herald

Friday 6 December 2019

United no longer at top table

Keane's label of worst squad of the modern era may not be too far off mark for famous club

Manchester United’s Jesse Lingard reacts after West Ham United’s second goal at London Stadium on Sunday
Manchester United’s Jesse Lingard reacts after West Ham United’s second goal at London Stadium on Sunday

It was, according to legend, a win in a cup tie against Nottingham Forest which saved Alex Ferguson's job as Manchester United manager, a long, long time ago.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer won't get the sack should the unthinkable happen tomorrow night and United lose at home in the League Cup to Rochdale, the third-tier side managed by Corkman Brian Barry Murphy.

Likewise a win won't ease the pressure on the Norwegian. The glaring problems at United are so deep-rooted that there is no quick fix, issues so worrying that the 11 picked to play on a given day don't have the talent, desire or ability to play themselves out of it.

"It's scary how far they've fallen," says Roy Keane. Used to captaining United to Premier League titles, the only 'win' for Keane these days in tussles with Liverpool people is pointing out to Jamie Carragher, on live TV, that Liverpool "nearly" winning the Premier League was not the same as winning the Premier League.

Harry Redknapp labels this crop as the worst United side of the Premier League era, and at the back of it all Jose Mourinho smirks and snarls, thinking 'it wasn't me, it was you all along'.

Aghast

It's not just Keane who is aghast at the state of Manchester United FC in 2019. As a PLC, they have never been as rich. As a football team, though, it's decades since they were this poor.

There are some United fans headed to Old Trafford tomorrow who wonder if that word used a few lines above - unthinkable - is even appropriate for this game, asking themselves if the club has sunk so low that even beating a team seventh from bottom in England's second-lowest league is a given.

Barry Murphy's side haven't won in four games, and less than 2,000 paying punters turned up for their last game in this competition, a 2-1 win over Carlisle United which earned the boys from Spotland a spot in the limelight.

So they make the 20-mile journey to Old Trafford in faint hope rather than with bravado, but the club's Irish manager has earned widespread praise for the work he had done with a minuscule budget.

He signed a number of players over the summer but didn't spend a penny in transfer fees while the sale of their very highly-rated teenager Daniel Adshead (to Norwich City) earned them around £300,000, with more to come if he makes progress.

Afloat

That's the kind of deal that can keep a club like Rochdale afloat, while Alexis Sanchez pocketed that amount, and more, every week whether he tried or not.

Rochdale are not competing for promotion (yet) but the big win came last season when the team, with Barry Murphy as caretaker and then permanent manager, avoided relegation. Success for Rochdale means avoiding relegation and staying alive.

But standards at Old Trafford have slumped so low that no one knows what success means these days.

United are an outfit with almost unlimited resources who regularly waste what they have at their disposal. Their transfer policy looks like lunacy mixed with idiocy - with indecision, fear and ignorance thrown in.

Since Alex Ferguson left in 2013, United have spent over £900m on players (and that's on transfer fees alone, not including wages) but are no closer to winning a league than the day Ferguson walked away. The Champions League dream has been downgraded to Thursday nights against Astana in the Europa League.

Rivals Manchester City have spent more than United (£110m more when player sales and purchases are balanced out). You could argue that three Premier League titles, but no European trophies, is scant return for such largesse.

One problem for United is that others in the same division are in another league when it comes to the business of football. Liverpool's outlay on players like Alisson and Virgil Van Dijk looks scary but it's offset by their ability to turn a profit, selling players such as Philipe Coutinho and Luis Suarez. United could point out that they got decent fees for Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Daley Blind and Romelu Lukaku.

But United's recruitment policy is what has them where they are. Daniel James has settled in well, and looks like good value for his £15m price tag. But, James aside, when was the last time a United player not only lived up to his fee but made a mockery of it?

The money which Liverpool splashed on, Alisson, van Dijk and Salah was well spent. Manchester City will look at Ederson as a good buy. The cover price for Salah was £3m short of the fee United agreed to for Nemanja Matic.

Keane appeared to absolve Solksjaer from blame when he spoke after United's poor showing at the weekend. "A lot of these players aren't good enough for Man United, it's as simple as that," he groaned.

Solskjaer learned a lot of his managerial skills in the Norwegian league with Molde, although more than a few United supporters wish he was still there and not in the Old Trafford dugout.

It's not all Solskjaer's fault, as Keane says. United fans save their ire for the board, for the clueless Ed Woodward, who has left United so far behind in each transfer window that it's laughable.

Skill

It was said of Arsene Wenger that his great skill was knowing about a player before anyone else knew, having someone identified and tied up on a pre-contract six months before the rest of the world heard of that player.

United under Woodward are laughably off the pace, panicked into marquee buys like Sanchez, Fred and Pogba, outlay mounting and fan anger rising.

A manager like Brian Barry Murphy thinks long and hard before making any major decision for his club - at Rochdale, every pound counts.

At United, no one - not the CEO, the board, the manager, nor the players - seems to be accountable. And if this hurts Keane now, it's going too get a lot worse. This poor squad of players has little more to offer.

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