A year ago Jose Mourinho's public fury over a lack of transfer activity signified an impending collapse, and when he was eventually fired in December most would have assumed that, by July 2019, things would be looking a little rosier for Manchester United.
Instead, they are staring down the barrel of a disastrous 2019/20 campaign and are arguably in the worst state they have been since Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement. Never mind failing to qualify for the top four, United are in danger of finishing lower in the table than they did under David Moyes.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer won nine points from the final eight matches of the last campaign, a dreadful spell of form that mirrored Mourinho's half-season to reveal the true value of the United squad and Solskjaer's own coaching ability. The winning streak through January and February that earned him the job has proved to be a red herring, the apparent tactical nous – positionally intelligent, narrow possession football – was in reality individual quality from re-energised key players, most notably the criminally under-rated Ander Herrera, whose movement between the lines sewed things together during the purple patch, and Paul Pogba, who scored or assisted 16 goals in that run.
Solskjaer cannot rely on either player this season: Herrera has gone and Pogba wants out, meaning he is highly unlikely to perform with consistency. With Romelu Lukaku also on his way out of the door United are clearly weaker than one year ago both in terms of playing staff and manager; a quick look at the roster for 2019/20 strongly indicates fans will be watching the United that won 34 points from the 26 league matches either side of last year's manager bump – during which, incidentally, United earned eight points more than expected, per understat.com:
If back in 2013 you were told to deliberately tank Manchester United, given six years to do it, but with the caveat that you had to spend net £550 million and nobody could suspect you of trying to destroy the club, you'd struggle to build a team as poor as the current crop of players. And yet £550 million is the genuine cost of the 19/20 squad, testament to Ed Woodward's astonishingly inept handling of the transfer market.
That United are reportedly willing to break the Virgil van Dijk barrier to pay £80 million for Harry Maguire, a solid defender and nothing more, is an embarrassment – not least because it means Woodward is admitting Mourinho was right and he was wrong. The United chief executive has proven himself to be wholly unqualified to manage the club's transfer activity and yet still he carries on, a director of football nowhere in sight.
Total no. games
Win % (all comps)
There is still time to improve the squad but despite Solskjaer's assertion the club are looking at "one or two options" the type of rumours circulating clearly show Woodward will continue to hold United back. Bruno Fernandes and Sean Longstaff have been linked with the club for weeks now, a sign of how leaky United have become and the weakness of Woodward's negotiating skills. We've been here before. It would surprise nobody if United fail to cough up the funds for any of these players.
And a lack of money ought not to be a problem for United, who make almost double that of the next most profitable Premier League club, per Swiss Ramble. The problem, of course, is the Glazers' grotesque ownership – a continually under-reported factor in the club's demise since Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement. Using a loan secured against the club's assets to purchase United and then saddling them with the debt, the Glazers have so far taken out £800 million. They have zero interest in on-field achievement so long as the business is profitable, and since United's revenue streams are only growing it is quite clear that competing for trophies is an irrelevancy to these cold-hearted billionaires. It's no wonder, then, that United as a football club are so aimless: it takes time and effort to organise a coherent strategy like Manchester City.
Perhaps fortunately for the rest of the league, #MUFC have paid a hefty price for the Glazers’ ownership with £0.8 bln of loan and interest payments over the decade. That’s over £500m more than #AFC, though the Gunners have had to shell out £278m for the Emirates mortgage. pic.twitter.com/8m8cxxmorC— Swiss Ramble (@SwissRamble) January 3, 2019
Ordinarily an ominous summer such as this one would only have meant sitting at the bottom of the top six, but United's developing crisis coincides with the creation of a new middle class in the Premier League. Leicester City are the biggest threat; their first 11 is arguably better than Man Utd's, given that Ben Chilwell, Harry Maguire, Wilfried Ndidi, James Maddison, Jamie Vardy, and Youri Tielemans would easily walk into the United team. Wolverhampton Wanderers haven't strengthened much this summer but with a year of experience under their belts will be ready to close the nine-point gap to Solskajer's side, while Everton and West Ham have both made astute – and expensive – signings.
And so Man Utd are in deep trouble. There is no plan and no direction, Solskjaer's yes-man optimism ironically seeming more out of touch with reality – and more indicative of impending doom – than Mourinho's pessimism this time a year ago. When Moyes' United slumped to seventh under a black cloud of bitterness and pain we thought the club had reached rock bottom. As of late July 2019, it looks as though the worst is yet to come.