The All-English line up of Liverpool and Tottenham in the Champions League final and Chelsea and Arsenal in the Europa League final shows two things - how deeply Manchester United have fallen and that a billion pounds in, money still can't buy Manchester City the holy grail of trophies.
For sure the Arab money has skewed the market and the rest of the field has been struggling to compete financially. But then, attention should also be directed towards the brilliant work of Mauricio Pochettino and Daniel Levy in North London. Not a single penny spent in 2 transfer windows. Yet they have a brilliant new Spurs stadium, a Champions League final spot, as also a European night comeback that will shine in perpetuity. They are the ones who challenge Manchester City and Liverpool on a consistent basis in the league. Manchester United meanwhile has been conspicuous by absence in that fight for far too long.
Things have gone so bad since 2013, that the look of sadness on the face of Sir Alex Ferguson in the stands is too much to take. Imagine the pain of the greatest ever club manager on seeing his decades of work being withered away and his philosophies diluted. The great Scot who inspired his team thus
"All those lads you see going to the factory in Trafford Park, they come to watch you on Saturday. They have boring jobs, so you have to give them something they will enjoy.”
It is difficult for a child to fall in love with football by looking at Manchester United play right now. Manchester United still have the high ground of not being propped up by oil money and blatant Financial Fair Play violations. And may they long continue to have it. But, they have also become a banter club, one that has become meme fodder for the unforgiving internet. It will take a lot of things to change for Manchester United to be back in contention domestically at first. As for Europe, it is just a channel away but the gulf is too huge currently. The rot is systemic. It is in desperate need of gentle care but also of a violent purge. Here are 7 issues that are holding Old Trafford back.
When you want to know how things really work, study them when they're coming apart. Manchester United are coming apart. The players have stopped believing. The Red Devils used to be dangerous when coming from behind in a football match.
Lethal in counter, potent in possession. Resolute in defence, free-flowing in mid-field. They had strikers who could assist and captains who would play with a punctured lung. Winning is a habit that the current lot has been weaned off. That’s why open goals are bungled, back passes are fumbled, throw-ins are aimless and corners are brainless.
The psyche is not there to run, win, dribble or dominate. United are always trailing, even when they are ahead. Winning seems an anomaly and tepid performances the norm.
Supporters love their club's players for the personality they display on the pitch. While local talent is present at United, it has been hard for them to break into the first team. The talent from the world over is not Manchester bound either.
At least not the red part of Manchester. Any young footballer will prefer to safely steer away from any interest from a struggling club. Which is why the first team needs a major shake-up. The shirt should be earned; worn by players who bring presence and a fighting attitude. Young kids have personality too. Ajax's captain this season was a 19-year-old Matthijs de Ligt. Cesc Fàbregas bossed the midfield as an 18-year-old for Arsenal.
Reposing faith in the youth works. Rather lose with a young team 'The United Way'. They have plenty of good academy players in Tahith Chong, Mason Greenwood, Angel Gomes, James Garner, Ethan Laird, and Brandon Williams. It will pay off. Sooner than one expects.
What really is the Manchester United Way? Flanks? Wingers? 4-4-2? Well, if you want to pigeon-hole it, it is two wingers, overlapping full-backs and attacking midfielders - but, really, there is far more to it than that. It is a state of mind. A goal should come from anyone and anywhere. It is about multiple options to creatively move the ball. Long and short, up and down, angled and across. Attacks should have a life and purpose. For a neutral, it hard to spot a philosophy that United play with now.
This team is not outrunning its opponents. They lumberingly pass sideways and back. They don't attack in a pack, neither do they trackback to counter a counter attack. What is happening at Carrington is not working quite as well when compared to the new-age, creatively industrious, hard-pressing training regimen at the Etihad Campus, New White Hart Lane or Melwood.
Who is taking the decisions to bring the players to Old Trafford? Is the manager - Ole Gunnar Solskjær truly being backed? Was José Mourinho? Is the coaching staff the finest? Do they have any pulling power with just Europa league to play in? No one seems to have an answer that explains all of this with conviction. There is not one great player from other big clubs who will like to come and link up with this group.
The recruiting at Old Trafford has horribly, terribly, crucially gone wrong. The blame is largely on Ed Woodward who has now had 7 seasons to rebuild. He's committed plenty of mistakes and needs to get it right. It doesn't bode well when the left-back Luke Shaw wins the club player of the year award when the team is leaking goals like it does. That Mourinho finished second in the league with this United squad beggars belief! It is perhaps indeed his greatest achievement.
Playing at Old Trafford for visiting teams was like swimming upstream, now it is a walk in the park. It is 3 points on a platter. The Theatre of Dreams today is a crumbling citadel. The long line of sponsorship deals that the club has is the envy of rival clubs. They help build the financial muscle running in to millions of pounds.
But it is also embarrassing to have 20th Century Fox as film partners when the highlights package has more bloopers than fine skills. The perception of flawed strategy is strengthened when Ander Herrera leaves on a free transfer while players with underwhemling seasons are given contract extensions.
The performances of Ashley Young, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Marcus Rojo, Matteo Darmian, Jesse Lingard, Nemanja Matić, and Alexis Sánchez are not corresponding to their paychecks. Perhaps the players know that someone else’s head will be on the chopping block.
#6 The Glazers
While the other club owners are pumping in petroleum dollars, the Glazers are scooping the money out of the club's profits to pay off their debts. The fans will happily nab club merchandise if they associate it with success.
The colours, the font, the number on the back - it has to mean something, stand for something, otherwise it is just an overpriced article of polyester, mass-produced in the Far East to maintain the illusion of brand equity on the London and New York stock exchange. Unfortunately, the club is being leached by the Glazers and bleached of its identity.
They are displaying remorseless tendencies. They are okay with the status quo and there doesn't seem to be buyout possibility. Even if so, to hope for a benevolent, untainted new owner with a clear vision is too much to ask for. The fall of any great brand starts with the inability to cope with change. United need to be careful about this.
#7 Number Seven
One of the first things the club needs is an inspirational, world-class footballer to carry the expectations of jersey number 7. The jersey has an illustrious story, written by legends who wore it with pride and distinction. It is aching for a worthy successor since Cristiano Ronaldo. The scouts and coaches have not found a number 7.
There has been no wow signing at Manchester United since Robin van Persie. Nothing genuinely inspiring. Juventus was canny with United with the then world record transfer. It was a desperate move, which is already showing signs of diminishing returns.
The success of Ajax, run by Manchester United legend Edwin van der Sar shows what a well-run academy can do. It can instil club values and be the fountain of talent. United needs to probably brand themselves as underdogs and bring in new blood and fight the good fight as Ajax do. Or a generation will fly by without them ever being relevant. The footballing world needs a strong Manchester United and their next great number 7.