On and off the pitch, Man United are a long way off emulating the elite, and it could be a while before they can do so again.
There were many remarkable things about this week’s Champions League action, but one that perhaps went under the radar was the gulf in class between Manchester United and Ajax in their respective ties. While one was sent crashing out of Europe with a whimper, the other was staking its claim as the best side on the continent.
This was notable simply because, when these two met in the Europa League final two years ago, there was no doubting who was the better, stronger team. United dominated the game from start to finish without really impressing. It was like men against boys.
That was the case again on Wednesday night, except this time the rich Premier League side were the timid little schoolboys being taught a lesson by their elder statesman, in this case, the Spanish champions. Barcelona also rarely needed to step out of second gear, with two golazos and a goalkeeping error easing them into a semi-final match-up with Liverpool, while Ajax will face Spurs.
There was a whiff of poetic justice to the whole affair. Ajax, whose wage bill costs a fraction of that of their counterparts at this stage of the competition, have lapped the mighty United, a club who have wasted exorbitant amounts of money in the recent past. There was also a dash of irony in seeing ex-United player Daley Blind — an unspectacular footballer, but a versatile and arguably more competent defender than just about every one in his former club’s backline — play a key role in the win over Juventus.
When it comes to the Dutch team though, one should be wary of succumbing to hot takes. they had no other choice but to go down the route of producing youth talent, giving them the time to blossom and adding cheap, experienced acquisitions such as Blind and Dusan Tadic, as they simply don’t have the means to burn through piles of cash like some clubs do.
In that 2017 finale, Ajax had an average age of just over 20, and this week it was only a smidgen over 24, a very healthy age profile for an ambitious, progressive outfit. Meanwhile, as was pointed out by their critics on Twitter after the 3-0 drubbing, United still have four players from the back five that lost to Basel the night they went out of the Champions League group stages in 2012.
United haven’t reached the semi-finals in eight years, and in the interim plenty of people — David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal, Jose Mourinho, Paul Pogba, Alexis Sanchez, Marouane Fellaini, among others — have taken the blame for their stagnation. As much as this writer has criticised some of those figures in the past for the poor performances on the pitch, they are just symptoms of a bigger flaw in the Red Devils ecosystem. Off the pitch is where the real ire should be directed.
The fault lays at the feet of the Glazer family, executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward and, to a lesser extent, Alex Ferguson. After all, if Fergie had never clashed with his own boss, John Magnier, over the ownership of a damned horse, the club might never have fallen into the hands of the Americans, and they wouldn’t find themselves in the position they are in today. The Scot cannot take the blame for all of the incompetence and bungling at the club since his retirement, however.
Indeed, the post-Ferguson era has been one of tremendous waste and footballing futility. Has any other club in the world spent so much on transfer fees, wages and agents for so little return? In the past five seasons, they have spent just under £600m on new players, yet haven’t been involved in a title race and only have one top-three finish to their name. All the while the club has used an even larger proportion of its ginormous income to service their owners’ debt.
In last 9 years #MUFC have had an incredible £1.6 bln cash: operating activities £1.3 bln plus £318m share issue. £653m has been spent on players and £91m on infrastructure, but £784m used to finance Glazers’ investment: £461m interest, £248m debt repayments & £75m dividends. pic.twitter.com/C78SUxSvY1
— Swiss Ramble (@SwissRamble) September 25, 2018
United are not the only ones to have spent a pretty penny, of course. Manchester City have spent even more money on transfers in that time, while Liverpool have only spent marginally less. The difference is, both have spent wisely, allocating funds to positions that needed strengthening, rather than squandering millions of pounds on past-their-prime star names and vanity ballers for their social media clout.
To put Liverpool’s transformation under Jurgen Klopp into context, the Reds possess just one regular starter (Jordan Henderson) from the infamous ‘slip’ game against Chelsea in 2014 — two whole years after the Basel fixture — and have acted patiently and diligently in their transfer dealings since then. The Reds struck a deal with RB Leipzig an entire year in advance of Naby Keita’s move to Anfield and were willing to wait six months to meet Southampton’s asking price for Virgil van Dijk. Meanwhile United destroyed their wage structure to nab Sanchez last January, which has caused other players to demand a better or a move away, simply because they didn’t want City to have him.
Despite sacking Mourinho in December, United find themselves behind the eight ball once again. The four biggest clubs in Europe have already made big moves ahead of the summer, while there is still no sign of a Director of Football at Old Trafford. Let us not forget, the club openly stated it would not hire a manager until they had found a much needed technical director, and yet Chris Smalling and Phil Jones have been tied down to new deals before that person even has a chance to look at the makeup of the squad.
This does not bode well for the summer, or indeed for next season. During the week Graeme Souness commented that the manager has a “monster job” on his hands, and it might be the most accurate analysis he has ever offered. As the Scot added, there is “no quick fix” to United’s woes.
Whether or not new permanent boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has either the tactical nous or the leadership skills to rekindle their glory days may be a moot point. If the building blocks are not in place to provide a strong foundation, they won’t be capable of competing with the best for years to come, never mind next season.