MANCHESTER United are in danger of sinking into a prolonged era of mediocrity in much the same way that AC Milan and Inter Milan did before they rediscovered their mojo in recent years. Some might say they are already at that level.
That has to be the conclusion after the latest setback to United’s recovery under Erik ten Hag. The sight of their fans leaving the Etihad at half-time as they went in four goals down to their fierce local rivals indicated that their own people have had enough.
Admittedly, United were up against a Manchester City team that was on fire and their latest acquisition, the extraordinary Erling Haaland, looked like he was going to score every time he approached the penalty area. It did look as though United had got over their early season jitters with four consecutive wins, but against City they were exposed once more.
It has not been a good couple of weeks for the club, with a huge financial loss in 2021-22 and now this humbling at the hands of Pep Guardiola’s side. It’s hard to blame Ten Hag, because he has inherited a team that has been constructed over a period of time and has the influence of half a dozen managers. The problem at United has been brewing over nine years and owes as much to poor transfer market activity as much as anything else. The 11 players that started the Manchester derby cost the club around £ 350 million compared to the £ 460 million City spent on their line-up. Although £ 100 million is a big difference, one look at City’s team and it looks like fair value, as opposed to United’s, which resembles an exercise in overspending.
The problem is also not a question of poor team managers, either. They’ve tried highly respected people like David Moyes, track record coaches in José Mourinho and Louis van Gaal, “one of our own” in Ole Gunar Solskjaer and a left field approach in the form of Ralf Rangnick, who was a wrong fit right from the word go. Now they’ve gone down the list of the most successful coaches in Europe and arrived at Erik ten Hag. They have tried almost everything except lure Klopp or Guardiola to Old Trafford. In fact, the presence of these two characters clearly gnaws at United on a daily basis. They have lost substantial ground to City and Liverpool as well as Chelsea over the past decade. And yet, Manchester United has enormous cache and greater natural cash generating potential than almost all of their domestic competitors.
Of course, they were impatient, but now United are desperate. They’ve gone from Champions League certainties to Europa League strugglers and this has clearly affected the club’s income. It’s a vicious spiral and with each blow, the confusion grows and confidence erodes. Naturally, the owners get the blame and there’s some justification in that, but there’s been no shortage of cash spent on new players, but United have not spent wisely. The apparent obsession with veteran superstars is not something a club of their status should be focused on. At the moment, they have 37 year-old Cristiano Ronaldo sitting on the bench – this is not only something of an insult to CR7 but is also a waste of money.
You only need look at the grim faces of United’s c-suite seating to see the disappointment and dismay at the club at the moment, but the most telling scene is that of the fans leaving their seats and exiting the stadium in a display of disgust. It is arguably time for United to reinvent themselves and to realise they are no longer the powerful force they once were. They have a problem and the sooner they realise it cannot be solved by the transfer market or by continually changing coaches, the better. This really is a bad time for their colossal empire to run into trouble.