Manchester United critics and fans seem to be in unison. United are in trouble and have never been more in danger of slipping into relative obscurity, at least in the Premier League era.
They are the undisputed kings of the competition overall. The Red Devils have reigned as champions of England 13 times out of 27 seasons since the Premier League was introduced in 1992/93 – United were inaugural champions, quenching a 26-year thirst for a top-flight title.
And yet, since the great Sir Alex Ferguson retired following his delivery of that 13th trophy – and 20th domestic league title in total – in 2012/13, a decay has set in at Old Trafford. The stadium itself is creaking.
But the malaise that has been allowed to set in within the walls of the dressing room following Ferguson’s departure has now left the great empire he built crumbling.
Football is cyclical. Every club is going to go through good and bad times, this is inevitable. What also seemed to be inevitable was the view of the United hierarchy that success could be sustained forever. In reality, the success Ferguson engineered has only introduced complacency.
David Moyes was the “Chosen One”. After that experiment blew up in the club’s face, they went with the tried and tested method of bringing in big names – both on and off the field.
Louis van Gaal and then Jose Mourinho were appointed to return United to glory. Bigger fish than Moyes, they were able to land the likes of Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao, Victor Valdes, Memphis Depay, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez.
The jury remains out on Pogba and Lukaku – both of whom are being linked with moves away this summer. All others bar Ibrahimovic – a free transfer at the tail end of his career – have been monumental flops.
But with the signing of Daniel James, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer clearly wants to go in a different direction this summer. And while fans may moan at a lack of marquee acquisitions, or at least a pursuit of them, players like James are exactly the names required in order to tackle an issue abundantly clear – a colossal rebuild and restructure is required.
Too often in the past six seasons, Ed Woodward has chased the easy fix. In the wake of Ferguson’s retirement, a summer in which David Gill’s departure can also not be overstated, United have met every obstacle by throwing money at it and hoping their issues go away.
In truth, what was really required was a pressing of the reset button.
But United were petrified of falling behind – burned a little perhaps by the hiring of Moyes. They hoped big names like Van Gaal and Mourinho would steady the ship. But the club sank further.
They have been left behind by smarter recruitment strategies implemented by rivals. Even though Manchester foes City have spent equal amounts assembling a far more coherent and successful squad, they too have simultaneously been planning for the future.
Bernardo Silva wasn’t a star when he arrived at the Etihad Stadium two summers ago, but he enjoyed a breakout 2018/19 campaign and is now even taking limelight away from Cristiano Ronaldo at international level for Portugal.
Critics laughed at Jurgen Klopp when he paid Hull City £8 million for unheralded left-back Andy Robertson the same 2017 summer that Silva showed up in England. The 25-year-old is now probably the best in the world in his position.
A club that has always prided itself on promoting from within and investing in youth has betrayed its own traditions and, consequently, lost their way as a result.
Whether you look back to the 1999 treble-winning side or go back further, to the Busby Babes, United have always forged their own path. The Red Devils’ greatest rewards have always come as a result of teams assembled with home-grown stars or young, emerging talents at their core.
In addition to the famed ‘Class of 92’ emergence, the club has always been adept at identifying young talent and nurturing it. Roy Keane was 22 when he joined United in the summer of 1993. Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo were both 18. Rio Ferdinand was 23 when he arrived, as was current manager Solskjaer. Ruud van Nistelrooy was 24 and Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic both 25.
A summer in club football is always a long, drawn out process involving incessant and often trivial transfer rumour tit for tat – especially when involving the top teams. And, having endured one of the worst seasons in the Premier League era, United’s 2019 summer transfer window will be picked through and poured over like never before.
But the early signs are encouraging. As well as James, United’s targets have universally been identified as emerging Crystal Palace right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka (21), creative Leicester duo James Maddison and Youri Tielemans and West Ham’s towering French centre-back Issa Diop (all 22), as well as Sporting Lisbon’s bustling ball of midfield creativity, Bruno Fernandes (24).
If all of those deals were to come to fruition, positivity would surely swell among United’s fanbase once more.
There’s a begrudging recognition that it is going to be a few more years before the Red Devils rise to a Premier League title challenge again. But a successful summer will allow them to maintain a grip on the coattails of England and Europe’s elite.
The Theatre of Dreams, for so long a silver screen highlight reel of silverware for United, has, in the last six years, become the scene of a plot twist, where the only show playing has been the success of their fiercest rivals.
United have been living a nightmare, but a triumphant summer could yet lead to a blockbuster comeback.
There have been some tough times for Manchester United fans since Sir Alex Ferguson delivered a 20th Premier League title to bring the curtain down on his glorious 27-year reign at Old Trafford in 2012/13.
In the ensuing six seasons, the club has hired four managers and fired three of them, while the wait for title No21 seems like it will go on for a few more years. Jose Mourinho’s sacking last December yielded a brief upturn in fortunes, but the season ended in misery as a failure to finish in the Champions League places was compounded by Manchester City’s domestic treble and the fact Liverpool and Chelsea claimed European trophies, while even Tottenham and Arsenal made the finals.
Daniel James became the first signing of the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer era earlier this month, but a lot more transfer activity is expected.
So, ahead of what United desperately need to be a successful summer in the market, we take a look at their two worst and two best summer transfer windows during the Premier League era.
Signings: Jaap Stam (PSV, £10.75m), Jesper Blomqvist (Parma, £4.4m), John O’Shea (Waterford Bohemians, undisclosed), Dwight Yorke (Aston Villa, £12.6m)
Notts County goalkeeper Russell Best might well have been hoping he’d be the signing of the summer in 1998 when he arrived on a free from Notts County, but he ended up being blown away by the other players who joined him at Old Trafford.
Jaap Stam, Jesper Blomqvist, John O’Shea and Dwight Yorke all arrived and went on to play key parts in the greatest season in the club’s history as an unprecedented treble of Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League was acquired in thrilling fashion.
Stam was arguably United’s greatest defender of the Premier League era but a fallout with Ferguson curtailed his United career while Yorke was another to fall foul of the manager – even though his goalscoring exploits and lethal partnership with Andy Cole more than made up for his misgivings.
Yorke enjoyed his most productive season in his debut campaign with United, rocketing in 29 goals in 51 appearances.
Blomqvist’s role was more understated although he did feature in 38 games and started at the Camp Nou in the absence of Paul Scholes and Roy Keane as United stunned Bayern Munich. O’Shea, arriving as a 17-year-old, played no part in the treble-winning campaign and didn’t make his United debut until the following season, but became a firm fan favourite and even cult hero during 12 years at Old Trafford.
Signings: Edwin van der Sar (Fulham, undisclosed), Park Ji-sung (PSV, £4m), Ben Foster (Stoke City, undisclosed)
A veteran goalkeeper and trusted utility player hardly seem the most likely duo to form the basis of one of the most successful transfer windows in the Premier League era for United.
But the summer of 2005 proved to be the interconnecting component to what was the beginning of the final golden period of the Ferguson dynasty. After spending the best part of seven years searching for a suitable Peter Schmeichel replacement, Dutchman Van der Sar was signed from Fulham. His assured six-year stay helped erase a series of butter finger flops; Fabian Barthez, Massimo Taibi, Mark Bosnich, Roy Carroll, Tim Howard and Andy Goram.
Korean captain Park was a workhorse and always a man for the big occasion. Let’s not forget that two of the greatest United defenders in the Premier League era – Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra – followed them to Old Trafford in the January window.
Ferguson had tempted teenage sensation Wayne Rooney away from Everton the previous summer and then coaxed Michael Carrick from Tottenham the following year.
All of the new cogs combined to end a barren three-year wait for a league title in 2006/07, while a third European crown was hoisted in the Russian rain 12 months down the line.
The one signing of note cost just £1.2m, but the purchase of Eric Cantona was possibly the biggest transfer in United’s history. The enigmatic Frenchman spent just five years at Old Trafford but was the catalyst for change under Ferguson, inserting a style and swagger into a United side that won the league title for the first time in 26 years this season.
A year later and just a solitary signing, but just how significant Roy Keane’s arrival at United has been can probably never be fully appreciated.
A relative unknown, the Cork-born firebrand was snatched from under the nose of Kenny Dalglish and Blackburn Rovers – he had a gentleman’s agreement to join Rovers on Monday after the Blackburn office staff leaving early had scuppered his move from Nottingham Forest being made permanent the previous Friday.
Ferguson got wind of this and tracked Keane to Cork over the weekend. The rest is history, Keane signed for United for a then British record of £3.75 million.
Signings: Marouane Fellaini (Everton £27.5m), Guillermo Varela (Penarol, undisclosed), Saidy Janko (Zurich, undisclosed)
The greatest manager in club history had just departed. And Ferguson’s one last, great throw of the dice in prising Robin van Persie from Arsenal had gone a long way to United lifting the league title – their 20th in total. The Dutch hitman plundered 30 goals in 48 games in all competitions (his second best season tally) as he provided the spark for the great Scot’s final hurrah.
In came David Moyes, and the ‘Chosen One’ needed a strong start in the transfer market. Instead, he oversaw a catastrophic summer. One in which bids for Cesc Fabregas, Toni Kroos, Leighton Baines and Sami Khedira were all either rebuffed or inexplicably bungled.
His headline acquisition? Returning to Everton to sign Fellaini, although even this left Moyes with egg on his face as United forked out £27.5m when a clause in the Belgian’s Goodison Park contract ensured he could have joined any club that offered £23m for him before July 31.
Swiss youth prospect Janko made one solitary League Cup appearance for United and has since failed to find a home at Bolton Wanderers, Celtic, Barnsley, Saint-Etienne, Porto and Nottingham Forest. Varela, meanwhile, made a total of 11 appearances during four seasons at Old Trafford and now plays for FC Copenhagen.
Signings: Memphis Depay (PSV, £25m), Matteo Darmian (Torino, £12.7m), Bastian Schweinsteiger (Bayern Munich, £6.5m), Morgan Schneiderlin (Southampton, £25m), Sergio Romero (Unattached, free), Anthony Martial (Monaco, £36m)
If you had to pick from the above list of players, one who was going to enjoy a successful career in a red shirt, your guess would not have been free agent Sergio Romero, who didn’t cost a penny.
Everyone else was either a total flop, or underwhelming. Depay is an incredible talent but his immaturity destroyed any hope he had of adding his name to the prestigious list of previous iconic United No 7s. Schweinsteiger was stumbling into his twilight years and his ageing legs meant he was way past his prime, while Schneiderlin found the elite level too far beyond his capabilities.
Darmian has stepped up when called upon on various occasions but will not be missed by United fans when he, surely, eventually departs this summer. It’s hard to blame the Italian for his lack of star power, but there’s plenty of blame to lay at Martial’s door.
The 23-year-old is one of the most frustrating footballers to have ever entered through the Old Trafford doors. He has so much ability and attributes that, even now, he could still potentially become a world-class player.
But, for all his undeniable talent he is yet to catch fire and now, after four full seasons and 48 goals in 172 games, United fans are still yet to see the best of the flamboyant Frenchman, and wonder if they ever will.
Perhaps we’re being deliberately provocative here. After all, this is the summer United signed Cristiano Ronaldo. But, alongside the acquisition of the spotty-faced, spaghetti-haired Portuguese for £12.24m, United also brought in some utter donkeys.
David Bellion, Eric Djemba-Djemba and Kleberson remain some of the worst signings in United’s history. American goalkeeper Tim Howard was a moderate success but enjoyed his best days in England when he moved on to Everton.
Sticking with the Ronaldo theme and by the time he left England six years after his arrival, he was well on his way to being one of the greatest footballers ever.
He won his first Ballon d’Or while in a red shirt in 2008. Antonio Valencia has been a fine servant for United, but was hardly the stellar signing distraught United fans craved in the summer of 2009, with Ronaldo’s departure leaving them devastated as he headed for Real Madrid.
Also, in addition to the arrival of the Ecuadorian from Wigan, injury-prone former Liverpool strike Michael Owen was acquired as well as Gabriel Obertan and Mame Biram Diouf. Pitiful.
The 31-year-old moved to Old Trafford from Chelsea in 2014, becoming a popular figure within the dressing room and the support base.
Mata’s current deal at United expires at the end of June but Press Association Sport understands negotiations over a new deal have gone positively.
The attack-minded midfielder has scored 45 goals in 218 appearances for United and a new contract will be a boost for a club in the midst of change.
Combative midfielder Ander Herrera and captain Antonio Valencia are leaving on free transfers, while there are questions marks over a number of other key players.
Paul Pogba is keen for a “new challenge” and Romelu Lukaku would welcome an Old Trafford exit, while question marks remain over the future of Alexis Sanchez and David De Gea.
Swansea’s Daniel James is the only summer arrival so far, while United are interested in Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire.