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What is success?
If you’re Manchester United, that is both a philosophical question and a pressing one. Because after seven years in the wilderness, seven years since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, the Red Devils remain lost. They have no more than an FA Cup, a League Cup and a Europa League to show for their efforts.
United won the Premier League five times in Ferguson’s final seven seasons and 13 times in his last 21 campaigns, never finishing lower than third. Since then, they have placed seventh, fourth, fifth, sixth, second, sixth and third, respectively.
In Ferguson’s last seven seasons, United averaged 87 points per season. In the seven seasons since, the Red Devils averaged a mere 68.8 points, a number lifted by the 81-point haul in 2017-18.
Yet the club’s eight most expensive signings all happened during that same stretch of futility. Of the 25 highest transfer fees, all but five were consummated after Ferguson’s retirement.
United, in other words, is spending more money than ever, and getting far less for it in return. What’s more, it has splashed so much money on a few choice, high-risk investments that it is stuck with a half-dozen albatross contracts so steep as to render those players both immovable and unsuited to the first team. Only when those have been unloaded, somehow, to an unenthusiastic market, can more new signings be made by one of the world’s richest clubs. That’s why Donny van de Beek is the lone summer arrival, from Ajax, and Borussia Dortmund and England prodigy Jadon Sancho remains prohibitively expensive.
So where does that leave United? Is it a team that can build on its 14-game unbeaten run to finish the 2019-20 league season, climbing from seventh to third along the way? Is it a team that is but a player or two and a deft managerial hand away from competing with archrivals Liverpool and Manchester City for the title? Or is it just ragtag band of overpriced and overpaid players, with a manager in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who remains out of his depth in spite of the occasional hot streak?
As anything with United, you can see the same things in different ways. Its American ownership has drained hundreds of millions of pounds from the club to service the enormous debt it took on in the leveraged hostile takeover. But United has also had a massive transfer budget just about every year, making Paul Pogba the world’s most expensive player for a spell.
United is a team of contradictions.
Pogba seemed to be checking out last season, spending longer rehabbing injuries than anybody thought reasonable, only to become one of its best players down the stretch. Bruno Fernandes, the January panic-buy and one of the rare mega-transfers to have worked out, seemed incompatible with Pogba yet formed a formidable pairing with him. Now they are joined by van de Beek, yet another attacking central midfielder.
The defense is improved, but then its central piece, captain Harry Maguire, was arrested in Greece over the summer and convicted of assault and attempted bribery of a police officer.
The striker corps looks as talented as it has in years, but Marcus Rashford missed four and a half months due to back injuries last season, which has been blamed on overuse and could prove chronic. Prodigy Mason Greenwood was sent home this week by England manager Gareth Southgate after making his national team debut for violating coronavirus protocols.
For every bit of good news, there is bad news in equal measure to offset it. Everything about this team can be cast through a positive and a negative lens without it being unfair.
After years of looking shorn of talent and confidence, this United team will bounce through the short offseason and preseason with new vigor and belief. Yet its rivals are also stronger than ever. City and Liverpool have strung together a series of record-setting campaigns and don’t look at all weakened. If this could be United’s best team in the post-Ferguson era, its timing might be all wrong as well. Because nothing has ever been easy since Ferguson vacated his post.
Manchester United is a glass that is both half-full and half-empty. This Manchester United is a Rorschach test.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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