In the past week, Manchester United announced record revenues of some $771 million and also said that it would be patient with its beleaguered manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Meantime, ESPN FC reported that the club’s owners, the American Glazer family, mall tycoons with no background or demonstrable interest in soccer whatsoever, were happy to write off this and the next two Premier League seasons before expecting a first title since 2013 – which probably has a lot to do with that revenue.
And then, in the teeming rain, the Red Devils had to settle for another dispiriting 1-1 tie with Arsenal, which hasn’t won at Old Trafford since 2006. United has now won just four of 16 games since its great upset of Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League back in March, the high point of the revival under Solskjaer, whose replacement of Jose Mourinho brought a brief respite to the misery in Manchester.
Arsenal’s meek defense was canceled out by United’s paltry attack in a sloppy, messy game that felt like a cheap knockoff of what had once been one of the league’s signature rivalries. Arsenal surrendered 11 goals in seven games this Premier League season; United has now scored just 19 times in its last 21 games.
It was telling for the kind of game it was that NBC’s first-half highlights began in the 42nd minute, when Marcus Rashford stumbled on the ball in a breakaway. On the next play, enabled by Andreas Pereira’s slip, Bukayo Saka and Matteo Guendouzi were both denied by strong saves from United’s David de Gea. And on the brink of half-time, a botched United counter was pulled back for Scott McTominay, who smashed a terrific long shot into the roof of the net, albeit with a minor deflection.
It was a half’s worth of action crammed into about three minutes. The second half was more open, but it, too, produced its only goal on a mistake.
In the 59th minute, United’s defense switched off completely when it just assumed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had been offside before he flipped the ball into the net with a dainty chip. But the Video Assistant Referee revealed that Harry Maguire had kept him onside and the goal stood.
Saka very nearly got a winner on the next attack, but Maguire made amends – or his thigh did, anyway – by deflected the wide-open shot over de Gea’s bad. McTominay missed a wide-open header at the other end, while Marcus Rashford’s injury-time free kick was saved well by Bernd Leno.
The point lifted Arsenal from eighth to fourth place and United from 11th to 10th – back into the top half, if only on goal difference.
But it’s hard to mask at this point how very far United is from being a competitive team. The mere avoidance of a home loss to the Gunners doesn’t mean much. Two seasons ago, Mourinho called his second-place finish with United his greatest managerial achievement. It sounded like typical Mourinho hyperbole. He, after all, was the man who had claimed the treble with Inter Milan, the Champions League with FC Porto and three Premier League titles with Chelsea, which hadn’t won it since 1955. But he may have been right.
In spite of endless investment in the squad – and even more money drained from the club to service the debt the Glazers piled onto United in their hostile takeover – the talent just isn’t there and hasn’t been for years. But United has been rudderless in just about every way since manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013.
There appears to be no philosophy, no policy and no planning. This was apparent in the lack of striking options on Monday. Marcus Rashford was rushed back from injury, as was Paul Pogba, because Anthony Martial was also hurt. And the club offloaded Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez in the summer without signing a replacement.
United knows this. It understands its own shortcomings. Which is why there doesn’t appear to be much internal pressure on Solskjaer just yet. Which is why the executives above him – most notably the bungling Ed Woodward – haven’t been held accountable. Because the ownership doesn’t seem particularly bothered about the mediocrity, so long as those record revenues keep being posted.
There was never so clear a signal that the Glazers don’t understand United and its winning-at-all-costs ethos, and never really did, as when they casually wrote off three seasons in one fell swoop. Until that mindset changes, nothing will really improve at Old Trafford. The decline will not be halted by the attitude that three more seasons of futility is fine.
Things will get worse before they get better at United.
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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