Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 17 November 2019

Manchester United are a team that has lost its soul

United's current woes a result of attitude and application of players and a failure to plan for the long term by the United board

Manchester United's Paul Pogba, left, looks dejected after Sunday's 4-0 defeat to Everton at Goodison Park. Reuters
Manchester United's Paul Pogba, left, looks dejected after Sunday's 4-0 defeat to Everton at Goodison Park. Reuters

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer looked stumped. “I don’t know,” he said. The question was if some of his players care enough to play for Manchester United. His side had just been embarrassed 4-0 by Everton but for Solskjaer, the manager who has practised the doctrine of United exceptionalism, the idea that some of his charges may think this is just another club, albeit a particularly wealthy one, may have been the cruellest blow.

For three months, Solskjaer did a wonderful job of camouflaging failings. They were laid bare at Goodison Park. The newly anointed manager had logic on his side when he said on Friday that United would not make six summer signings; elite clubs rarely get that many fine recruits in one window. It is not merely a matter of identifying players and pursuing them, not just a question of looking at the probable or definite departures – a category that includes Antonio Valencia, Juan Mata and Ander Herrera – and finding successors. While a clearout is required, United have far too many candidates to go and the criteria will be instructive.

Because some of those with the talent may not have the character and vice versa. Take Ashley Young, subjected to disgraceful racist abuse by United supporters on social media. His crime, in part, was to be outclassed by Lionel Messi. Young, however, is one of United’s deserving overachievers, a man who has prolonged his Old Trafford career by reinventing himself as a full-back and playing wherever various managers have asked. He has been a scapegoat in a dreadful month, but is not his attitude that has been found wanting.

United lack a commanding captain – a problem Jose Mourinho compounded by appointing Valencia skipper – and the worthy Young has tried to step into the breach there, too, but there is a vacuum. The sight of the youngsters Diogo Dalot, Scott McTominay and Victor Lindelof leading the apologies to the travelling supporters on Merseyside was telling. Like Young, McTominay cares but, while he was United’s outstanding player over two legs against Barcelona, that does not automatically mean the midfielder is ready to be the cornerstone of the side.

Yet he offers commitment whereas Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku and Anthony Martial, three of the most expensive and gifted, were among the most anaemic at Everton. An ever more error-prone David de Gea may be disillusioned but if his contract stand-off is resolved by his departure, his replacement will probably be inferior.

There are no easy answers, and not merely because Mourinho’s short-termism means United are lumbered with a declining Nemanja Matic and Ed Woodward’s greatest folly means it may be impossible to shift the overpaid, underperforming Alexis Sanchez. With nine players 29 or over, United’s squad profile is not quite right, either. It illustrates how they have failed at long-term planning; incoherent thinking can manifest itself in incoherent performances.

Solskjaer’s innate positivity, his nostalgic belief in what United used to stand for, briefly suggested that recreating a more preferable past was simple. His status as an Old Trafford legend means players cannot be spared blame now. Some have the application, some have the ability, but too few have both. United have become fractured, disunited. Somewhere along the line, amid David Moyes’ painful limitations, Louis van Gaal’s self-defeatingly dull tactics, Mourinho’s toxic negativity, transfer-market missteps and a fixation on fame and money, a side lost its soul.

Their lack of attitude and physical power explain why they have put in far more no-show performances than Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur or Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool in recent years. If United were once defined by winning, Solskjaer’s immediate task in a rebuilding job is to ensure that if at least they lose, it is having given everything.

Updated: April 22, 2019 03:49 PM

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