No amount of spin or VAR controversy could mask Manchester United’s shortcomings after their heaviest opening day defeat for 25 years.
United’s failings in the transfer market this summer were laid bare in the most brutal manner as Crystal Palace dismantled Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side and their title pretensions.
Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward took the unusual step of writing in the match programme, to placate fans angry at United’s lack of activity in the transfer window.
It was a PR exercise designed to calm a gathering storm among United fans, who have watched rivals Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham all out-perform them in the market this summer.
But while Woodward tried to justify why United have only made a solitary signing, citing the financial uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic, this dismal display underlined the need for key additions before the window shuts in two weeks.
Woodward said United “must be responsible in our use of resources during this most extraordinarily challenging time for everyone in football” – a fair point in the current economic climate.
But when their rivals have all spent significantly, United fans are entitled to ask why their club, the richest in the world, are still dragging their heels.
Since 2013, United have spent an average of £160million on new players in summers after missing out on the Champions League. In summers after qualification via the top-four, it halves.
This season, they have spent £40m on Donny van de Beek, who came off the bench here to score, but this is a squad that needs strengthening in at least three more positions.
United have prioritised the signing of a right-winger, their drawn-out pursuit of Jadon Sancho having stalled over their refusal to meet Borussia Dortmund’s £108million valuation.
But after this shambolic defensive display, a new centre-back and left-back are of greater urgency, given the glaring failings of Victor Lindelof and Luke Shaw in their respective positions.
And it was ironic that, in their fruitless search for a right-sided attacker, it was one of United’s former players in that position, Wilfried Zaha, who scored twice to condemn them to defeat.
Quite why Solskjaer started with Tim Fosu-Mensah and Dan James on the right, jettisoning the latter for Mason Greenwood at half-time, only he knows, but it showed the inadequacies of the squad.
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Even United’s players recognise the need for new faces if they are to stay in the increasingly competitive race for a top-four spot, with Shaw breaking ranks to urge the club to spend.
“We have a very good group, but personally I think we need more players to strengthen the squad,” said Shaw.
“It can give us a boost. When you look around at how other teams are strengthening their teams, we must also do it to keep up with the others.”
As well as their failure with incomings, United have also struggled with outgoings, unable to shift the likes of Sergio Romero, Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo, Chris Smalling and Jesse Lingard.
Handing big contracts to the likes of Jones, Rojo and Smalling has meant United have been unable to offload them, with buying clubs unable to afford their exorbitant wages, on top of a fee.
It all amounts to a mess for United, who had an opportunity to build on last season’s third-place finish but, with only one game gone, this already looks like being another testing campaign.
Jose Mourinho suffered a similar fate two years ago, having guided United to second place, their best finish since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement five years earlier.
Again, though, Woodward and the Glazers curtailed the spending, with Fred, Diogo Dalot and Lee Grant representing a truly lamentable summer in the market.
After this wake-up call, United have a fortnight to make the necessary signings or risk this season following a familiar pattern of recrimination and turmoil.
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