Manchester United’s worst nightmare unfolded at Old Trafford on Sunday. A 0-5 humbling at the hands of their bitterest rivals Liverpool that only further highlighted the gulf between the two clubs and the starkly opposite directions in which the two giants of English football are currently heading.
Under Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool have already won a Champions League and a Premier League title and are gunning for more. While United, despite notable improvements under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, have no trophy to show for it and appear to be only drifting away from the possibility of winning one this season.
The Reds showed on Monday that they have the better team and despite United’s rich collection of superstars, the Merseysiders can also claim to have the best player. Mohamed Salah became the first opponent player to score a hat-trick at Old Trafford in the Premier League, carrying on his astounding form this season.
This development will be haunting for the United faithful who expected to go toe-to-toe with their rivals and also beat them for star powers after the arrival of Raphael Varane, Jadon Sancho and especially Cristiano Ronaldo.
But these new imports seemed to be weighing heavily on Solskjaer and his team.
On paper, United have the best attack in the league with Ronaldo, Edinson Cavani, Marcus Rashford, Sancho, Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial, Mason Greenwood and Jesse Lingard in their ranks. But scarce resources in central midfield in terms of quality have made it very hard for Solskjaer to strike a balance.
United’s band of attacking riches have delivered goals but have consistently failed to do the dirty work. This has exacerbated their problems in the middle of the park. The Red Devils’ forwards don’t track back enough to help the defence and midfield who regularly find themselves outnumbered on the counter-attack.
United’s problems on the pitch though don’t just stop there. Their pressing numbers are also a sorry sight. The Red Devils are the second-worse team in the Premier League for pressures in the attacking third, a metric that signifies a team’s willingness to press a team high up the pitch and thus stop them from advancing further up the field. It doesn’t guarantee success but in the current scheme of things feels important. Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City all feature among the top five teams for this metric in the league this season.
This is where there have been question marks over the signing of Ronaldo who has shown very little inclination to press. It was one of the reasons Solskjaer decided to sell Romelu Lukaku a few seasons back. So what was the logic for signing a 37-year-old Ronaldo with a similar problem?
Of course, there are huge positives. Ronaldo is probably the greatest goalscorer of all time and beat Lukaku in the Serie A golden boot race last season. He is an icon at Old Trafford and his arrival has lifted the place. He brings in a kind of winning mentality that can rub off on the others. Off the pitch, he can attract massive commercial revenues.
But there are downsides too like his inability to press and his general work rate that has been questioned by many pundits already. Gone are the days when Ronaldo can win games all on his own. Even then, he needed a team who could do his part of the dirty work. At United, he finds similar players surrounding him who need someone else to work for them. So it thus raises question marks on Solskjaer and the board’s thought process behind bringing back Ronaldo. Was it to just stop him from joining an arch-rival?
Ronaldo has certainly added goals but there is little evidence to suggest that he’s made them a better team.
United’s ‘pressing’ problem
Back on the pitch, United’s pressing has not just been lacking in effort but also in direction. Liverpool exposed their disjointed press at will all evening. There didn’t appear to be a pattern to the way United pressed. It was a clear sign that the players didn’t know how to press as a unit and that can only be down to the manager and his coaching staff who have also failed to organise the team on defensive transitions and set-pieces.
All of United’s weaknesses were on show on Sunday, and Liverpool exploited it one by one. Man-to-man there wasn’t much between the two teams but when it’s a contest between a team who have a purpose behind every step they take on a football field and a bunch of players relying on individual brilliance and emotions to win a football match, there’s usually only one winner.
Manchester United as things stand are not just left with a manager who seems suspect with his tactics, but also with an unbalanced squad that is much less than the sum of its parts. United are in a mess, but they’ve been here before.
A historic struggle?
Manchester United are the most successful club in English football. They have 20 Premier League titles, 12 FA Cups and five League Cup crowns. You’d not fall short of calling them perennial winners.
But a look at their history would make you think.
Despite being the English champions a record number of times, only three different managers have won the title with United. Ernest Mangnall who won two first division titles for the Old Trafford club in 1908 and 1911, Sir Matt Busby who led the Red Devils to five league crowns between 1946 to 1971 and Sir Alex Ferguson who famously won a whopping 13 Premier League titles at Old Trafford.
Between these spells, United were inconsistent and were often riddled with mediocrity in the league. There were a few domestic cups that were won along the way but in the league, United blew hot and cold. Just three seasons after Busby left, United were relegated. They were immediately promoted and finished third in the first season back before dropping back to mid-table in the coming seasons.
United went 26 years without a top-flight title which almost matches the duration of the spell that Liverpool recently went without one.
United’s average position in the English top-flight outside the spells of their title-winning managers is 10.35.
Thus looking at the broader history at Old Trafford, United’s struggles after the departure of Ferguson is probably following the expected route. Without the absolute outstanding managers at the helm, United have been mediocre at best. In these periods, they have been a club that have failed to come to terms with the persisting realities of the world football and most importantly the transfer market.
United in the post-Ferguson era have shown these symptoms. The Scot was less of a coach but more of a manager and the brain behind the larger functioning of the football club. In modern football, the roles that Ferguson single-handedly performed have been taken over by specialists. Now, most clubs have head coaches for tactical aspects on the pitch, a director of football that builds a more long-term vision of the club and so on.
After the departure of Ferguson, United have failed to adapt their club structure as per the modern ways and don’t seem any closer to doing so. In these years, the club have grown as a commercial entity that has often been used to paper over the cracks on the football side. United’s recruitment too has catered more to the headlines than needs on the pitch and this season’s transfer activity is partly a proof of that.
Unlike the past when United have collapsed after long, successful dynasties, Ferguson’s stellar work has ensured that the club are a big enough brand and a strong enough institution to not resort back to mediocrity but the Red Devils have so far struggled to shrug off the hangover of his departure and defy their own lopsided history.