Another Manchester United post-mortem as the hour-glass loses more sand

DIEGO SIMEONE sprinted off the pitch and down the tunnel, showered with water, beer and plastic cups. He knew exactly what to expect as his team knocked Manchester United out of the UEFA Champions League. United were disappointing, lacking the intelligence to deal with an Atlético Madrid team that knew exactly how to play their hosts. The Spanish champions made the most of every foul, every hold-up and every niggling challenge and were economical with their energy. 

United enjoyed the greater percentage of possession, as they should have given their home status, but they did very little with it, especially in the second half. Atléti put on a classic two-legged away performance, the type that once characterised such ties in the days before the European Cup became the bloated Champions League.

How much longer can Manchester United remain on this greasy pole of existence? How much more disappointment can fans weened on multiple trophy wins and a stream of star players slotted into the system under Sir Alex, tolerate? The club is fortunate it has legacy fans who believe in the religion that is Manchester United, and a waiting list of eager fans longing to join the throng. Nothing dramatic is going to happen to United, but they desperately don’t want to become a heritage act.

Success is relative, so for United, that is measured by trophies, Champions League success and high-end squads playing a brand of exciting football the club’s reputation and DNA has been built upon. Those days have gone, United enjoyed not one but two long eras where style was allied to success. It has now gone and it will not return in a hurry, because United is now a multi-national sporting institution, owned by people who expect (not unreasonably) some form of financial return. Success has to be engineered to ensure the graph goes in the right direction. 

The “style” that United always saw as a prerequisite, is no longer at the top of the list. Getting back to being title contenders (genuine contenders, not top four candidates), is now the priority. It’s not something that has to be achieved at any cost, United are not about to become a team of cloggers, but that’s why they have hired, in the recent past, Mourinho, Ibrahimovic, Cavani and Ronaldo. There’s no “class of ‘92” situation waiting to revitalise the club, firstly because nobody has the patience to realise it and secondly, coaches come and go rather quickly.

United’s golden age in Europe was not in 1968, 1999 and 2008, even though they won the top European prize in each of those years. Sir Matt Busby spent more than a decade trying to win the competition, Ferguson won it twice in a period when United stood emphatically astride English football. Some say he should have had more success, but 2008, when his United team beat Chelsea on penalties, was really the end of their time as a compelling force. In 2009 and 2011 they reached the final again, to their enormous credit, but they were way behind champions Barcelona. Since then, their record has been very disappointing and setbacks like their Atlético defeat are becoming all too frequent.

United’s decline and Ferguson’s departure are, to some extent, coincidental. But where United went wrong was inadequate planning around his retirement and then in expecting instant results from every appointment. It should be recalled that Ferguson was not an immediate success, he took over in 1986 and it was not until 1990 that he won his first trophy. There is not a top club in existence today that would give a manager that amount of time to get it right.

But it is not as simple as getting the coach right. United have been through a few since 2013 and they are still searching for the holy grail. They have a squad that has cost more than almost every other assembly of players in Europe – the players fielded against Atléti cost over £ 500 million – they have one of the top wage bills, they enjoy 70,000 crowds. They are still Manchester United.

There seems, however, no cohesion and a distinct lack of strategy around transfers and an ongoing erosion of the club’s culture. Hiring veteran players is something a lesser club would entertain, it implies a desperate need to give United a “lift”, a boost to morale. Admittedly, we are talking about big names who have been brilliant, but United are not a club that should be pinning its hopes on faded genius. The attitude of some players has to be questioned, as pointed out by pundits like Roy Keane.

The question is, if people believe the coach(es) are to blame, who do they want to manage the team? The blame doesn’t only rest with the coach, it is also with those employed in identifying new talent for Manchester United and how those players fit into the system. Until they become more rounded, more strategic and joined-up, the frustration will continue for England’s biggest club.

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.

Metropolitano man meets the Mancunian candidates

THE CHAMPIONS League is riveting stuff when it reaches the knockout stage, and while Atlético Madrid versus Manchester United wasn’t a classic encounter, it was a fascinating match.

It helped the atmosphere was intense, loud and intimidating. Atléti fans love their club and engage with the occasion like it is the most important thing on the planet. Sadly, in the dead of night, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine became the biggest talking point of the next morning – football was put very much in its place.

Madrid had been humming to the sound of northern England for around 24 hours as the United faithful jetted in from Manchester and Alicante. They were easily noticeable by their lack of trousers, they wandered about the quaint streets and plazas in their best shorts, goose-bumped and shivering as 20 degrees became three or four. But they were in good voice, generally friendly and took little notice of the heavy police presence. The bars in places like Plaza Mayor did very brisk trade on the eve of the match.

Atléti have their problems at the moment, but United’s fans find it hard to live with the ongoing mediocrity they are struggling to shake-off. But their affection for Cristiano Ronaldo was evident as they sung his praises at every opportunity. The Atléti fans despise CR7, though, remembering his days with fierce rivals Real Madrid. 

Matchday at the Wanda Metropolitano for a big game throws Madrid into turmoil, the roads out to the stadium were gridlocked and some cabbies were reluctant to lend a hand. Nobody can seriously deny t’s a fabulous stadium, but is served by one Metro station, albeit a big one, and the surrounding area disappears into blackness as night falls. The arena was like a beacon, lit-up, futuristic and totally impressive. Amid the deep blue sky, you could hear the feint sound of Manchester United fans from a distance.

Inside, the roominess of the stadium and the quality of the seating made for a comfortable experience, but the noise was deafening and certainly distracting. The design meant that by looking up, the sky provided a black hole with a view to the stars. If the light pollution hadn’t got in the way, the 63,000 fans would have been treated to a natural planetarium.

Atléti’s fans were up for the game, no question. A giant tifo was unfurled, the loyalists held up red, yellow or white placards to create a visual display of allegiance and the club anthem was sung by all and sundry with no small amount of emotion. When the line-ups were announced, CR7 was jeered wholeheartedly. It was obvious he was going to be treated like a panto villain all evening.

Atléti had a lot of recognisable names missing from their starting line-up: Koke, Yannick Carrasco, Luis Suárez and Antoine Griezmann were either injured, suspended or sitting on the bench. United, who went into the game on the back of a 4-2 win at Leeds United, included yet-to-convince Jadon Sancho and at number seven, there was Ronaldo, finely sculptured, frowning and just dying to silence the home supporters.

For a while, it looked as though United had failed to turned up. It took just seven minutes for Atléti to open the scoring, the impressive Renan Lodi crossing and João Félix dived to send his perfect header in off the post. Brazilian international Lodi gave out-of-position Victor Lindelöf a hard time in the first half, leaving United fans puzzled why Ralf Rangnick chose to omit natural right backs in favour of the Swedish centre half.

It was easy to fear for United in the first half as Atléti struck the woodwork through Sime Vrsaljko. Every time they attacked, a goal looked a possibility. In truth, United were fortunate to go in at half-time just a goal down, Atléti’s pressing and refusal to let United rest on the ball was dominating the occasion. Meanwhile, on the touchline, Diego Simeone was like a human semaphore, leaping around, waving his arms, protesting, pointing and shouting. Conversely, Rangnick looked like an academic pondering his next powerpoint presentation. Will these characters be at their respective clubs in 2022-23?

The game changed in the second half and United discovered they could kick Atléti’s players, after all. Ronaldo was anonymous for most of the game, so much so, he scored zero in Marca’s player-ratings. To be fair, he was fouled at every opportunity and his team-mates didn’t seem to be able to find him very often. Atlético might have sewn the game up with a little more ambition, but they got a shock in the 80th minute when United substitute Anthony Elanga scored with a crisp and confident finish after Bruno Fernandes found him with a perfect subtle pass through the defence.

It was quite hard to believe United were now on the brink of a decent result after being second best in the first 45 minutes. They enjoyed more than 65% of possession, but a lack of pace and conviction was their undoing.

The goal triggered off a wave of chanting from the United fans who were perched high in the stadium with banners emphasising the broad appeal of the club – Stoke, Oswestry, Hull and others. Elanga was the subject of the singing, the young Swede providing a vision of a brighter future with a clearer direction, perhaps.

The game ended all-square, which makes the second leg an intriguing prospect, but with just three shots on target between them in the first game, one might have expected better from two of the world’s elite clubs.

Both teams really need to get through to make their seasons worthwhile, so it will be one to watch but it is hard to imagine United finding it easier at Old Trafford. Atlético have made a career out of being awkward opponents.

United’s fans went back to the plaza bars relatively happy, although the journey to the centre was longer than most might have expected. However, it is hard not to have an enjoyable time in Madrid, one of continental Europe’s go-to cities and a genuine football hub.