Eric Baily – £32 million
Henrikh Mkhitaryan – £35 million
Paul Pogba – £89 million!
Zlatan Ibrahimović – Free
With the incredible treble winning team of 2008 either dwindling in ability (Rooney), growing knackered with age (Carrick) or going on to bigger and better things (Ronaldo), the United team post the Fergie years was beginning to look desolate and devoid of actual world beating talent or at the very least looking capable of amounting a title challenge – you know you’re in trouble when Ashley Young is still at the club and Antonio Valencia (A winger!) is your number one right back. Dejected, frustrated and on the brink of questioning their purchase of a United season ticket, “United need to start buying big players again, if we want to continue being a big club”, was the desperate plea resonating loud and clear in recent years from a large majority of the Old Trafford faithful. With one title win in 5 years and United’s presence barely a whisper in the Champions League, fans certainly couldn’t be blamed for considering, based on the meagre showing of late, Old Trafford as The Theatre of Nightmares rather than Dreams.
With pitch fork wielding Red Devil supporters threatening a mutiny, at the beginning of this season, £156 million was the Glazer families jaw dropping attempt at soothing the savage beasts and answering emphatically the doubts of naysayers across Manchester. With the world’s most expensive player in Pogba (£89 million) included in the giant transfer spoils and the recruitment of one of the game’s most enigmatic managers in Jose Mourinho, no one could second guess the owner’s intent on restoring Manchester United to former glories.
However, like happiness, money seemingly can’t buy you wins (unless you’re City or PSG of course) and with 3 losses from 7 games in all competitions, all 3 of those losses coming consecutively, United are certainly a long way away from either happiness or wins. Embarrassingly for United, Watford and Feyenoord were among those losses and rather more bitterly Manchester City could be counted among those disastrous results. United have the most expensive player in the world (Pogba), the most expensive player in history based on cumulative transfers (Ztalan Ibrahimović) and probably the second most expensive manager in the world (Mourinho), yet this season they seem lacklustre, uninspired and very beatable. So what could possibly be the reason or reasons behind United’s latest bad start to the current campaign, despite on paper having their strongest side since Fergie left?
Not enough starts for Marcus Rashford
Fast, tricky and scoring on his every debut; from Premier League and Europa League to International and the Manchester Derby, Rashford has proven himself to be a formidable winger and a goal scoring machine never once intimidated by the big occasion. Yet, despite such an impressive start to his United career and an emphatic introduction to the footballing world, acquiring starts under Mourinho has been as difficult as plucking gold dust from the air for Rashford. It seems the 18-year-old has had to practically move mountains to even catch the eye of Mourinho, but why is that? Well, looking at Jose Mourinho’s recent track record at previous clubs Chelsea, Real Madrid and Inter Milan, it soon becomes apparent that he doesn’t have a history of bleeding young talent from the academies into the first team and then giving them consistent opportunities to play. Mourinho is manager who defiantly likes to import players rather than nurturing home-grown talent. Also, it can be quite embarrassing for a manager to pay £35 million for a player like Mkhitaryan, only then to have a player costing nothing swooping in and capturing all the headlines. Whatever the politics are behind closed doors, on the pitch Rashford is showing again and again that he is a talent to be reckoned with and has the potential to have a big say in United immediate destiny, but only if he actually gets a chance to play that is…
Lack of investment in the centre of defence
Sure the £32 million price tag for Baily can’t be ignored and his proven talent on the pitch can’t either, but for United to have gotten anywhere close to the juggernaut like defensive pairing of Vidic and Ferdinand, Baily needed an equally top drawer partner put alongside him and as we all know his name is not Smalling (or Rojo or any other current United defender). All great sides are built on a strong foundation and the silly goals conceded left, right and centre suggest United’s foundation is made of sand rather than concrete and steel. Before the transfer window slammed shut, the Glazers should have dug further into their deep pockets and brought the two highest (and youngest) calibre defenders currently lighting up the world stage – Marquinhos and Laporte. Tough tackling, great reading of the game and maturity beyond their years, despite being both 22, Laporte and Marquinhos have already demonstrated their huge importance to their respective clubs, Athletic Bilbao and PSG. Each player is remarkably capable of making a stadium swoon with their perfectly well timed interceptions and last ditch tackles and at 22 they can only get better! Buy big or go home. What’s £40 million for Laporte or Marquinhos compared to winning the league? As great as United look going forward, if their defence continues to leak goals in important games the wins will get harder and harder to come by.
Rooney in the wrong position
Long gone are the days Wayne Rooney galloped across the pitch like a prematurely balding stallion, winning balls from deep and scoring overhead kicks against City. As his goal return from the last few seasons would suggest, Rooney isn’t a striker anymore. However, that doesn’t mean he isn’t still an instrumental player to United side, whilst he might not contribute to goal tallies, his ball winning tenacity and surgical long passes can certainly be utilised. In his twilight years, a tiring Rooney belongs in the centre of the pitch influencing play from deep and finally filling the Paul Scholes sized gap still haunting United’s midfield. The only thing of merit Louis van Gall ever did for United was place Rooney in midfield, allowing him to focus on orchestrating play from deep and picking out passes around the pitch like a NFL Quarter Back, without the pressure of dashing into the box to finish off chances. If Mourinho wants to get the best out of his talismanic player, he must then accept the inevitable evolution of Rooney and play him in his right position – the heart of midfield.
Pogba not given enough freedom
Is any footballer worth £90 million? Well, apparently if your Manchester United the answer is yes and they have the cheque to prove it. Paul Pogba started off at United tall, gangly and with bags of potential, yet for whatever reasons Pogba was deemed by Fergie as not good enough to stay at United. Ending up at Juventus, the young Frenchman quickly shook of the disappointment of leaving the biggest club in England and set about establishing himself in the Juve starting line-up. However, with the likes of Pirlo, Vidal and Claudio Marchisio already staking a claim to the coveted midfield position, the prospects appeared bleak for Pogba, but diamonds shine and the tenacious talent eventually fought and scrapped his way into the team. In the few short years at Juve, Pogba had reinvented himself from unproven talent to worlds best – naturally this caught the attention of his former club. £90 million later Pogba finds himself once again in the United midfield and once again failing to make an impact, but it’s not because of a lack of trying or ability, it’s not Pogba’s fault. Played far too deep and away from the cutting edge of the action, excessive defensive responsibilities have left Pogba starved of creative freedom. Pogba isn’t a deep-lying midfielder, if you want one of those bring back Carrick (no, really… Mourinho, bring back Carrick!). The Frenchman needs to be placed right behind Ibrahimović so the pair can linkup and terrify opposition with their sheer size and clever play. Once Pogba is released from the shackles of defensive work, he can finally flourish into the same powerhouse he was at Juve.
The destiny of United’s season seems murky and unpredictable at best; players are in the wrong positions, the defence looks shaky and the results aren’t looking too healthy. Despite this, on paper all the ingredients for a truly formidable team are still at Mourinho’s finger tips, the question remains though, can he put together the right recipe for success?