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.
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