Manchester United begin the new season with much of their customary hope dashed by repeated failures since the departure of Alex Ferguson.
When Ferguson stepped down in 2013 we can see that retrospectively the club made a huge error in replacing him with a manager out of his depth. David Moyes has since shown – twice – at West Ham that he is a capable coach able to punch above his weight a little lower down the table, but he did not have the nous to slot into one of the most demanding jobs in football.
Compounding his problems was the arrival of a sole signing that summer, Marouane Fellaini, and another he didn’t ask for, Juan Mata in January. Both may have had lengthy careers at Old Trafford but given Moyes had arrived expecting Cesc Fabregas and Gareth Bale, it was a huge drop-off. The person responsible for that was Ed Woodward, above anyone else.
The rest of Woodward’s time in charge was a similar blight.
Louis van Gaal arrived, secured the top-four finish required, and was told Sergio Ramos was on his way. Jose Mourinho finished second, won the Europa League, and was told Toby Alderweireld was on his way. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer did not have the requisite experience to demand what was required from the board.
Each of these managers had plenty of their own faults, but after a near-decade of failure, the buck should have stopped with Woodward many years ago.
Now he is replaced, with Richard Arnold filling the void. In truth his reputation does not promise much better, but he is not going anywhere else soon. It is fair to say that his chances of success, as well as his current coach, Erik ten Hag, rests in large part on the next few weeks.
So far the activity in the transfer market has been barely good enough. Paul Pogba may well boast far more technical talent than Christian Eriksen but it would be a huge surprise if the Dane is not a more regular contributor. At Spurs and then Brentford he showed that his ability in the Premier League surpasses that of the currently injured French international. The only doubt over his potential to succeed must be the enduring question over his health.
Further back, there are questions. 5’9” Lisandro Martinez is short. Darwin Nunez showed in the Community Shield just what a powerful, tall and talented striker can do to even the better defences in the league, and Erling Haaland showed the same last year in the Bundesliga, if not last weekend at the King Power Stadium.
Martinez does not necessarily want for aptitude. He impressed consistently for Ajax and is an Argentine international, and he is able to play at left-back, centre-back and in defensive midfield. There could be an excellent player there yet, but until he shows that regularly, the sceptic has to merely hope that he will perform better than Harry Maguire or Luke Shaw.
A more likely competitor for Shaw is Tyrell Malacia, the young full-back brought in from Feyenoord. He could grow into an exceptional and durable option for the club, but there is nothing yet to suggest he demands a regular first-team place until he proves otherwise. This is where United are now, taking gambles from tips from their new manager, all while failing to actually back him by buying his number one target.
Now, that might seem unfair. Barcelona do not appear desperate to sell Frenkie de Jong specifically, but they do need to raise money. The player, however, specifically does not want to leave, does not want to give up his deferred wages or chance to play Champions League football, and does not want to move to Manchester United. That is probably an insurmountable challenge for even the best negotiator.
It is not the first time that United have stalled over their priority signing. And this is perhaps where their chances for the year ahead will be decided. If not De Jong, who?
United have three or four weeks to find a midfielder who can outplay Scott McTominay and Fred, who is able to pass the ball quickly and constructively, is not susceptible to injury, has the technical ability to foment attacks and defensive awareness to screen a vulnerable back four. He has to be affordable, easy to buy, not too old, and content to miss out on Europe’s premier continental competition in a World Cup year. Or they need a right winger who can do something Anthony Martial, Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford have failed to do so far: improve over the course of a season at United. Or they need a striker who can score 20 goals a season while possessing the fitness to work for the team and the passing range to create chances too. One or more of these players is needed to arrest United’s decline, all while they have Ten Hag overhauling their technical approach and bringing their stamina levels up to match their peers. And all the while waiting to find out if Cristiano Ronaldo stays.