Jason Burt: 'Forget a transfer strategy, Manchester United need a purge or face slipping outside top six'
The amalgamation of two teams into a “combined XI” may feel like the media equivalent of the half-and-half-scarf, but it can be an effective exercise.
Choosing a composite line-up is obviously a construct, but those constructs can serve to make a point. With that in mind, how many Manchester United players would get into a combined XI of any of the other top six teams? On current form, it is hard to even make a case for any of David De Gea, Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford or the club’s player of the year, Luke Shaw – and certainly not for Romelu Lukaku or Alexis Sanchez or Fred. Arsenal might be the exception, but the team would still be weighted towards their players.
Even more worrying for sixth-placed United is what it looks like when you carry out the same exercise with the three teams immediately below them in the Premier League table.
If you made an XI from United and Wolverhampton Wanderers – after just one season in the top flight – or a team from United and Everton, or from United and Leicester City, then it is hard to argue that they would dominate or be evenly represented. The split is around seven/four in each case and even that feels generous in United’s favour.
Partly that is down to form. But, for example, which of the United players would get into the Wolves defence? Or Leicester’s midfield? Would Shaw displace Lucas Digne at Everton? Can a case be made for Nemanja Matic over Idrissa Gueye?
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer name-checked the challengers below United for a top-six place, never mind trying to gather themselves to make a tilt at the title, as reality bites. Leicester, Everton, Watford, the United manager said, and “probably Newcastle” although that felt like a historic acknowledgement of the force they were when he was a player. Solskjaer, surely, simply forgot to add Wolves to that list.
And that is the scale of it laid bare. United are a club looking over their shoulder; a club who have spent themselves into apparent decline. They finished seventh in the first season after Alex Ferguson retired, 22 points behind champions Manchester City, while, with the league completed, they are one place higher than in 2014 but a million miles away – while every other side in the top six have a cup final to prepare for. United have ended up 32 points behind City – the same number of points they finished ahead of relegated Cardiff City, who completed the humiliation by winning at Old Trafford.
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Since Ferguson stepped down in 2013, United have finished seventh, fourth, fifth, sixth, second and sixth again. The closest they have been, despite being runners-up last season, is 15 points behind the champions.
In the meantime, they have spent, spent and spent again. The highest fee paid under Ferguson was £30.75 million for Dimitar Berbatov. Since then, nine players have been bought for more -and quite a few more for around that figure. Even accounting for inflation in the market, that is a remarkable number, and can any be regarded as an unqualified success?
Then there was the disastrous “swap deal” signing of Sanchez from Arsenal and the £350,000-a-week he earns, which rises to £500,000 with bonuses and image rights and has caused unrest in the dressing room and demands for pay increases. Unsurprisingly, United are keen to offload the 30-year-old. But that would only be the tip of the problem. Rarely have a club of United’s status appeared so in need of a purge rather than a transfer strategy.
“We’ve hit a brick wall,” Solskjaer said and while there is a theory at United, one that has some currency, it does not excuse the consistent underachievement given its investment, wage bill and the profile of the players bought.
That theory is that the squad are mentally as well as physically shot following the taxing two-and-a-half years of working under Jose Mourinho and following on from the stultifying two seasons of Louis van Gaal.
That may be the case, which means that this summer is more important than ever. The lack of apparent coherency is in contrast to those clubs below United, which means there should be genuine fears they will struggle to finish ahead of them next season. Wolves and Leicester are on the rise, while Everton have got their act together and need to back manager Marco Silva and technical director, Marcel Brands.
The competitive advantage of being such a big, rich club is being tossed away on a wave of ruinous deals, confused strategy, populist moves and short-term fixes. Those below them look leaner and more focused and are hunting down United, who have also clumsily overplayed their plan of realigning themselves with their past.
United need a ruthless overhaul because their squad are not fit for purpose – but who is there to carry it out? Solskjaer needs backing otherwise why appoint him? The purge is necessary not just to try and get back into the top four but to hold off those gathering below.
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