We’ve got to a point now where a generation of Manchester United fans must wonder what Roy Keane and the other pundits are on about when they say ‘this is Manchester United we’re talking about’, or some such clichéd statement based on decade-old reverence.
There will be teenage Red Devils whose experiences of ‘success’ for their club consists of two domestic cups and a European trophy that they will have been told at the time was beneath them.
Jurrien Timber, Erik ten Hag’s top defensive target this summer, was six years old when United last won the Champions League. Antony, also linked, may just have been old enough to watch the conclusion of that 2008 final – he was eight. If Manchester United are a ‘big club’ to them, hearsay has been the main method of indoctrination.
And perhaps for the first time in the Premier League era, we are seeing United struggle to attract players to the club amid an ongoing battle with their own identity. Their perception of themselves – the club DNA etc etc – is vastly different to how they’re perceived by everyone else.
90min understands that they are close to agreeing a deal for Frankie de Jong, who will be dragged kicking and screaming from Barcelona. “I’m at the biggest club in the world,” De Jong said earlier this month, bemused at the thought of leaving Camp Nou for Old Trafford.
Players used to say that about Manchester United. It may not have been true but at least those players could provide a coherent argument to back up their claim, rather than being laughed out of a press conference as they would be now.
Barcelona aren’t the best in the world either, but La Masia continues to trot out world-class young talent, they’re in the Champions League and they’ve retained their identity. Manchester United, meanwhile, have little going for them other than the promise of paying players far more than they’re worth.
As Richard Arnold said in his David Brent-ian I’m-one-of-the-lads-look-i’ve-got-a-beer pub garden chat with United fans this week, they’ve ‘f***ing burned through £1bn’ on players and have nothing to show for it. And as United are now acutely aware, players lured by money often aren’t players you want to have around.
They’ve always paid players well, but that wasn’t the sole reason for them wanting to move to United. No player should be reticent to join, and only willing to do so to pick up an extraordinary paycheque. Jadon Sancho said he was “coming home” when he finally arrived last summer. On the wages he’s on he must have thrown one hell of a housewarming.
But other players – like De Jong, like Timber, like Darwin Nunez, like presumably many others United have approached and either been snubbed by or forced into a room with Ten Hag and a tactics board – will have seen Sancho’s struggles, along with pretty much every member of that United squad, and think: ‘I’ll take less money for a better chance of success and happiness, thank you very much.’
The football they played, the media leaks, the cliques, Ralf Rangnick’s open criticism of the club, Cristiano Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes flapping their arms in disgust: nothing about last season will have led players to want to join. Everyone looked miserable and no-one wants to be miserable at work, no matter how much they’re being paid.
Ten Hag is a good football manager by most accounts, but he’s inexperienced and used to working with very different players. Those at Ajax are either young and need little motivation to be the best they can be in the knowledge that bigger and better things could be on the horizon, or there are those that have already moved on from bigger and better things and don’t want to take another step down.
Many of the players at United believe they’ve already made it. They’re on silly money and as they will no doubt continue to be told by everyone associated with the club ‘it won’t get better than this.’
And that’s got to be a concern both for the players thinking of joining, who covet glory over a comfortable existence, and for the club, whose goal this summer must be to dilute the squad of whinging layabouts with those hungry for success.
Because fresh blood breeds competition and competition breeds quality and determination. Most of the current United squad are not beyond help. They need a kick up the backside, from the manager but also from those new faces threatening to take their spots in the team.
But they’ve got to be the right new faces, on heads not turned purely by money, to arrest the club’s slide into a haven for footballers whose primary interest isn’t playing, enjoying and winning games of football for Manchester United, but bleeding the club dry.