By Simon Evans
MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) – Manchester United’s owners pride themselves on their club being the biggest brand in world football, a global product with millions of followers worldwide. But for how long will that boast last?
For after Sunday’s 3-1 defeat at Liverpool, they must surely be aware that there is only so much failure a brand can endure before it begins to be seriously tarnished.
The rivalry with Liverpool runs deep at United, resonating far beyond England’s north-west. These matches are occasions which connect with the club’s history, where passion and pride take centre stage.
Yet United looked a mediocre, mid-table side as they were quite outclassed. Now, they are 19 points behind Premier League leaders Liverpool, the Merseysiders’ biggest advantage over United after 17 games of a top-flight season.
But the numbers, while alarming enough for United supporters, do not paint the full picture of the vast gulf between the two teams.
Under Juergen Klopp, last season’s Champions League finallists Liverpool are playing a thrilling brand of high-speed, entertaining, positive football, executed by some of the game’s most exciting talents. Like the United of old, indeed.
Jose Mourinho’s prosaic, sixth-placed United, in contrast, are 11 points adrift of fourth place so that even qualification for next season’s Champions League looks an outside chance at best.
They have not even been close to winning the title since their last triumph in 2013 and few of the club’s fans disagree with former captain Gary Neville’s verdict that the club need a “reset”.
So, when do the Glazer family, the club’s American owners, press that reset button? And how exactly will they then attempt to turn around the fortunes of the record 20-times English champions.
After Sunday’s game, Mourinho effectively conceded his team lacked the qualities, particularly the “physicality”, needed to compete with Liverpool.
Roy Keane, another former captain from United’s dazzling years under Alex Ferguson, told Sky Sports: “Obviously we look at the badges, we look at the history … but some of these players just aren’t good enough for Man United.”
Is that true, though? Some United players, after all, have proved themselves with other clubs and on the international stage.
Like Paul Pogba, an outstanding World Cup winner with France, who was on the bench at Anfield on Sunday — the third straight game that Mourinho has sidelined him.
Pogba’s form this season may justify Mourinho’s decision but the midfield replacements can hardly claim to have pushed him out by the quality of their own performances.
“I can’t get over United’s central midfield. If you’re Paul Pogba watching (Nemanja) Matic, (Ander) Herrera, (Marouane) Fellaini, Fred, who played the other night … not one of them can pass a football,” said Neville.
“None of them can actually receive the ball and pass the ball. I just find it absolutely staggering.”
Added to that lack of midfield creativity and class, United have problems at the back, an area where Mourinho teams have traditionally been strong.
The manager has bemoaned the failure of United’s chief executive Ed Woodward to sign a central defender in the summer but Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly, the unconvincing pair on duty at Anfield, were both Mourinho signings.
Which raises the key question of whether the board will trust Mourinho to carry out any ‘reset’.
Major signings Pogba and Alexis Sanchez have failed to live up to expectations while £75 million ($94.64 million) forward Romelu Lukaku has been underwhelming.
A new spine for United, with a top central defender, midfield playmaker and quality striker, would cost at least £200 million.
A full clear-out of those players Keane describes as not up to scratch and their replacement with superior talent could at least double that outlay, although there would be revenue to be gained from selling.
Yet this is work, not for the notoriously difficult January transfer window but for intense, close-season dealing. The issue is whether Mourinho will make it that far.
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Ian Chadband)