The events of the last few days will have only emphasised that. United first had to endure their local rivals win a domestic treble, and then their greatest rivals win football’s most prestigious trophy, one so associated with Old Trafford’s two great patriarchs in Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson. It’s maybe just as well the latter was this time not at the final to watch Liverpool bring reclaim a place at the top of the game by winning the Champions League, given how much he used to growl about his club always staying on top of both.
Ferguson, however, would not have dwelt on such feelings too long. By contrast, what marked his career apart was how quickly he registered the reasons his teams had fallen behind, so they could react to them and streak ahead.
The reasons in this case are obvious. They are all the more relevant to United since it is less than four years since Liverpool were as adrift as they are now. The Anfield club have so quickly returned to the very top through the most intelligent infrastructure and most sophisticated recruitment. This is the legacy of their Champions League victory. This is the lesson.
How quickly things turn around, indeed... so long as you display sufficient speed of thought, and action. The wonder is whether there is currently any one of influence at United to now register this.
Painful as it is for Old Trafford, Liverpool have shown the way forward in the modern game. United, however, are still enduring the same old problems.
In what is supposed to be yet another summer overhaul, they have not yet signed a single player, and sources say they are currently struggling on a fair few deals. Worse, and as Jose Mourinho and his predecessors could lament, they are having greater problems moving anyone on.
The need to get rid of between five and nine players is only feeding into this usual fudge.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and the club have obviously long wanted a leading centre-half, but hopes there are fading. Matthijs de Ligt would naturally represent a coup but United know that, no matter how much money they’d throw at him, they are far behind Barcelona. Against that, the club are currently unwilling to stump up the £80m necessary for Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly.
If that doesn’t change, they could go another window without signing a centre-half deemed by many to be essential. Sources say Solskjaer is already considering giving Eric Bailly another chance, and Axel Tuanzebe is likely to be afforded many more opportunities for first-team football after his successful loan at Aston Villa. To the right, United are similarly struggling to get close to any kind of a deal for Crystal Palace’s Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward has long been keen on Tottenham Hotspur’s Kieran Trippier, although his stock has fallen along with his place in the England squad, and a potential compromise is Paris Saint-Germain’s Thomas Meunier.
It is further forward, however, where most of the issues are summed up.
United’s primary target had long been Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho, but he and his camp now have serious reservations about moving him to a team in that state. It isn’t seen as the best for his development.
It is a huge reason why Pogba ultimately wants to go, and there is a strong argument there, even if there is fair debate about the French midfielder’s own contribution. He doesn’t feel the side is close to a title challenge any time soon.
When one figure who works at Barcelona in a senior capacity was told of the rumours United could beat the Spanish champions to De Ligt, they reacted in utter bemusement.
“With the state they’re in, it’s not far off picking the Chinese league, career-wise. It’d be sacrificing development and ambition for money in the same way.”
That view is from a vested interest, and obviously exaggerated, but touches on a problem.
Many in the game are now really wondering about United’s long-term ability to construct the kind of statement team befitting their status.
The solution to this should be obvious. They should seek to look at what clubs like Liverpool – and Manchester City – have done, and implement even more modern versions of those. They should implement the most sophisticated data systems.
United do want to change their football structure, but the reported plans really just pale next to what the rest of the top clubs are doing.
The most commonly repeated idea is that there would be a committee of former players – with those such as Rio Ferdinand and Darren Fletcher mentioned – feeding into a technical director, who would then make recommendations to head of corporate development Matt Judge, and Woodward.
Some feel that is still too dependent on Woodward’s personal judgement.
Others believe that this side of the job still appeals to Woodward himself too much to change, that he enjoys being involved in the football side.
The problem is that it has led to a situation that no one connected to United can enjoy: the supremacy of their most bitter rivals, while they continue to struggle, and drift.
If that lesson doesn’t cause the club to have a clear think about all this, what would? What would it take for the penny to drop?
United’s ability to drops hundreds of millions of pounds means they still will get stars. Antoine Griezmann hasn’t been ruled out by those close to the player, and any Pogba or Romelu Lukaku deal could yet see players like Paolo Dybala or Mauro Icardi come other way.
The last few years, and last month, have however emphasised that the top clubs need a lot more than individual deals for top names.
They need a collective plan and a philosophy, that are forged by the most intelligent of football thinking.
That can very quickly bring a team up the right level. Has this actually sunk in for United, though?
The last month was the club’s worst nightmare. And yet all indications are it might yet get even worse than that, before it gets better.
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