore the common denominator.
United’s squad is a ramshackle mix of players not up to the required standard, either in technique or mentality. In some cases, both.
When discussing a ‘blood-boiling’ lack of effort among certain individuals before kick-off, Neville didn’t want to name names but afterwards, he felt the players’ performance spoke for him. You don’t have to read between the lines to assume Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial are the stars first in the firing line, though Romelu Lukaku, Nemanja Matic and Fred should not escape blame for shirking their responsibilities.
These are all big-money buys, around £300million worth, and reports suggest United are going to get try to dig themselves out of this mess by doing the same thing that landed them in it – spending huge sums of money on new recruits to offer a quick fix.
Jadon Sancho, Declan Rice and Callum Hudson-Odoi are all names constantly reported as being United targets and they all fit the blueprint of players the Glazers are now willing to spend big on: emerging young talent who can contribute in the long term and might hold their value better than the likes of Matic, Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez.
Sancho, Rice and Hudson-Odoi would improve any team, but can they influence a United dressing room which seems to be rotten at the core? These are all young players who will need plenty of guidance in the coming years. To whom among their potential new team-mates might they turn?
When Solskjaer glanced around his dressing room at Goodison Park, there would not have been a leader capable of looking him back squarely in the eye. That is a weakness that needs addressing by United far more urgently than a lack of inspiration on the right side of their attack, or a dearth of mobility in midfield.
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The scale of the problems mean Solskjaer – and whomever United appoint as their new technical director when Woodward gets around to it – will need more than one transfer window to fix the mess. United could spend another £300million this summer and still struggle to qualify for the Champions League next term.
Such a transitional phase, under a manager whose history at the club buys him time and patience with supporters, would be an ideal time to reconnect with another of United’s traditions: the promotion of youth.
Mason Greenwood, James Garner, Tatith Chong and Angel Gomes might not be ready yet for the top level of European football but, evidently, neither are United’s senior players. At least the youth prospects have the potential to hit those heights and if they are to have a say in United’s future, there is no harm in them playing a part in the present.
But they, like Marcus Rashford, Scott McTominay, Sancho, Rice and whoever else United take a fancy towards, need positive role models who set the desired standards on a daily basis, in victory and defeat. The only examples being laid down at present are in shirking and self-preservation.