| 12.9°C Dublin

going backwards How Old Trafford is fast becoming a wasteground where talented players go to die


Jadon Sancho is one of many Manchester United stars who has yet to improve thus far at Old Trafford. Photo: PA/Reuters

Jadon Sancho is one of many Manchester United stars who has yet to improve thus far at Old Trafford. Photo: PA/Reuters

Jadon Sancho is one of many Manchester United stars who has yet to improve thus far at Old Trafford. Photo: PA/Reuters

The most obvious sign of success for a football club is winning matches. The second clearest sign is improving players. Plainly, both tend to go hand-in-hand. Unfortunately for Manchester United, neither has happened.

Never before has a club spent so much money and at the very best, stood still. And given their stunning levels of spending, it means United have effectively gone backwards.

However much they have tried to convince themselves about ‘re-boots’, ‘projects’ and ‘direction of travel’, there are no tangible signs of progress. Of all their failings the greatest indictment, greater than not winning enough games or trophies, is the inability to improve any of the players they have bought. Not one.

Such sweeping statements are there to be knocked down but, honestly, where is the evidence to the contrary?

The truth is that regardless of who it is, not one is better or more valuable than when they arrived.

The latest hope is Anthony Elanga who has become a project for interim manager Ralf Rangnick. Hopefully, the 19-year-old winger will go on to have an illustrious career at Old Trafford but, maybe, he will be another Adnan Januzaj who was equally championed by David Moyes: a good player but ultimately not good enough for United.

Louis van Gaal promoted Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford, while Jose Mourinho hitched himself to Scott McTominay. But have any of them fulfilled their potential?

There have to be question marks over whether McTominay will ever be quite good enough, and Rashford is a genuine star, but has gone backwards of late. Lingard, meanwhile, has barely featured, playing his best football on loan to West Ham United last season and will leave on a free this summer. All three suffer from the accusation levelled at successive United managers: where is the work invested to improve these players?

The scrutiny on the signings should be even more intense. That is where the real guilt lies and it presents a shocking picture of negligence, mismanagement, and maybe even disinterest and bad coaching.

Let us take United’s 10 most expensive signings of all time. They were all bought since Alex Ferguson retired in 2013 for a collective cost of around £571 million – from Paul Pogba at £89m all the way through to Juan Mata for £40m. Who has improved at United? Not Pogba or Mata, that is for sure. While Harry Maguire, Fred and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, all struggled so badly at Manchester City on Sunday. Likewise Angel Di Maria and Anthony Martial have both now left.

Jadon Sancho has also not improved thus far, although there is still time. The only one for whom a case can be made is Bruno Fernandes, but even his form has nosedived this season, to the extent that he is lucky to be in the team at all.

The question, of course, is why? How can a club have such an appalling hit rate not just on signings but on developing players and on the fundamentals of coaching? It is not just that they are failing to improve them but they are actually getting worse: it is the opposite of exploiting potential. There is a stagnation at the club that is infecting it to its core.

When United signed Wan-Bissaka in 2019, Crystal Palace benchmarked his £50m fee against the similar amount Manchester City paid for their right-back, Kyle Walker, and even argued Wan-Bissaka was more valuable because he was younger.

United, for their part, trumpeted the deal and claimed Wan-Bissaka stood out from a database of 804 right-backs compiled by the club’s 15-strong analytics team. Wan-Bissaka, so the theory went, fitted the profile of a young player, preferably British and, given the way Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wanted his defence to push up, one who was also good at so-called ‘recovery runs’.

Sunday World Newsletter

Sign up for the latest news and updates

This field is required This field is required

And now? Wan-Bissaka is nowhere near being in the top 10 right-backs eligible to play for England, never mind being remotely close to Gareth Southgate’s squad. He was targeted remorselessly by City on Sunday, and with good reason.

So what is going on? United actually appear to have a deluded belief that they bring young players through and improve them.

One reason cited for not hiring Antonio Conte as their manager, after Solskjaer was finally sacked, was because they argued he only wanted “pre-programmed” older players and would marginalise their younger ones. But it just laid bare again that United do not have a coherent strategy.

Who at United has coached? Moyes will claim he did not have time as he battled with the burden of succeeding Ferguson, it is claimed Mourinho did not and it appears Solskjaer could not.

At the same time, when have United made a ‘clever’ signing in the past few years? Where is their equivalent to, for example, the £8m Liverpool paid for Andrew Robertson from Hull City?

There is not one single one. Instead, they have paid top dollar, often way over the odds, for obvious signings which makes their failure to improve them – or even for them to maintain the form that earned them the move – more damning.

It also makes the need for their next manager to be someone who wants to get out on the grass and improve his squad, and take control of the training ground, ever more compelling.

Download the Sunday World app

Now download the free app for all the latest Sunday World News, Crime, Irish Showbiz and Sport. Available on Apple and Android devices

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2021]

Top Videos

Available now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.