What a hotly contested top four this Premier League season is going to see.
Since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure from Manchester United in 2013, we’ve been told that transfer windows, managers, players and money would one day return the Red Devils to the summit of the English and European game.
Nine transfer windows, four managers, 26 players and countless pricey recruits later, Manchester United will end their sixth season post-Ferguson trophyless and outside the top four.
Ed Woodward, David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and the Manchester United hierarchy all deserve their fair share of the blame for the decay of Manchester United’s prestige as a once awe-inspiring footballing juggernaut under Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill’s leadership.
There’s no exact science behind on-field success and off-field prosperity.
It takes time, planning and most importantly a vision to marry a club’s financial and footballing resources.
After all, even if it may remain a pipe dream to replicate the dynastic feats of Bill Shankly, Sir Matt Busby, Brian Clough, Don Revie and Sir Alex Ferguson, the goal must be to remain competitive for a sustained period of time.
However, Ed Woodward must have surely known the scale of the rebuilding job that was at hand in 2013 despite just having been crowned champions for a record 20th time.
Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Alexis Sanchez, Angel Di Maria, Romelu Lukaku, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Marouane Fellaini have all attempted to put their Midas touch on Old Trafford and none have succeeded in steering United back to their former glories.
Despite a second-place finish in 2017/18 as well as three major trophies – the 2016 FA Cup, 2017 League Cup, and 2017 Europa League – since 2013, the same period has seen neighbours Manchester City win three league titles and bitter rivals Liverpool achieve three European finals and their most compelling title challenge in a decade.
The last six years have brought a power shift.
Manchester City were patient in their immaculately planned capture of Pep Guardiola, who has engineered a Barcelona 2.0 project under owner Sheik Mansour and chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak.
City are bearing the fruits of their planning, regardless of financial fair play violations.
Their footballing philosophy and commercial strategy have come together in perfect harmony to build a modern-day giant. The blue half of Manchester is now undeniably the yardstick against which all footballing operations are measured, with City’s financial might and footballing dominance changing the landscape in England, much like the red half did for two decades before that.
Even Liverpool have carefully transformed a once mediocre and uninspiring team into the greatest Reds side of the Premier League era with a measured transfer market approach aiding Jurgen Klopp’s progressive tactics, man management and development of players.
More importantly, there is a clear vision, evidence of planning and a willingness to persevere through hard times even though Klopp has taken two and half years to bring Liverpool to this point.
Klopp may not have survived some of the more ruthless, short sighted and naive regimes at other clubs – and while United don’t fit this description historically, the last few years have begged to differ.
The absence of a coherent plan at Old Trafford is a key factor behind their decline.
The lack of footballing nous underpinning their footballing operations explains the errors in judgment in the market, but murkiness of ambition and identity also hinders their recruitment.
Sir Matt Busby was integral in cultivating a footballing culture of fearless attacking football that produces raw excitement, with the holy trinity of George Best, Bobby Charlton and Dennis Law at the fore.
Sir Alex Ferguson carried on the same traditions and brought sustained success and domination through the marriage of talent and tenacity that became a key pillar in the winning machine that was born in 1990s.
However, despite the initial revival and optimism behind Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s interim appointment, the way United’s season has fallen into ignominy since his permanent appointment has brought a new low, culminating in a defeat to relegated Cardiff on the final day at Old Trafford.
Regardless of whether Solskjaer will be scapegoated for the collective failings of the club, the scary thing is that that United have just about tried everything to rekindle the old magic of yesteryear.
They have already gone down the path of trying to uphold the old virtues of footballing aesthetics and purity under Louis van Gaal, although that appointment disappointed.
They’ve already gone down the path of Ferguson’s hand-picked replacement in David Moyes, a man steeped in English football’s uncompromising traditions but painfully incompetent in his attempts to steer a global brand such as United to success.
They also even engineered the defection of Jose Mourinho to Manchester United in an effort to stymie the slide into mediocrity.
While there are varying opinions on the success of Mourinho’s tenure, it was surely the most turbulent period in a post-Ferguson world with renewed optimism being gradually corroded by rifts in man management, under-performing signings and tactical failures.
Solskjaer’s initial success in getting Old Trafford bouncing again and United playing with a swagger befitting their heritage was impressive in both its highs and duration.
However, this first speed bump has now manifested into a full-blown crisis. The confidence-sapping losses have been unforgivable.
The United hierarchy have had to endure six years of failure since the appointment of Moyes.
A crucial summer awaits, when the question of who leaves is just as important as who arrives, given the embarrassing nature of United’s current ordeals.
However, before the who, United need to do something they seemingly haven’t had to for more than half a decade.
And that is to ask themselves the what, the why and the how.
What are their aspirations? What values will they be preserving from the past?
The why is clear – the answer will always be because we’re Manchester United.
It’s time for a new message to emerge from Solskjaer and the United hierarchy, regardless of what course they take.
Be it a slow, methodical rebuild paying homage to the club’s famous youth academy or a more ambitious goal of challenging for major honours immediately with a clearly defined recruitment policy under a technical director such as Edwin van der Sar.
All that is asked of United fans to the club’s directors and bewildered players is that there is a clear and coherent plan to restore parity with two of their most bitter rivals – because as for now, Liverpool and Manchester City have well and truly left the red half of Manchester behind.