Manchester United have fallen so far behind Europe’s elite

Liam Canning takes a look at Manchester United's key positions, their strength in depth and compares it to Europe's elite clubs

Liam Canning
by Liam Canning
19th May 2017

article:19th May 2017

Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho.
Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho.

Since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson in the summer of 2013, Manchester United have been in free fall.

The appointment of David Moyes as Ferguson’s successor was seriously misjudged and Louis Van Gaal’s tepid football didn’t take well to the Old Trafford faithful.

In comes Jose Mourinho last summer and 12 months on we are seeing just how badly this squad needs to be chopped and changed.

Although the Dutch manager brought in fresh faces before Mourinho’s time, the stark difference between the Man United squad and Europe’s elite is alarming.

We cannot forget that Ed Woodward, Man United’s executive vice-chairman, has assembled the most expensive squad in history, but you would not have thought that judging by squad’s performances in the Premier League.

Here is a look at Man United’s key positions, the strength in depth and comparing it to the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich and Juventus.


Manchester United:

David De Gea / Sergio Romero

One of the very few positions in which Manchester United do not need major surgery.

While there has been speculation regarding the futures of both De Gea (Real Madrid) and Romero (Inter Milan), the Red Devils have one of the best combinations in world football providing they can keep hold of them.

De Gea vs Romero.

De Gea vs Romero.


Manchester United:

Antonio Valencia / Matteo Darmian / Timothy Fosu-Mensah

Real Madrid:

Daniel Carvajal / Danilo / Nacho Fernández


Dani Alves / Stephan Lichsteiner / Tomas Rincon

In credit to Valencia, he has been a stalwart in Man United’s defence and, alongside Eric Bailly, been one of the team’s best defenders.

But when you compare Valencia to Carvajal and Alves, there is a clear level of quality that the Ecuador captain does not possess.

The former Barcelona right back was instrumental in both legs of Juventus’s semi final against AS Monaco and even scored in the Coppa Italia final.

The ability to go forward, while also be robust in defence and slot back into formation, is crucial to becoming an established European right back, something which Alves has become.

Dani Alves.

Dani Alves.

Carvajal is more than on his way to accomplishing the same. Unfortunately for the Spaniard, he has been injured for the majority of May; but in his 40 appearances this season, the right back has been exceptional in both going forward and slotting back in defence.

When you dive deeper down the pecking order, Darmian is a shadow of his former self and not the typical Italian defender which Man United thought they were purchasing after the 2014 World Cup.

Juventus only have the Switzerland captain, Lichsteiner, as their second choice to compete with Alves. A player full of experience and has more than 80 appearances for his country to his name.

Danilo, while not boasting that amount of caps for his country, is still a very competent right back and has still registered three assists and one goal. Darmian, however, only has one assist to his name in four more appearances.

There is a clear problem in having only one competitive right back at the club and something that Manchester United cannot go on with. They should be looking at Fabinho of AS Monaco, who can also play at defensive midfield.

Valencia vs Danilo vs Alves.

Valencia vs Danilo vs Alves.


Manchester United:

Daley Blind / Marcos Rojo / Luke Shaw

Paris Saint-Germain:

Layvin Kurzawa / Maxwell / Serge Aurier

Bayern Munich:

David Alaba / Juan Bernat / Rafinha

While Blind and Rojo have been very good for Man United in spells this year, they are very much auxiliary left backs, and are much better suited in central defence.

The club’s number one, Shaw, has had a string of injuries keeping him on the sidelines and an ongoing battle with Mourinho regarding his mentality.

Comparing Blind and Rojo to Kurzawa and Maxwell as well as Alaba and Bernat is rather embarrassing for the supposed ‘biggest club in the world’.

The former Monaco left back, Kurzawa, is arguably one of the best left backs in Europe and has been unfortunate with a recent injury he picked up.

Maxwell might be 35 years old, but he is still featuring over 30 timer per-season and giving the French giants a much needed use of experience and guile.

David Alaba.

David Alaba.

Another shout for the best left back in Europe has to be Alaba, who has consistently shown that he is a force to be reckoned with.

A bit like Alves, the Austrian wing back acts more of a winger than he does defender and can play in five positions – an incredible player to have in your team.

Bernat is still relatively young, 24, but has featured seven times in Spain’s squad since the 2014 World Cup.

Given it is probably the most competitive national team in the word, that is something to be admired, coupled with the fact that he is also the second choice left back.

If Shaw cannot prove himself that he is ready to commit fully to this club, he will be moved on. If that comes to fruition, Manchester United should be doing all that they can to prize Benjamin Mendy away from AS Monaco.

Given the lack of experienced, world class left backs in the world, the Red Devils are going to find it exceptionally difficult to bring in a player of the quality they desire if they cannot recruit Mendy.

Blind vs Aurier vs Alaba.

Blind vs Aurier vs Alaba.


Manchester United:

Eric Bailly / Marcos Rojo / Chris Smalling / Phil Jones / Daley Blind

Real Madrid:

Sergio Ramos / Raphael Varane / Nacho Fernandez / Pepe


Leonardo Bonucci / Giorgio Chiellini / Andrea Barzagli / Mehdi Benatia

When Bailly was drafted by Ivory Coast to go to the African Cup of Nations in January for a month, the centre back left a gaping hole in United’s defence.

The Argentinian World Cup finalist has stepped up to the plate, but when comparing him to the likes of Chiellini and Varane, it is plain to see that Manchester United are lacking considerable talent in this area.

Varane is technically Madrid’s second-choice centre back this season, but would walk into United’s team in a heartbeat. The Frenchman is comfortable on the ball, a threat in the air and his defensive intelligence is the strongest part of his game.

Smalling, however, lacks any sort of presence on the ball and seems to panic when passed to; his distribution is that of a League One player’s in the sense that he will only hoof it up front or in space for the striker to chase – rarely to feet.

Eric Bailly.

Eric Bailly.

You would not associate defensive intelligence with Smalling. In the past two months, the England centre back has been at fault for a considerable amount of mistakes in games.

Jones is not the best centre back, but he is OK. Nothing special and certainly not as good as Sir Alex Ferguson once thought, but a good squad player if he kept fit. However, that is his problem.

He is now 25 years old, not a youngster anymore, and can barely string a few games together without being injured.

As a centre back you have to be reliable and Jones is not that. Smalling is not either. Rojo is a good squad player, but should not be starting from next season if the Red Devils want to close the gap on the top of the table. Bailly is the only permanent fixture in this back line, he is a very good – and young, only 23 – defender who has shades of Nemanja Vidić in him.

If Man United are to get back to winning ways, they need an authoritative centre back next season. They should be looking at Virgil van Dijk of Southampton: proven experience, one of the best centre backs in the country and, most importantly, a leader.

Bailly vs Ramos vs Chiellini.

Bailly vs Ramos vs Chiellini.


Manchester United:

Michael Carrick / Ander Herrera / Paul Pogba / Marouane Fellaini

Paris Saint-Germain:

Marco Verratti / Adrien Rabiot / Blaise Matuidi / Thiago Motta

Bayern Munich:

Xabi Alonso / Thiago / Arturo Vidal / Renato Sanchez

Pogba has been under the microscope for the whole year and will never match some critics’s unattainable standards, but he has been Man United’s conductor in midfield. He might not have set the world alight, but his time will come and there should be no hesitations about that.

Carrick is still a very good player, but given that he is approaching the tender age of 36, it is time for the club to stop relying on his wisdom and excellence for the whole season. They desperately need a replacement.

If Man United were astute in the market, they would hand Borussia Dortmund a blank cheque for Julian Weigl – the perfect replacement for Carrick.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

There is no denying Herrera has been a good player for Man United, but when comparing him to the likes of Rabiot, Verratti, Thiago and Vidal, those players are just a cut above and impact games on a far more regular basis.

They control the game whereas the game can sometimes go beyond Herrera’s reach.

And then there’s Fellaini – the Belgian maestro himself. While good in certain situations, it is baffling to think that he has made 49 appearances this year and has been saved getting the axe from LVG and Mourinho.

When Bayern Munich have Sanches as a possible fourth central midfielder and Manchester United have Fellaini, it paints the picture perfectly for you in terms of how far away these clubs are apart.

Pogba vs Verratti vs Vidal.

Pogba vs Verratti vs Vidal.


Manchester United:

Anthony Martial / Henrikh Mkhitaryan / Jesse Lingard


Lionel Messi / Neymar / Arda Turan

Real Madrid:

Cristiano Ronaldo / Gareth Bale / Marco Asensio / Isco

Martial and Mkhitaryan have bags of potential and will eventually show that once they have better players around them, but when Lingard is appearing 40 times in a season, there needs to be questions asked.

While Lingard works hard, pressurises defenders and scores the goals at Wembley, his output, creativity and general threat to a defence is uninspiring.

In the respective squads, Lingard is of the same position, more or less, of Turan and Asensio, but has featured a lot more given the other two in Man United’s team underperforming.

Turan’s form at Atlético Madrid warranted him a move to Barcelona and, while things have not gone as smoothly as he would have wanted, he has still scored 13 times and assisted on seven different occasions in 30 appearances. That is a very good record for an impact player.

Asensio has scored slightly less, only the nine times, and assisted four times this campaign. However, when watching him, there is a genuine threat every time he gets the ball and drives at the opposition’s defence. He is also 21 – not 25 like the Man United winger.

Lingard, however, has played 40 times – more often than not from a starting position – and found the back of the net five times and only assisted thrice.

For a club like Manchester United, who is trying to claw their way back to their best, that is appalling.

There is already talk of Antoine Griezmann and James Rodríguez joining the club, in which they desperately need. It would appear the result of the Europa League final will determine whether they can sign the likes of Griezmann.

Mkhitaryan vs Messi vs Ronaldo.

Mkhitaryan vs Messi vs Ronaldo.


Manchester United:

Zlatan Ibrahimović / Marcus Rashford / Wayne Rooney


Paulo Dybala / Gonzalo Higuaín / Mario Mandzukic

Real Madrid:

Karim Benzema / Álvaro Morata / Mariano Díaz

Finally on to the strikers. Ibrahimović has taken England by storm and was incredibly unfortunate not to finish the season off.

The Swedish superstar ended his campaign on 28 goals and eight assists – a very respectable achievement and one that has most certainly turned a few heads.

While he might not be at the club next year, due to his long-term injury, he has been very good on and off the pitch for United.

Rashford has stepped up to take his place and found some good form, but he is 19 years old. He is not a cultured striker that has been in the game for years; it is his second season as a first-team player.

Ibrahimovic vs Dybala vs Benzema.

Ibrahimovic vs Dybala vs Benzema.

Not to mention Rooney, who delivered so much over the years but has now found his body catching up to him and can barely last 90 minutes. The game whizzes past him in a flash and it is sad to see such a demise of a truly legendary figure in the game.

When you look at Juventus’s depth in squad in the striker’s role and that of Real Madrid’s, the Red Devils are once again lagging so far behind.

Take Morata for example: one of Europe’s hottest strikers that would play for most, if not all, Premier League clubs.

The Spanish forward has been kept at Real Madrid this season and played a bit-part role. In his 45 appearances, he has scored a whopping 25 goals.

Benzema might be first choice, but the impact of Morata is so prominent that Madrid boast two of the finest strikers in Europe and can, somehow, appease both their egos and get them thinking of the club before themselves.


What have we learnt from this? Because of Sir Alex Ferguson’s brilliance of turning good players into great players, Manchester United are now left with an incredible amount of catching up to do that is going to cost hundreds of millions of pounds.

It should not just be about one glitzy name this summer for Woodward, the executive vice-chairman needs to assemble a big enough squad to compete on all fronts and subsequently clear the deadwood out.

All statistics and screenshots are taken from visit their site for more in-depth player analysis