Manchester United have lined up plenty of transfers for the summer, but it is hard to imagine they will get exactly what they want if they can only offer players another season of rebuilding work. The Europa League is unlikely to tempt the best players in the world if mediocrity becomes a habit for United.
This is perhaps United’s final season where they can claim being an also-run is a blip, rather than something that which will take years more to fix. There is a real possibility that, post-Alex Ferguson, United will have been comprehensively have been knocked off their perch again.
When Liverpool first went a few years without a trophy, as the Graeme Souness years began, it seemed that it would be only a matter of time that normal business would be resumed. However, that bled into the Spice Boys under Roy Evans, then Gerard Houllier.
The teams were, despite what people claim, cack. There were problems with discipline, squad strength and hubris. There were tinpot trebles and occasional victories against the biggest sides, but they never established themselves as title challengers.
Rafa Benitez arrived, and with him, a willingness to team Steve Gerrard up with Fernando Torres alongside Xabi Alonso and Jamie Carragher. It was enough to push Liverpool to the brink of a title, and his tactical acumen delivered a Champions League as well as another final a couple of years later.
For a couple of years, it appeared that Benitez had Liverpool on the edge of establishing themselves again. The point here is not to make fun of Benitez for ultimately failing in that task, but to point out just how difficult it is to sustain a job in one club, and keep the team moving upward.
Because, after all, you might get Joe Cole and Roy Hodgson to arrive and wreck everything. Success is sometimes a perilously insecure construction, which takes a lot longer to rebuild than to destroy.
Look at United now. David Moyes and Louis van Gaal were plainly the wrong men to return the team to the top. The transfer policies of the latter years of Ferguson, succeeded by Moyes, Van Gaal and Ed Woodward, left a squad that was shorn of leaders and full of middling talent. It is like John Scales, Igor Biscan, Jamie Redknapp, and Phil Babb all over again.
There are still problems with the squad, despite all the money given to the last two managers. Even before Marcos Rojo’s serious injury, there was a need to boot Phil Jones and Chris Smalling out of the club forever, and to strengthen the central defence. There is a rumour that Michael Keane is a target for United, which would make sense.
He would, thanks to his time in their youth team, count as a homegrown player, meaning Mourinho would not have to submit a smaller squad than is permitted. However, Liverpool are also interested, which gives Keane a tough choice. If United are in the Europa League again, then despite being a Manchester United fan from his boyhood, he would need to think about what would be best for his career.
Benjamin Mendy impressed against Borussia Dortmund against the Champions League over the last two weeks. United are meant to hold an interest, but so are Manchester City. City’s need for a left-back is obvious, given their best option is Gael Clichy. United, with the unreliable Luke Shaw, also need a first-choice full-back.
United might still be the more glamorous side in terms of reputation, but City can match or exceed the wages on offer and will secure a top four finish. In addition to that, Pep Guardiola is the manager that any player would wish to work with – if United aren’t able to at least offer Mendy the Champions League, then we can assume they will also miss out on him.
There’s another Monaco player, Bernardo Silva, who is also a target for United. That he shares an agent with Mourinho, Jorge Mendes, makes a deal more likely, but there is a suggestion that such a deal might be a back-up to bringing Griezmann to the club. Silva, obviously, is an excellent player who would improve United’s attack, but he doesn’t offer quite as much as Griezmann.
The French international’s technique, goalscoring record and speed would add a direct approach that this season’s ponderous United has been missing. If United want to challenge for titles again, at home and in Europe, then players of Griezmann’s quality are essential, and to miss out would do serious damage to their immediate prospects of success.
Griezmann is understood to be keen on a move to United, but he too is worried that he might miss out on Champions League football. He has a friendship with Paul Pogba, but with the 2018 World Cup soon approaching, players will be yet more unwilling to risk their careers over the short term. And this is not a problem for United in attracting just Griezmann.
The World Cup symbolises the biggest problems for United. They are still a big club, but there are plenty of a similar size with just as much money to offer, and with the expectation they can maintain their place in the Champions League.
The more United struggle to reassert themselves, the more their reputation is dented. The harder it is to find the players they need, and the more difficult it is to rebuild a side from the players the best don’t want. If United do not secure Champions League football this year, they may become just another Liverpool.