Why Man United’s failures should surprise nobody

The biggest surprise about Manchester United this season is that people are actually surprised by the predicament that Erik ten Hag and his team find themselves in.

United are sixth in the Premier League, 11 points behind fourth-placed Aston Villa and eight adrift of Tottenham in fifth — a potential spot into the Champions League depending on how things shake out this season. Having crashed out of Europe by finishing bottom of their UCL group in December, a return to the competition next season looks increasingly unlikely.

When you have a squad stacked with mediocrity and a coach who falls into the same category, United are precisely where they should be. But because they are the biggest and (historically) most-successful team in the biggest league in the world, United’s struggles still leave many bewildered. How can such an illustrious club continue to make a mess of things on the pitch?

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Saturday’s chaotic 1-1 draw at Brentford, when United somehow failed to win despite taking the lead in the sixth minute of stoppage time, epitomised what the team has become. Kristoffer Ajer‘s 99th-minute equaliser was the 13th time this season that United have conceded within 10 minutes of scoring and they now have a goal difference of zero — having scored 40 goals and conceded 40.

It has been one step forward and one step back since last August. Beat Liverpool in the FA Cup quarterfinal before the international break, then labour to a draw at Brentford in the following game — it’s a pattern has been continually repeated.

But what we are seeing with United is the culmination of a lengthy period of flawed recruitment, the taking of easy options and a lack of ruthlessness when making decisions on the personnel within the team. So let’s not be too harsh on Ten Hag and his players because, quite simply, they are largely not good enough to be at Manchester United. The failings are down to those above them, the executives who allowed such an unimpressive squad to be built in the first place.

Co-owners Joel and Avram Glazer, former chief executive Ed Woodward and his successor, Richard Arnold, are the men who oversaw the building of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era since the legendary manager retired in 2013. Sir Jim Ratcliffe and his INEOS team, who are now in control of football operations at the club following the completion of their minority investment in February, are at the very beginning of the process of dismantling that failed structure and building one that can make the club successful again. It will take time and will require the ruthlessness that has not been evident at Old Trafford since Ferguson retired.

In recent years, despite spending huge sums in the transfer market, United have rarely gone for and signed the best. Since the start of the 2019-20 season, only Chelsea (£1.27 billion) have spent more than United (£776.2 million) on new signings, but what do they have to show for it? During that period, United explored moves for Jude Bellingham, Declan Rice and Erling Haaland, but for one reason or another, ended up instead with Donny van de Beek (Bellingham), Casemiro (Rice) and Odion Ighalo (Haaland).

Last summer, when Harry Kane made it clear that he would be leaving Tottenham, United chose not to pursue arguably the world’s best striker for a fee of around £88m and instead made a £72m move for the unproven potential of Atalanta’s then-20-year-old Rasmus Højlund.

It has been a similar pattern over the years. Jose Mourinho expressed an interest in signing Virgil van Dijk from Southampton in 2017, but United instead signed Victor Lindelöf. In 2019, Woodward boasted that United signed Aaron Wan-Bissaka for £50m after analysing 804 — yes, that’s not a misprint — right-backs before contemplating a deal for the Crystal Palace defender. In the same summer, Manchester City quietly signed the more versatile and impressive João Cancelo from Juventus for around £60m.

There have been other costly misjudgements. Casemiro (£60m) and Raphaël Varane (£34m) were signed on huge contracts from Real Madrid despite both players having their best years in the rearview mirror at the Santiago Bernabeu, while Mason Mount was signed from Chelsea for £55m last summer despite having no obvious role in the team.



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And in the manager’s seat, too, United have gone for the wrong man at the wrong time. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was given a permanent contract in 2019, despite the club initially wanting Mauricio Pochettino. But Solskjaer had started well as a caretaker-manager following Mourinho’s exit and it was easier — and cheaper — to hand him the reins rather than attempt to prise Pochettino from Spurs. And when Ten Hag arrived in 2022, Pochettino was again overlooked in favour of a coach who, despite a winning record with Ajax in the Netherlands, had never been tested in one of Europe’s major leagues.

All of those bad calls have led to mediocrity and that’s where United find themselves now.

Take a look at the Premier League player stats and there are no United representatives in the top 10 of goal scorers, assist creators or passes. Højlund, in 27th place with seven goals, is the highest United player in the goal-scorer charts, while Bruno Fernandes is 21st in the assists table with six. Fernandes is also the club’s highest in the passes ranking at 25th, with 1,511.

United are nowhere near the top in any of those categories. Just as in the league table, they are treading water in the middle of nowhere.

Despite so many years of failure, they have a squad of players who have survived at one of the world’s biggest clubs having done little to justify their longevity. Luke Shaw (2014), Anthony Martial (2015), Lindelof (2017), Diogo Dalot (2018), Harry Maguire (2019), and Wan-Bissaka (2019) are all still at the club despite none being at the level required for a team of United’s stature. And according to Transfermarkt, United are top of the Premier League table when it comes to the average length of time — 1,539 days — a player spends at the club.

Liverpool and Man City have won countless major honours in recent years and both have moved players on much more quickly and ruthlessly than United, who have allowed themselves to create a comfort zone at Old Trafford.

So the next time you are surprised by Manchester United’s recurring failures, just look at the squad and the manager. United are where they should be and they only have themselves to blame.


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