MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) – Another season, another mess at Manchester United.
On Sunday, the club which prides itself on being one of the biggest global brands in sport was humiliated in a 6-1 home Premier League defeat by Tottenham Hotspur.
Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, sat watching alone in the stand, would surely have considered how an Old Trafford full of spectators would have reacted to such a loss coming near the end of another frustrating transfer window.
Indeed, had he taken one route out of the stadium, he would have had a taste of the frustrations of those fans, with a small group gathered with a banner calling for his resignation and that of the American Glazer family, who own the club.
The protest would not have been a spontaneous reaction from fans, who due to COVID restrictions, were forced to watch the game on television, but almost certainly an expression of deeper, longer-established discontent.
Seven years after Alex Ferguson ended his trophy-laden 26 years in charge at the club with his 13th Premier League title, United are still struggling to get anywhere near the levels they took for granted under the Scotsman.
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal came and went without moving the club forward and Jose Mourinho, now at Spurs, masterminded Sunday’s destruction against the club who sacked him less than two years ago.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer promised a return to the “United way”, bringing through young players and committing to an attacking approach and he certainly boosted the mood of the club after the misery of the late Mourinho period.
But the reason the fans fury is vented at Woodward and not Solskjaer is not just because the Norwegian is a popular former player but because of the club’s repeated failings in the transfer market.
Solskjaer wanted to bring in compatriot Erling Haaland in January, with the striker, rated one of the most exciting young forwards in Europe, reportedly keen to join United.
Yet, somehow, United allowed Borussia Dortmund to snap him up from RB Salzburg and the dream of a young attack with Haaland flanked by Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford was unfulfilled.
Jude Bellingham, a 17-year-old from Birmingham City, was the next major target, the kind of box-to-box midfielder United are lacking, but again he chose to move to Dortmund rather than Salford.
This window has seen United’s well documented pursuit of one of Dortmund’s prize possessions, English winger Jadon Sancho, but with the deadline looming on Monday, there is no sign of a deal.
United have brought in Donny van de Beek from Ajax, who Solskjaer has so far, in the league, restricted to appearances from the bench.
Media reports suggest United are close to acquiring Brazilian left back Alex Telles from Porto and Edinson Cavani, the Uruguayan striker, but a 33-year-old free agent is hardly the kind of signing the fans were expecting.
Mourinho had long tried to persuade Woodward to bring in a top quality central defender and Solskjaer did get Harry Maguire last summer, but he looks badly in need of a quality partner.
United aren’t the first club to struggle to get the players they want but it is an unusual position for them to be in after the years when Ferguson pulled off coup after coup in the market.
Many fans blame Woodward and those sentiments were strengthened by recent comments from former player Patrice Evra who criticised United for sending “lawyers” rather than football people to talk to potential signings.
Former captain Gary Neville, now a pundit for Sky Sports, believes the players are being impacted by the constant struggles in recruitment.
“It’s the psychological damage of Manchester United not bringing the players in that I also think is hampering the players’ thoughts,” he said on Sunday.
“They see Liverpool sign players, they see City sign players, they see Chelsea sign players. The minute Spurs go 2-1 up it’s almost as if all those negative thoughts drain every single little bit of confidence out of them.
“(That is) not right – but that’s what’s happened here. I think ultimately these players at this moment in time felt as though they wanted support,” he said.
Not for the first time, Woodward heads into a deadline day with all eyes on him and with the club back in crisis mode.
Reporting by Simon Evans, editing by Ed Osmond