It has now been exactly two years, nine months and one week since Manchester United last won a trophy, excepting the oversized 50 pence piece otherwise known as the Community Shield.
In the grand scheme of things, that is but five minutes in the club’s long and largely prestigious history. For those who lived through United’s dominance of the 1990s and 2000s under Sir Alex Ferguson, however, it feels like a lifetime.
Although turbulence was expected, few anticipated the legendary Scot’s retirement would have such a debasing effect on a club he left at the pinnacle of the Premier League and cemented into Europe’s elite.
They’re now on course to finish outside of the top four for the second time in three years, are trophy-less since April 2014 and have been absent from the Champions League’s knockout stages for over 18 months.
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Safe to say, the club is not surviving the post-Ferguson era with particular grace. At the moment, United aren’t even treading water; the current is slowly but surely pulling them under the surface, down towards top six ambiguity. Manchester United, in a nutshell, are becoming the next Liverpool.
When David James signed for Liverpool in 1992, his first game was the 50-pence play-off against Leeds United. They lost 4-3, but the bus driver reassured him on the drive back to Merseyside; “Don’t worry, lad. We go to Wembley at least once a season here.” In the next seven years, the Reds reached Wembley just twice – winning the 1995 League Cup and losing the 1996 FA Cup final.
It was a miraculous and unimaginable fall from grace for a club that had won everything there is to win on multiple occasions during the two decades prior, but it was not inexplicable. As money from the newly-created Premier League poured in and the game rapidly revolutionised, Liverpool were the giants left behind.
Of course, this week brought news that Manchester United are expected to overtake Barcelona and Real Madrid as the world’s richest club by the time 2017 comes around. In theory, they’ll have the financial firepower to sign pretty much any player in world football and appoint any manager they desire. But money can’t buy you everything and once again, the Premier League is amid a metamorphosis.
Leicester City’s meteoric rise this season should be enough evidence for anybody. To dub it simply a miracle would be superficial and short-sighted; the Foxes are riding the wave of a developing trend that also includes Crystal Palace, Stoke City, Southampton and West Ham.
The Premier League is getting tougher and transfer budgets are now double – or in some cases even greater – of what La Liga, Serie A and Bundesliga counterparts are privy to. In summary, the Premier League’s rank and file are coming to claim their revenge and to quote Bob Dylan, the order is rapidly fading.
That process will surely only further accelerate once the new TV Deal – which sees Premier League clubs pocket around double what they did before – comes into effect next season.
Unquestionably, Manchester United will benefit too. But there are other signs the club is steadily moving backwards, starting with their youth academy.
Once the institution that conceived the almost mythical Class of ’92, the Red Devils most exciting current youth product is Adnan Januzaj, who spent the first half of the season wallowing in the reserves at Borussia Dortmund. The majority of those to emerge during the intermittent period, the likes of Kieran Richardson, Ryan Shawcross, Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley, have all failed to make the first team grade at Old Trafford.
City, meanwhile, have spent £200million on a new training complex and Chelsea have become the academy kings of the south. United are planning a major youth overhaul but right now, they have some catching up to do.
Likewise, scatter-gun spending and Louis van Gaal’s philosophy has left United driving in reverse.
United have now splashed out £250million during the Dutchman’s four transfer windows at Old Trafford yet the quality of player is drastically lesser than during the final few years of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign. Bizarrely, the Red Devils’ approach in the market appears to be quite simply, grab any half decent talent they can get their hands on without rhyme or reason.
They’re creating a new generation of Spice Boys, inevitably unable to live up to the reputations of their predecessors, at unprecedented cost.
Similarly, the much-maligned van Gaal philosophy, although initially necessary to distance the club from the Ferguson era, is shockingly outdated. It’s possession-based football pre-Pep Guardiola and probably should have been left back with LVG’s Champions League-winning 1994 Ajax side. Quick-paced counter-attacking has become arguably more important than ever in the modern game – just look at Barcelona’s front three – yet United’s current style of play actively forbids it.
Of course, United declining in the same manner and to the same level of their northwest rivals is by no means inevitable. They are still one of the most prestigious clubs in world football with one of the largest global fan bases and as previously mentioned, are set to become the richest club on the planet.
But they are failing to keep up with modern practices – Old Trafford is still one of the only Premier League grounds not to have a screen – and as the English top flight continues to evolve at incredible speed, they’re now in real danger of being left behind. There must be a change at the club before next season, starting with the two men at the top – King Louis and Prince Woodward.