Obsession with big-money signings obscures far bigger issues for joyless Red Devils
The dust had still to settle on Manchester United’s humiliating Champions League exit against Seville on a chastening Tuesday night at Old Trafford when it was being suggested Jose Mourinho needed to throw more money at the problem.
It is a theory that has become synonymous with any United post-mortem but what is to say chucking any more players into the mix would help if the system they encounter is so laden with fault lines, the team so much less than the sum of its already expensive parts?
You don’t just hurl more sand and cement into a sinkhole in the hope it will correct itself, you examine the entire structure first, identifying root causes and failures before getting on with the rebuilding process.
Former Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard claimed after United’s 2-1 surrender to a Seville side everyone else will be hoping to draw in the quarter-finals that they were still three or four world class players short. But one need only look at the struggles of Alexis Sanchez and Paul Pogba, two players signed at enormous cost, to recognise that even talent can be rendered impotent in an aimless fog of muddled thinking.
And that’s the thing with this United side under Mourinho – they look so aimless, so joyless.
There are some good wins here and there but they tick along picking up results without ever wowing, invariably resembling a side for whom things are a real slog, like pushing a corner sofa up a hill.
More than £600 million has been spent since Alex Ferguson retired in 2013 but what are they exactly? What is their USP? What is their identity, which was once ingrained on the wider footballing consciousness, as recognisable as McDonald’s golden arches or the Coca-Cola emblem?
There is no discernible pattern of play, just a very costly ensemble of square pegs in round holes that, as the former United defender Rio Ferdinand articulated, left them looking “like a team thrown together, full of strangers”.
The concern is Mourinho looked so out of touch over the course of 180 minutes of football against a side that have a minus-six goal difference in La Liga and trail the leaders Barcelona by 27 points.
He has given the impression of a man desperate to convince people he is still relevant with repeat references to his CV and past glories of late. But his ill-judged attempt to gloss over this shambles by pointing out that a Round of 16 exit was “nothing new” to a club he had twice knocked out at that stage of the competition before was ultimately counter-productive.
It is five years since his Real Madrid eliminated United and 14 years since his Porto defeated them en route to winning the competition and it is unimaginable now to think the Portuguese fire-starter of then would have been found so wanting against Seville.
It is also hard to believe he would have insisted he had “no regrets” after a two-legged tie in which he got his approach, tactics and team selection very wrong.
United won the League Cup and Europa League last season in Mourinho’s debut campaign. What Arsenal would not give to win Europe’s secondary club competition this term or Spurs for a piece of silverware.
But United will be judged by how they fare in the two main competitions, the Premier League and Champions League, and the blunt reality is they are hopelessly adrift in both.
United finished 24 points behind champions Chelsea last season. They are 16 points adrift of Manchester City now and face the prospect of their rivals being crowned champions in the derby on April 7, an embarrassment that would put the Seville episode in the shade.
It is not uncommon to hear it said that, if it were not for Pep Guardiola and City, Mourinho would be leading the Premier League race. What a redundant argument. City are here, they are not a figment of our imagination, and their every move serves only to intensify the spotlight on a club once associated with such rich, vibrant attacking football.
Guardiola has spent a lot of money at City but he spends with complete clarity of thought. Moreover, he has drastically improved many of the players he inherited and not just the likes of Nicolas Otamendi and Fabian Delph, who seemed expendable.
David Silva, at 32, is playing comfortably the best football of a gilded career. Raheem Sterling is unrecognisable from the erratic winger of the past. Sergio Aguero has had his best two seasons in a City shirt under Guardiola.
And, in terms of the signings Guardiola has made, they are all helping to burnish what was already there – goalkeeper Ederson, right back Kyle Walker, midfielder Ilkay Gundogan, winger Leroy Sane and so on. Against Seville, only four of Mourinho’s eight signings started.
Pogba and Victor Lindelof were on the bench, Zlatan Ibrahimovic nowhere to be seen and Henrikh Mkhitaryan has already come and gone.
Of the talents who were already there when Mourinho arrived, Luke Shaw did not even make the squad.
Anthony Martial was not introduced until 13 minutes to go. Marcus Rashford was marooned on the right, three days after proving so effective cutting in from the left against Liverpool.
United will doubtless spend more money in the summer but that, alone, will prove no panacea. (© Daily Telegraph, London)