It may not seem obvious at first glance, but the roots of decline at Old Trafford have been growing for several seasons now. That they have been simultaneously camouflaged by a series of poor performances from many of their title rivals has helped them immeasurably.
But on May 8 this year, United’s manager – their great pillar of stability and trophy-winning continuity – Sir Alex Ferguson retired. David Moyes was swiftly announced as his successor, and it hasn’t taken long for the vultures to circle ominously above this once fearsome club.
Ferguson’s absence has exposed United’s decaying inner core – quite the opposite to innumerable suggestions that he had left the club in rude health following a record-breaking twentieth league title.
Moyes has acceded to a creaking throne which is in need of some refurbishment. One such issue within the club is the unfortunate loss of three promising young players who are now flourishing at their new clubs.
Serbian winger Zoran Tosic left the club almost as quickly as he came. Bought for £7m in 2009 he made just two appearances for United. His slight frame was deemed too diminutive for the physical pressures of the Premier League and he was sold to CSKA Moscow for £8m – where he has since scored at a rate of one goal every five games.
Even more surprising was the club’s inability to tie down Paul Pogba to a long-term contract. The young Frenchman, who United had so controversially ‘poached’ from Le Havre as a 16-year-old was starved of opportunities at United and when Juventus registered their interest he never looked back.
The pain United must have felt last season when Pogba enjoyed a breakthrough year for club and country would have been considerable as the Frenchman had long been identified as the type of player to replace Owen Hargreaves in the long-term.
More startling though, is their refusal to exercise a buying option on Tosic’s compatriot Adem Ljajic. The young Serbian also performed superbly last season in Serie A, scoring 11 goals in 28 games for Fiorentina, who showed no such disregard for Ljajic’s potential.
Ljajic has been heavily linked with a big-money move to AC Milan this summer and it is not hard to see why – unless you’re United, that is.
Infact, United’s impotence in the transfer market has long been a problem. They can only count Dimitar Berbatov and Robin van Persie as true world-class signings since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009.
It is an affliction that has spread to Moyes’ reign as manager – a point exemplified by United’s failure to sign midfielders Thiago Alcantara, Kevin Strootman and now, in all likelihood, Cesc Fabregas.
United have also been scuppered in a bid to sign Leighton Baines from Everton for £12m. Also, at the time of writing, the Twittersphere had been chirping with rumours of an impending bid for Baines’ clubmate Marouane Fellaini.
Quite how Fellaini will feel about being a fourth-choice transfer target remains to be seen but Moyes’ desire to make a high-profile midfielder his marquee signing is clear.
Could it be that United’s international appeal amongst the top-name footballers is on the wane? That type of appeal appears to be in direct opposition to the surge in popularity of the club as a brand and business, with profits steadily eating into the steep pile of debt created by the Glazer family’s takeover of the club in 2005.
Part of the problem in attracting the best players in world football has been United’s form in European competition. In the 2011/12 season, United were ignominiously dumped out of the Champions League in the group stages, and then comprehensively outclassed by Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League.
All this embarrassment followed a Champions League final loss to Barcelona in 2011, their second such defeat to the Spaniards in the space of three seasons.
Their playing style has also changed, in line with a change in world football. Gone is the swashbuckling, all out counter-attacking of the early 2000s. A more measured, precise passing game with an emphasis on spreading play out to the wings has since taken hold.
Critics had called it more conservative, but in the current climate United would have been torn apart had they not adapted their game – something Ferguson famously addressed with his fondness for a fluid 4-5-1 in defence, which morphed into a 4-3-3 in attack.
It had also seemed that United were without a playmaker until the signing of Shinji Kagawa last season, but even then he was used sparingly in a debut season blighted by injuries. He should be the answer to Moyes’ search for a central midfielder, and his preferred position – in a more advanced midfield role – will provide Moyes with flexibility in that area of the pitch.
Added to the concern of a lack of signings this summer is Wayne Rooney’s apparent desire to leave Old Trafford. Chelsea, led by the returning Jose Mourinho, have failed in two bids for the England striker, and it seems that a fee of around £35m will be enough for United to consider selling.
Moyes, for the moment, remains committed to the idea of keeping Rooney at the club, despite his admission that van Persie was ahead in the pecking order at the moment.
If Rooney was to leave, his departure would give a chance to three exciting understudies – Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernandez and Angelo Henriquez.
The trio are destined to become the heart of United’s forward line in the future, and will be given their opportunities by a manager who, like Ferguson, is keen on blooding young talent.
United’s poor pre-season form – they have only registered two wins in six games against limited opposition – will also concern Moyes. That said, he has given a number of chances to exciting talents Jesse Lingard, Adnan Januzaj and Wilfried Zaha, who look ready to make the step up into regular first action.
Lingard has been arguably the most impressive, scoring four times in four games during the club’s pre-season tour of Asia.
So, while United have recently struggled to compete with clubs like PSG and Monaco in the transfer market, it seems that there is no need to buy big when the conveyor belt of talent is bringing along players of Lingard’s and Januzaj’s quality.
In that respect, Moyes has the chance to emulate Ferguson and manage a team full of exciting young players, building the club into a feared standing once again.
For the moment though, United are not as feared in playing terms as they used to be. And while they are still a big club they are not as big as they once were, and it may take time to reassemble the towering presence in world football that they constructed for themselves throughout the 2000s.