Premier League: Poor performing players are only part of the Man United problem

Manchester United crashed out of the Champions League on Tuesday night. As John Roycroft points out, the decline at Old Trafford will continue until the club finds the right manager to save them.
Premier League: Poor performing players are only part of the Man United problem

Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic look dejected after the UEFA Champions League round of 16, second leg match against Atletico Madrid at Old Trafford, Manchester. Picture: Martin Rickett/PA Wire

IT'S become a familiar sight this season for Manchester United fans. Progress has been slow but steady to a point. That point is usually a crunch match that defines their season in the slog of the league, or the heat of a winner takes all cup competition. But, as with Tuesday's night of reckoning in the Champions League, United have been found wanting when the crunch bites.

Another season will tick by without silverware, which is bad. But what's worse is the belief among many fans that there is little to indicate a resolution to United's problems anywhere in sight.

In fairness, United were pretty good in part against Atletico Madrid. For most of the first half, it looked like only a matter of time before they would get their opener. But for some quality goalkeeping and a bit of bad luck, they should have probably been two up come the interval.

The second half was not their finest moment. And it's been a theme of United's entire season. Getting a competent performance for an entire match seems to be beyond this side. Forty-five minutes of capable football is the extent of the challenge for these players.

Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone runs off in celebration after beating Man United in the UEFA Champions League at Old Trafford, on Tuesday Picture Martin Rickett/PA Wire
Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone runs off in celebration after beating Man United in the UEFA Champions League at Old Trafford, on Tuesday Picture Martin Rickett/PA Wire

Atletico, in the second half, displayed a masterful performance of the dark arts, as a diplomat might say. Sh**housery, as the fans call it.

Diego Simeone had his Atleti boys, once they got a goal in front, flopping around, running to the corners, crawling to the line during substitutions, and generally playing the referee for a sucker, which the ref was happy to oblige it seemed.

But everyone knows this about Atletico. They play their game, their way, to win no matter what. And Simeone and Atletico have been rewarded to an amazing extent for such tactics.

It was up to United to stop them from getting that goal in front and break them down when they did. Neither of which seemed in the scope of the United players and their manager. But how can this possibly be, considering the money spent on the talent acquired by United?

Sad record

The stats make for rather unbelievable reading: United have won just two Champions League knockout matches since 2011, and there has been no Old Trafford win in the knockout rounds since 2014. In that time, they have scored just one goal at Old Trafford after emerging from the group stages.

Over the past 10 years, United's gross transfer spend has been £1.4 billion, with only Man City and Chelsea spending more.

While the debate on the ethics of oil-state and oligarch financing rages on around us, there is no doubting the spending has brought its rewards in silverware to the teams in blue. United's trophy drought is now over five-years-old, with the Europa League league win under Jose Mourinho in 2017 their last trophy, while the Premier League title wait now ticks into a decade ago.

The expensive mishaps seem all the more glaring when things are going badly, as was the case on Tuesday.

Paul Pogba, United's £89.1 million midfielder, started the club's biggest game of the season on the bench because interim manager Ralf Rangnick doesn't trust him and is probably right to do so.

Manchester United fans cheered when their captain Harry Maguire was substituted in the Champions League exit to Atletico Madrid. Picture Martin Rickett/PA Wire.
Manchester United fans cheered when their captain Harry Maguire was substituted in the Champions League exit to Atletico Madrid. Picture Martin Rickett/PA Wire.

Harry Maguire, the world's most expensive defender at £85 million, was substituted to the cheers of the United fans such has the confidence of the centre back collapsed.

Arron Wan-Bissaka, a £50 million right-back, did not even get off the bench and now seems to be totally ignored by Rangnick.

With things going badly, Rangnick brought on the experience of Marcus Rashford, Nemanja Matic, Edison Cavani and late on Juan Mata to try and save the day. Apart from the small bit played by Mata, in the last 10 minutes, all these big-waged stars looked helpless to rectify the situation and even unsure of their role when they came on. Meanwhile, Ronaldo, fresh from his hat-trick against Spurs, was unable to make the same impact against Atletico. But Tuesday's game was never designed for his skill-set or age. United needed someone hunting down the Atletico players in possession, something Ronaldo can no longer do.

While Atletico are masters of messing with your head, they were nonetheless there for the taking, Simeone's team is some way short of the sides that reached the Champions League final in 2014 and 2016; but once they went ahead, their victory was never in doubt against a team drained of all confidence.

Manchester United manager Ralf Rangnick walks from the field after defeat to Atletico Madrid on Tuesday night. Picture: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
Manchester United manager Ralf Rangnick walks from the field after defeat to Atletico Madrid on Tuesday night. Picture: Martin Rickett/PA Wire

Change

Paul Scholes was doing the analysis for BT at Old Trafford and probably got it right when he pointed out that until United get their act together off the field, then no matter what money they throw at the talent on the field it will not get them anywhere.

Scholes pointed out that this starts with getting the right manager, which he admitted was easier said than done. He noted that it was not until Man City and Liverpool got Guardiola and Klopp respectively, that those two sides got to consistently play at the level that is now above United.

And it's hard to disagree, Rangnick's interim status steadied the ship after Ole Gunnar Solkskjaer. But the players have not really stepped up to the line for a manager who won't be around after May.

Who will then step in to be United's Guardiola or Klopp? That is the £1.4bn question for the Red Devils. As many wistful eyes turn towards an office behind the main stand of a stadium in Paris.

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