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28 Jun 2022, Edition - 2541, Tuesday

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Manchester United’s shambolic investments lack a grand design

The Guardian


he problem with modern European football is how stratified it has become. With resources now divided so unequally, how, realistically, are the lesser sides in the group stage supposed to compete when playing the elite? Little wonder then, that plucky Manchester United, the poorest little richest club in the world, were so thoroughly outclassed by Juventus at Old Trafford on Tuesday.

What’s a José Mourinho to do? As he pointed out post-match, Juventus have lots of good players. He spoked of “amazing Chiellini” and “amazing Bonucci”. That’s Giorgio Chiellini, bought for £4m in 2005, and Leonardo Bonucci, initially signed for £14m in 2010, although having been sold to Milan to for £37m in 2017, he was brought back in the summer as part of a swap deal for a notional value of £31m. That’s a net transfer cost of £12m for the pair. That’s an awful lot of bottles of You-C1000, even in the vibrant Indonesian isotonic drinks market. Little wonder United cannot compete, and are reduced to spending £60m on Victor Lindelöf and Eric Bailly.

Or take Cristiano Ronaldo. For all the talk surrounding him and a return to United in the summer, there was no way that Ed Woodward was going to sanction a £103m deal for a 33-year-old. All the financial services in Kenya, Ghana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Uganda and Tanzania conducted through AFB couldn’t pay for that. Although they did help pay for Romelu Lukaku, brought in for £75m plus a further potential £15m in add-ons, in 2017. Mourinho seems to have decided the Belgian is so valuable he’s not to be risked in match situations, and so stations him far away from the rest of the side, high up the pitch where he’s less likely to be involved in the actual action.

Or there’s Rodrigo Bentancur, the clever, tough Uruguayan who controlled Tuesday’s game from the back of midfield. Brought in from Boca Juniors for £8m in 2017, he was never within United’s budget.

Sbenu might sell a lot of casual footwear but South Koreans aren’t millipedes – they only have one pair of feet each. And so they were reduced to the bargain basement bucket of Paul Pogba, still the most expensive midfielder in the world at £89.3m.

Absurd though Mourinho’s protestations that United cannot compete might have been, though, beneath his bluster there is the kernel of a point. As he wagged three fingers in the vague direction of the Juventus fans, you wondered exactly what point he was making. Mourinho has a lot of three-fingered gestures. Was he reminding them of the three trophies he won (if you count the Community Shield – and he does) in his first season at Old Trafford, or of the three league titles he won at Chelsea, or of the treble he won as Inter manager? Or was he reminding everybody that United only signed three players in the summer – Fred, Diogo Dalot and Lee Grant – none of whom played against Juventus?

But the point, really, is less the lack of investment last summer, unhelpful though that undoubtedly was, and large though that fact clearly looms in Mourinho’s mind. It is the shambolically bad investment since Sir Alex Ferguson left the club in 2013. Old Trafford has been allowed to fall shabby, something that is as true of the scouting as it is of the facilities for fans as it is of the wifi (as Paul Pogba found to his cost during the defeat to Derby) as it is of the squad.

It’s not necessarily the amount that’s been spent as where it’s been spent. What’s the philosophy behind this squad? There are expensive bits here and there, the occasional eccentric extension, but no grand design behind it. In his third season at the club, Mourinho must take some responsibility for that, but only some.

Whether he is getting the best out of what he has is another issue altogether. United were again astonishingly passive, allowing Juve 71% possession in the first half, sitting off and watching them play. Paulo Dybala, dropping deep from a centre-forward position, caused constant problems, with Lindelöf and Nemanja Matic seemingly unable to work out who should pick him up, an issue that led directly to the goal.

Although it was only 1-0, Juve could easily have been two or three up before United, forced, as they had been against Newcastle and Chelsea, to chase the game, finally began to pose at least some threat. Perhaps to play with that level of purpose from the start would leave them too ragged over a full 90 minutes, but the current tentativeness isn’t working either.

And sooner or later that is going to have an impact on the one aspect of the club that is going well. How long, after all, will the customers of Banif Bank in Malta or BIDV in Vietnam be happy to do their business in the name of a team that has won only one of its last seven games?

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