Manchester United have finally arrived in Australia and they’ve brought the eyes of the footballing world with them.
Even in their current state of dysfunction, United remain a massive drawcard.
Reports say 21,000 tourists are set to descend on Perth to see the Red Devils take on Perth Glory and English rivals Leeds United in two pre-season games, pumping millions into the local economy.
All this, despite the fact that the club’s star – and arguably best – player, Paul Pogba, is openly agitating for a move away from the club.
Romelu Lukaku, United’s best goalscorer since signing for the club two seasons ago, is another set to move on, despite being a part of the touring squad.
Romelu Lukaku (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)
To add to the club’s woes, ESPN journalist Mark Ogden – usually extremely reliable on all things United – is reporting that players are unhappy with the fitness-first pre-season under manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Off the back of an unsuccessful season – which saw former manager Jose Mourinho sacked, a sixth-placed Premier League finish and no silverware added to the club’s bulging trophy cabinet – this is arguably the lowest United have been as a team and, more importantly, as a club since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013.
For the next week-and-a-half, this soap opera will unfold on Australian shores and its outcomes may offer crucial insights into whether or not anything is likely to change.
For those fans making the trek to Perth from all corners of the world, this may be the last time they see Pogba in a United shirt.
As a United fan myself, I certainly hope it is.
It has become increasingly clear the Frenchman is not the knight in shining armour he was meant to be when he returned to the club from Juventus for a world-record fee in 2015.
It was hoped United’s rebuild would be structured around him, but it is clear that he lacks the temperament, the leadership qualities and the required stomach – even if he certainly does not lack the talent.
It’s clear he no longer wants to play for the club, which means there is little reason to keep him so long as the price is right for his departure.
Pogba is more suited to a team where he would be the final piece of the puzzle – which he would be at Real Madrid or Juventus, his two most likely destinations.
Paul Pogba (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Wherever he ends up, he will find himself in a team environment in which he will no doubt thrive, leaving those with rose-tinted glasses pondering why he was such a relative failure in Manchester.
The answer, truthfully, is that despite Pogba’s struggles for consistent good form, he has still been the club’s best outfield player over the course of his three seasons at the club.
Last season alone, he was the club’s top league-goalscorer, assist-maker, passer and shot-taker.
His ‘failure’ is a symptom of the club’s grander woes.
United lacks any sense of broader strategy, vision or philosophy for what they stand for on the pitch, so long as the club keeps making money off it.
A cursory glance at transfer dealings since the departure of Ferguson betrays as much.
Pogba was preceded by other talented players like Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao who, despite success at other clubs before and after their time at Old Trafford, struggled for the Red Devils.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan has come and gone, Lukaku has tailed off after a promising first season and seems certain to leave, while Alexis Sanchez is the latest big name through the door who has failed to live up to the hype.
The signing of Sanchez, in particular, made little sense. Honestly, it is as though he was signed simply to ensure Manchester City couldn’t sign him.
Alexis Sanchez (AP Photo/Mihaela Bobar)
In doing so, the club blew apart the little semblance of a wage structure it had left, in turn, making contract negotiations with current players such as Ander Herrera – who departed for Paris Saint-Germain for free – and David De Gea, who is now set to become one of the club’s highest earners.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is perhaps the one and only ‘marquee’ signing to have enjoyed any sense of success at United and left with higher stock than what he arrived with.
Last season, Daniel Taylor of The Guardian wrote about the decay of Old Trafford as a stadium – which seems a fitting analogy for what is happening at the club.
When you walk down Sir Matt Busby Way to find The Theatre of Dreams slowly reveal itself among the terrace housing, chippies and pubs which line the street, it still looks as magnificent as ever.
But when you’re inside, the leaks, the tired paint and the quality of play the team displays shows you where United is really at.
Sure, they continue to kick goals off the field – as this pre-season visit to Perth undoubtedly reveals. It seems no matter how low the Red Devils sink, their fans – usually cast as glory hunters – still crave the opportunity to see the club up close and personal.
That is a testament to the true love so many have.
Unfortunately the Glazers, the American owners, and the board they have installed to manage the club do not have similar respect.
Whether or not Solskjaer is the right manager through this sensitive time remains to be seen.
He oversaw a dramatic turn in form during his first ten games in charge, following the sacking of Mourinho, but his high-intensity style and demands of the players took an obvious toll thereafter, with the squad looking concerningly fatigued in the final weeks of the season.
Thus far, his dealings in the transfer market seem to indicate he is after young players who can grow, rather than sugar-hit signings who will be expected to lift an average squad to their level overnight.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka finally addresses a long-running concern at fullback, where for so long wingers such as Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia have been preferred, and Daniel James brings a mix of pace and enthusiasm.
It also seems the gaffer will deploy academy graduates like centre-back Axel Tuanzebe in other areas of need in the team.
United’s next dealings in the transfer market will be largely defined by the futures of Pogba and Lukaku, whether they leave on player-plus-cash deals or for full transfer fees.
Whatever happens, these few days in Perth may just define the next 12 months for the world’s most famous football club.