Manchester United’s six-goal dismantling at the hands of their neighbours City last weekend was unqualified proof – if proof were needed – that serious problems still persist for a club that was beginning to believe it was on the right track to improvement.
Prior to their derby disaster, Erik Ten Hag’s new-look side had won four on the bounce and with two of those triumphs coming against fellow top-six fare a suggestion prematurely emerged that United were ‘back’, that the Dutch coach’s mandate was already having a seismic affect on a squad that has consistently under-achieved and under-performed in recent years.
But of course, that is silly. Of course, it’s going to take a good deal of time before we know, one way or the other, whether Ten Hag is a success at Old Trafford. Rome, after all, wasn’t built in a day, and similarly, nearly a decade of shape-shifting, poor decisions and poor buys cannot be remedied in just a few short weeks.
Still, for all that United’s heavy loss highlighted their many shortcomings, there remains positives to be taken from those quartet of victories. The arrival of Christian Eriksen has introduced some much-needed guile and in-game intelligence to the Reds’ midfield. At the back, the combative Lisandro Martine already looks to be a significant upgrade on a broken Harry Maguire and, more so, has quickly formed a decent partnership with Varane.
The purchase of Casemiro meanwhile, bodes well.
In a short period therefore, the ever-serious Ten Hag has unquestionably made some headway into reimagining a squad that was previously toxic and brow-beaten.
Only then you get to his attacking options, and it’s here that all optimism grinds to an immediate halt. It’s here where – if we’re being especially amplified – a crisis looms.
Because it may sound a touch dramatic but unless Man United sign an elite and reliable finisher this January they can wave goodbye to any hopes of landing a top four spot. And if that failure extends to next summer the cycle merely continues.
Marcus Rashford doesn’t cut it as a first-choice front-man, and that blunt assessment holds true even when factoring in a succession of injuries that partly excuses him. In his last 50 appearances for the Red Devils, the 24-year-old has scored just 11 times. That equates to a goal every 3.2 games going all the way back to early 2021.
It’s a ratio that would be considered fine for a mid-table side or below. For a club of United’s standing however, expected to challenge sides containing Harry Kane, Erling Haaland, Mo Salah and now Gabby Jesus, it’s anything but. Then, add in Rashford’s propensity to suffer sustained spells of poor form and he is a squad player at best for a United at their best.
Speaking of sustained dips in form, we come next to Anthony Martial, a wide-man who briefly had us convinced he could be the solution to United’s striker woes. He isn’t. As prone to injury as Rashford, the French international routinely goes missing for chunks of games at a time, which is precisely why he was farmed off to Sevilla last term, scoring precisely no goals.
What then of Ronaldo? Frankly, at this juncture, who cares? The ageing Portuguese megastar is clearly not part of Ten Hag’s plans and will surely be off in the forthcoming transfer window, if only to end a tired soap opera that sees him sulk on the bench each week.
That leaves just Anthony Elanga. A promising kid for sure. A future number nine for Manchester United he is not.
All told, it’s an attacking roster that pales to their immediate rivals and what really perplexes is that it’s a compromise in a crucial area that United have been willing to accept for several seasons now.
Back in January of 2020 they brought Odion Ighalo over from China out of desperate necessity, the former Watford man joining to the derision of rival fans. That though was fine so long as it was an unrepeated nadir with a raft of injuries leaving United in need of a specialist forward. Ighalo was at least a specialist forward. He just wasn’t especially good.
Yet, if that somewhat embarrassing situation starkly illustrated United’s lack of depth up front, the club then bafflingly chose not to do anything about it the following summer, a summer that saw Diogo Jota, Ferran Torres, Callum Wilson, Ollie Watkins and Raphinha all move to the Premier League, further strengthening the attacking options of their peers.
Instead, United chose to wait until the autumn, luring across the creaking bones of Edinson Cavani on a free.
Even more surprisingly, they have since only signed the creaking bones of Cristiano Ronaldo to compliment their forward line and perhaps there is a self-fulfilling prophecy to all of this because without Champions League football they struggle to attract top-class forward fare, but without top-class forward fare they struggle to attain a top four place.
Rather than spending so much of the most recent transfer window chasing the illusive Frankie De Jong, United would have been considerably better served targeting Christopher Nkunku, or Jonathan David, or Ivan Toney, even if it took the kind of outlay they are always perfectly happy to invest on a winger. Alas, the damage has been done now, and Ten Hag must attempt to construct his jigsaw minus a critical missing piece.
This must be rectified sooner, rather than later. Or else United are doomed to misfire for some time yet to come.