Manchester clubs grasping for direction as they struggle to keep pace
Manchester has a lot to answer for. Last weekend, as Arsenal and Tottenham announced that they will be fighting Leicester all the way in the Premier League title race, both Manchester United and Manchester City suffered defeats that saw their managers handed a solid dose of reality.
After losing 2-1 at Sunderland, Louis van Gaal admitted that United reaching the top four to qualify for next season's Champions League would be "very difficult." After losing by the same 2-1 scoreline to Spurs on Sunday, City boss Manuel Pellegrini could not escape the fact that his side have taken just one point from top-four rivals Leicester, Tottenham and Arsenal, while they have also failed to beat anyone from the top six this season.
"I think they are better teams," the Chilean said. "We cannot beat them but we will see at the end of the season which is the best team."
For their seasons to be redeemed, the two Manchester clubs must now look towards the cup competitions: City travel to Chelsea on Sunday and United play at Shrewsbury Town on Monday night for their FA Cup fifth-round ties.
United's dreadful display in losing 2-1 to FC Midtjylland in the Europa League on Thursday suggested a whole new level of incompetence under Van Gaal. But United's failings are doing much to shelter City's own disappointments. A squad possessing the richest talent in English football has suffered seven league defeats already. Only one Premier League title winner, Blackburn Rovers in 1994-95, has ever lost that many. A second title under Pellegrini to follow 2013-14's triumph will not happen if his team continue the inconsistency that has permeated their campaign.
As both slide from prominence, the tasks of the next men in charge of Manchester's giants have become feats of considerable rebuilding. Suggestions that Pep Guardiola had taken the easy option in choosing City this summer are belied by a season of accelerated decay. Pellegrini still has a chance of signing off by winning four competitions -- alongside the FA Cup they travel to Dynamo Kiev in the Champions League on Wednesday and play Liverpool in next weekend's League Cup final -- but the quadruple appears highly unlikely on current form.
Meanwhile, despite Van Gaal's many protestations to the contrary, regime change at United appears an inevitability only augmented by the historic horror of defeat in Denmark.
Van Gaal's talk of the "law of Murphy" being responsible for his team's clueless performance on Thursday night was wholly unconvincing, another sign of a coach looking ever more incapable of returning the club to anywhere near the level of the Sir Alex Ferguson era. A man who once carried himself with unwavering confidence has been reduced to blaming bad luck, just as hapless predecessor David Moyes did during his slide towards the sack in April 2014.
Even if the Dutchman does stay on, major surgery is required on a squad riddled with holes, with Wayne Rooney's reported six-week absence with a knee injury exposing a glaring lack of striking depth. If, as widely expected, Jose Mourinho comes in, then spending to match the £250 million lavished by Van Gaal would be expected as he attempts to restore strength and cohesion. Approaching three years on from Ferguson's departure, United remain in the soul-searching stage, grasping for direction and leadership.
It now seems telling that United's current manager was not handed a single addition to his imbalanced squad in January, while the reason Pellegrini did not receive reinforcements was made apparent when he announced on Feb. 1 that this season would be his last at Eastlands -- an admission swiftly followed by the official announcement of Guardiola's succession.
Manchester is a city that contains two of the Premier League's wealthiest clubs. United, who last week announced they were on course to make £500m in a financial year, have the highest revenue haul, while City can boast the richest owners in football in the Abu Dhabi royal family with Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan worth a reported £20 billion.
Despite it only being February, the one ray of hope lies in next season when Manchester might again become the nation's footballing focal point. City have waited the four years since Guardiola quit Barcelona to land him for a three-year contract, while Mourinho is waiting in the wings to make his mark at Old Trafford.
Considering the incompetence of the last three years, many United fans are now prepared to accept Mourinho, a manager whose playing style has flown in the face of their club's attacking traditions. If the Portuguese can guarantee trophies and strong leadership, while making Guardiola's life as hard as possible, then he can go a considerable distance to acceptance among the doubters.
Guardiola's focus will be on regenerating a squad whose problems derive from an over-reliance on captain Vincent Kompany in defence, striker Sergio Aguero's fitness issues up front and the deterioration of Yaya Toure in midfield, with the Ivorian almost certainly headed for an Etihad exit.
Heavy transfer spending appears highly likely. However, the Catalan's high-intensity coaching philosophy will have only limited preseason time to bed in, as the 2016-17 season follows quickly on from Euro 2016. If this current campaign has shown anything, it is that nothing can be taken for granted in English football, as both United and City are painfully finding out.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.