Manchester United exposed at Wembley as a club stuck in neutral … and the past

<span>Photograph: Kieran McManus/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Kieran McManus/Shutterstock

One of the funniest things José Mourinho did in his early days at Chelsea, back when his toxic vibe still felt light and fun and only slightly vicious and mean, was to stand at the entrance to the Old Trafford pitch before a Carling Cup quarter-final and make a point of energetically shaking hands with every Manchester United player as they walked on to their own pitch.

United’s players looked bemused but went through with it all the same, submitting to the full routine of neck-cuffs and cheek-pinches, albeit with a weirdly emasculating sense of being ambushed, permitted to take part in a game at their own house by the grace of Mourinho’s hand.

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Chelsea won 2-1. Nobody has really done anything like it in the years since. But it was hard not to feel an echo, a sense of United doing it to themselves this time, an act of self-handshake, in the sight of Sir Alex Ferguson on the pitch greeting every United player as they walked past pre-match at Saturday’s FA Cup final, out there like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, a vision of the glorious, disappointed past.

Really? Someone thought this was a good idea? As opposed to, say, a terrible one? The entire last decade at Old Trafford has been spent wrestling with visions of the past, trying and failing to shake that terrifying oedipal image, the unmatchable glories of Sir Alex, who was better than you who gave you all this, and now you’re ruining it. And now, oh look, there he is, literally standing there in the flesh allowing you to touch his hand before the most legacy-ridden game of the season. Daddy’s here. And he’s really, really disappointed.

There is at least some information to be taken from this spectacle. Never mind the self-immolating instincts of everyone involved in encouraging Ferguson to loom, figuratively and in person, over proceedings on the pitch; or indeed Ferguson’s own blindspot in allowing this to happen. His presence is at least a visible reminder that the slight but tangible gains of Erik ten Hag’s first season must be seen in context.

This is a club still stuck in neutral gear, still thrashing about trying to move forward – and not just battling the zombified glories of the past, which can be defeated quite easily if the decision is taken to move on from that iconography rather than retailing it for all it is worth; but more specifically by the appalling muddle created by the Glazer family across that period.

This was most evident on the pitch. There will be criticism of individual players and aspects of selection. Marcus Rashford was short of his best. Jadon Sancho looked lost. Alejandro Garnacho looked good as a fearless second-half substitute, and perhaps could have looked good as a fearless first-half starter, although this is not a given.

Otherwise Wembley was a fair anatomy of where United are. Which is, like everyone else in world football, a long way behind Manchester City. Ten Hag is right when he says the key positive to be taken was his team’s ability to make City play below their best level for long periods, because in terms of coherence and personnel United are a distant spec in the rearview mirror.

Erik ten Hag attempts to rally his troops at Wembley.
Erik ten Hag attempts to rally his troops at Wembley. Photograph: Marc Atkins/Getty Images

It isn’t necessary to read the small print to see this. It is there in the big print, too. Chasing a goal, Ten Hag threw on Wout Weghorst, who is literally a walking anti-goal, goal-kryptonite; and Scott McTominay, who is Scott McTominay. Pep Guardiola, meanwhile, was able to keep Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez as late garnish and unused subs, and to put all five of his world class centre-backs on the pitch.

There is no real comparison here. The City project has been sharpened to a perfect point by seven years of unrestricted, hyper-competent nation-state backing of the greatest manager of the age, plus an entire bolt-on superstructure bought in wholesale from Barcelona. Lads. That’s going to have be one hell of a handshake.

There have at least been signs of progress. United’s season divided into three sections. Part one was pre-World Cup: the emergency rebuild, when they lost three of their opening seven league games, and when frankly this thing could have gone either way. Stage two was the post-World Cup bloom, simultaneous with Cristiano Ronaldo’s defenestration, during which the team began to function, Rashford hit a career-high pitch of form, and Casemiro and Christian Eriksen looked like an unusually well-balanced United midfield.

The final third, post Carabao Cup final, has brought a sense of reality starting to bite. The progress made still feels brittle, based on Ten Hag providing that rarest of things around here, an actual plan, and also the will to stand up to the mediocre corporate-middle running the club. Whatever his ultimate ceiling, Ten Hag is, above all, unafraid, concerned only with his own vision of how a team should work. He is the best thing United have got right now.

Which brings us on to the worst. The cloud hanging over every aspect of the club is still the unresolvable ownership, expressed in the form of an unresolvable takeover saga. The latest brief version seems to be that Jim Ratcliffe’s bid is narrowly preferred by some parties, albeit this would apparently involve all six Glazer siblings remaining involved while Ratcliffe progressively buys out their shares; which, of course, may or may not happen.

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The ownership seems split, with some preference for additional investment and part-retention of the great Old Trafford cash dispenser. Deadlines have come and gone. It has been six months now, during which questions of who and how and why continue to skirl across the Manchester skies.

That uncertainty has become materially disruptive to Ten Hag’s plans. The transfer window opens in 10 days. The squad is in need of a deep clean, a clearout, a shedding of the highly paid filler clogging its arteries.

The first-choice midfield (combined age: 62) needs reinforcing with equivalent quality. A centre-forward is required, as is at least one centre-back. A new goalkeeper wouldn’t hurt. And these need to be Ten Hag choices, bespoke Ten Hag signings (there is a one-word counter argument to this: Antony. But hey, give it time).

As ever these issues of detail are bound up in existential questions of what United are supposed to be these days, how they should be governed and by whom, how that vast and necessary investment in fixed and floating assets is going to come about.

For now, defeat in the Cup final at least carries some lessons. Ten Hag has made progress: he needs support. The enervating ownership, currently re-geared as the enervating takeover, remains the one very clear obstacle to genuine progress. And while United may be done with the past, the past is still far from done with them.