The summer transfer window has centred around Manchester United’s refusal to bow to Borussia Dortmund’s demands for Jadon Sancho, but if throwing money at the problem was the solution this club would long ago have returned to the top of the domestic game.
The team Ole Gunnar Solskjaer fielded against Tottenham included a centre back that cost £80million and a right-back who cost £45million. They paid £30million for the left-back six years ago and £30million for the other centre back four years ago.
Yet here they were conceding six goals at home to Tottenham in a performance so X-rated it should have been on after the watershed.
United’s problem is not just the money they won’t spend – an understandably cautious approach in this window – but the money they’ve spent over the previous seven years.
A lot of that cash would have been put to better use building a bonfire in the currently deserted Old Trafford car parks. The heat from those pointless banknotes would keep the place warm until Christmas.
United have spent around £1billion on new signings over the last seven seasons to try and build a squad to challenge under four separate managers with four distinct playing styles and ideas.
The current manager is the one with the most sensible long-term ideas, but is also conversely the one with the unproven CV, certainly compared to Jose Mourinho and Louis van Gaal.
United have invested plenty of faith in Solskjaer and there have been positives on the pitch. They made great strides last season but really none of us know if he’s the right man yet. It’s impossible to be sure when his CV only contains success at Molde and failure at Cardiff.
The reality is he wouldn’t be in this job if he hadn’t had the playing career he did at Old Trafford. That doesn’t make him the wrong man, but it certainly doesn’t make him the right man either. At least not yet, anyway.
If Solskjaer doesn’t work out it will be a crushing blow to the club, but he has at least got the right ideas when it comes to recruitment. That is at least something to build on. He has built a longer-term squad than either of his predecessors.
But United wouldn’t be in this position if they’d appointed a sporting director or director of football years ago. While every other major club in Europe has moved to a similar structure they have continued to invest power in the role of the manager and in Ed Woodward.
Unfortunately when that manager fails a good amount of the money they spent has to be written off too. Sooner or later United will have to accept the modern game is leaving them behind if they persist with the current structure, which has zero football knowledge in positions of power above the man sitting in the dugout.
Yet there has been progress under Solskjaer and we shouldn’t lose sight of that. This is a more united club under his stewardship, it’s clear what he wants the team to be and who he wants to build it around. It’s the execution that remains uncertain.
The calamitous defeat to Tottenham summed up United’s current ability to shoot themselves in the foot. It fit with the tragicomedy of the modern Manchester United that on the day they closed on the signing of a left-back and a striker the centre backs played like Punch and Judy.
Harry Maguire and Eric Bailly were awful, especially in the first half, but both are clearly better than they showed. Maguire’s head tennis that set up Tottenham’s first summed up the disastrous nature of some of the defending.
At the moment this United team are like a leaking roof. You fix what you think is the biggest problem then find water gushing in on the other side of the building.
In reality, United were never going to be able to fix every hole in Solskjaer’s squad this summer and it’s understandable centre back hasn’t been a priority when they still have eight of them turning up at Carrington every day.
But as soon as the new-look defensive pairing of Maguire and Bailly had combined to turn an early lead into an early deficit the social media jibes were beginning. Edinson Cavani was trending but most of that was people asking if he could play centre back. You’d think one of the existing eight in the squad could.
The pre-match discussion focused on the decision to bring Bailly in for Victor Lindelof, a decision long overdue for a defence that has never been convincing.
That change was never going to be a panacea though. Bailly wasn’t a regular starter because he’d been as error-prone as he had injury-prone in his four years at the club. His recent form has been good but the mistakes are still there. He switched off to allow Son Heung-min a head start from Harry Kane’s quick free-kick and never recovered. In the end he was lucky not be sent-off.
United’s collection of defenders sum up the shambolic recruitment over recent years. That they have so many and that they still need another says all you need to know. The player who is probably their most natural defender, but lacks in his ability to pass out from the back, has spent two months training on his own and will be desperate to leave for Roma today.
Spending money will help United move back towards the top of the Premier League table and a statement signing such as Jadon Sancho would have capitalised on the momentum they built up last season, but it wouldn’t have been a guarantee of success.
Seven years of mistakes can’t be unpicked overnight. United’s issues are too complex for one big signing to change everything, but positivity has turned into negativity in the space of 10 weeks and right now when the mood swings at United it swings violently. That’s the modern way and the scrutiny will always land on the club that bills itself as the biggest in the world. They need a cool head to cut through the noise and see the bigger picture, like a director of football with a long-term aim in sight.