Manchester United are now so far behind Guardiola’s City it’s painful

RALF RANGNICK said just recently Manchester United need an identity just like their rivals Manchester City and Liverpool. This was a strange thing to say, for United, more than most clubs in Britain, made their name on their identity firstly in the Busby years and then in the trophy-laden time of Sir Alex Ferguson. United provided the blueprint for everyone’s idea of a successful football club, but when Ferguson left, the rug was pulled out from under their feet at precisely the wrong time, for their neighbours were in the ascendancy and had plenty of cash to build their team.

We’ve known for some time Manchester City have overtaken United in most things, but a 4-1 derby defeat merely highlighted just how much of a chasm the difference is between the two clubs. For some time, pundits and United-centric media folk have used the excuse of poor managerial appointments, but United have tried all angles: the brave appointment (Moyes); the proven track record men (Van Gaal and Mourinho); one of our own (Solskjaer) and the far-sighted, fashionable hiring (Rangnick). Ironically, the trophy men delivered the only prizes United have won since Ferguson’s retirement, the FA Cup in 2016, the EFL and Europa in 2017, but that didn’t make the club happy.

What are they really looking for and will they be patient enough to really transform Manchester United from what has become a money-wasting, knee-jerk footballing institution desperate to make up lost ground?

The man they really want is Pep Guardiola, but that can be interpreted as a yearning to buy an off-the-shelf system that can create a new United dynasty. Guardiola is part of a club that is not just signing top players, but is also building something very solid, multi-faceted and very considered. Of course, it is underpinned by vast sums of Abu Dhabi money, but United have not been short of money, they have spent heavily on players – £ 1.3 billion in 10 years, versus City’s £ 1.4 billion – and their wage bill is among the highest in world football, but they have lacked direction and a clear strategy. The longer time passes after Ferguson, the less United-like they seem.

City were excellent at times in the Manchester derby but United’s shortcomings were there for all to see. Harry Maguire is rapidly looking like £ 75 million’s worth of lumbering centre half rather than a modern, articulate defender. Jonathan Wilson of The Guardian captured the Maguire condition perfectly: “A player who can look so commanding, particularly in the less demanding world of international football, has become a liability.” Wilson adds that Maguire goes “wobbling into challenges with all the grace of an Easter Island figure being brought down from a quarry.” To be fair to Maguire, United’s lack of defensive savvy exposes him time and time again.

For 45 minutes, United competed well even though they went in at half-time 2-1 down, but it was the poor second half and 79% City possession depressed the red half of Manchester. The Telegraph commented: “This may go down as one of the most shameful derby defeats in Manchester United’s long history. They are the Damned United on this spineless evidence.” Gary Neville commented on SKY: “Any time they play a half decent team, they lose.”

Kevin De Bruyne, who scored twice in the game, told The Mirror that United’s players did not have the required energy and fitness levels to play the type of game asked of them. “When you play a pressing style, it’s very hard to adjust to it, so maybe it seemed like they did give up a little,” De Bruyne said.

Paul Pogba came in for criticism, a player who has never justified the huge transfer fee United paid for him. Paul Hirst of The Timesasked if the French midfielder will be missed when he eventually leaves. “It is hard to think of a prolonged period when he has put in a series of world class performances…for £ 89 million, United were expecting a much better return on their investment.”

That’s one area where City are faring far better than most, they get more value out of their players. How many of United’s big signings have truly worked out? The players used in the game with United cost them £ 554 million compared to United’s £ 456 million. City’s players have a market value of more than £ 600 million, United’s just under £ 500 million.

United’s market activity has been questioned, and rightly so. Daniel Storey of the points to the gross wastage that comes from a transfer policy that focuses on big, expensive names as well as players others are pursuing. Consider the amount paid to hire veterans like Cristiano Ronaldo, Edinson Cavani and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. As Storey adds, “the most miserable conclusion for any United supporter is that they were outclassed by City because City are light years ahead.”

Ronaldo was missing from the City defeat and must be thanking his lucky stars he has a hip flexor injury. But there are concerns about CR7 and his form. He has scored once in 10 games but he has looked increasingly frustrated in recent games and there are conflicting stories about his relationship with certain players and Rangnick. There are whispers circulating that he was actually dropped. Barry Glendenning, in The Guardian, noted: “While the official United line was that Cristiano Ronaldo had sat this one out in Portugal with hip-knack, pre-match rumours suggested the preening show-pony might have stormed off to Portugal in a hissy-fit upon discovering he would not be playing in a starting line-up that boasted no out-and-out strikers.”

The current situation at United is hard for the Old Trafford faithful to take, but for Sir Alex Ferguson, he must wonder what is happening to the little empire he built. The Manchester Evening News reported: “There was a heart-wrenching acceptance etched across his face as United were humiliated at the Etihad. United are now recognisable to the club that Ferguson left behind but the 80 year-old seems to have come to terms with it. That’s a sad indictment of where United currently are.”

Sources: The Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph, Manchester Evening News, The i, The Mirror.

Football Media Watch: The Covid call-offs, desire or necessity?

WHEN Arsenal asked to have their big north London derby against Tottenham called off, people were scratching their heads and questioning why it was so late in the day. After all, they only had one (later two) Covid-infected players but apparently were going to be without 19 members of their first team squad. Admittedly, they have other players lost to the Africa Cup of Nations, but in theory, shouldn’t they have been able to play the game? They have a big squad, all the Premier clubs appear to have sizeable squads, so where’s the problem?

Even right down to non-league level, a manager wants to play his strongest team, so if a convenient postponement can help out when the squad is weakened or lacking some key players, then so be it. We’ve all seen surprising cancellations that turned out to be very helpful for coaches who might be in charge of a struggling team needing a break.

With TV effectively running the game in so many ways, postponements are generally not as commonplace as they used to be, but covid has given football the chance to call a game off if the virus has hit the squad hard. At the time, some sceptics did caution that this was open to abuse and while nobody really wants to say it for fear of having questions interpreted as heartless, cynical probing, increasingly, there is concern some clubs may be trying to “game the system”.

Pundits Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher have both suggested postponements should not be taking place in the age of big clubs with expensive 30-40 man squads. Neville, always willing to stick his head above the parapet, said on Sky: “What started out as postponements due to a pandemic has now become about clubs not having their best team [available]”.

The timing of Arsenal’s request was unfortunate – they had just had a player suspended after a red card in midweek (Xhaka) and had let two players go out on loan. Similarly, when Liverpool asked for their Carabao Cup semi with Arsenal to be rescheduled, they later revealed their covid testing had produced “a lot of false positives”. It doesn’t take much for football to come up with conspiracy theories or for fans of opposing clubs to quickly assume some skulduggery has taken place. 

The Athletic reported that there is a lack of transparency and consistency and suggested there has been an abuse of the rules. A case of clubs desiring a postponement rather than needing it. “The bottom line, according to one medic, is that no games should be called off given the size of the team squads and availability of back-up players from the youth ranks.”

Carragher said on Sky that “no other league in Europe is doing this” and believes there is no doubt teams are taking advantage of the situation. Interestingly, when the FA said clubs should play FA Cup games if they have 13 fit players, there was not a single postponement. This not only implies clubs are comfortable playing weakened sides and confirms what we already knew, the competition is a much lower priority among the elite.

Back to that London derby and Tottenham were clearly unhappy about the cancellation. The Guardian reported this comment from the club: “The original intention of the guidance was to deal with player availability directly affected by Covid cases, resulting in depleted squads that when taken together with injuries, would result in the club being unable to field a team. We do not believe it was the intent to deal with player availability unrelated to covid. We may now be seeing the unintended consequences of this rule. It is important to have clarity and consistency on the application of the rule. Yet again fans have seen their plans disrupted at unacceptably short notice.”

Sources: The Times, Sky, Guardian, The Athletic, iNews, BBC.