Man United miss out on Champions League but the worst is yet to come
HUDDERSFIELD, England -- The most worrying thing for Manchester United right now, as their last hope of qualifying for the Champions League slipped away at Huddersfield with Sunday's 1-1 draw, is that there is no guarantee things will get better any time soon.
Players will come and go over the summer as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer gets his first real chance to shape his squad, but we have been here before. David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho have all been given money to spend -- more than £600 million between them -- since Sir Alex Ferguson retired; but for the fourth time in six years since the Scot departed, United will finish the season outside of the Premier League's top four.
It was just what they deserved too. A bright opening 15 minutes saw them take the lead through Scott McTominay's second goal of the season, but by the time Lee Mason blew the final whistle, United were genuinely hanging on. Isaac Mbenza scored the equaliser in the second half after a long punt from goalkeeper Jonas Lossl. The ball was in David De Gea's net just 13 seconds after a United corner thanks, in part, to Luke Shaw's miskick at the loose ball as it travelled more than 60 yards beyond him. The goal stung even more as Mbenza coolly finished between De Gea's legs.
Huddersfield had lost 22 of the past 24 games in all competitions but ended the afternoon feeling disappointed they had been unable to find a winner. Solskjaer said afterward that his team "had not been good enough." He was right, but it was an assessment that could easily be applied to most of the games played since Ferguson signed off.
The summer promises a fresh start, but just a week away from the end of the season, there are far more questions than answers. De Gea is on the verge of entering the final year of his contract. There are doubts about Paul Pogba's future. There is still no technical director in place, leaving Solskjaer to orchestrate the recruitment drive alongside executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward.
There are deficiencies in every area of the squad. The defence has conceded a goal in each of their past 14 games: United's worst run since 1970. At the other end, they've managed to score two goals in a game just once in the past two months, contributing to a dismal run of just two wins from their past 11 games in all competitions.
Watching it unravel again at Huddersfield, Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville was scathing. "This is not a team," said the former United defender, "and the more I watch this, it's not a team.
"Do you know what it reminds me of? It reminds me of the Tottenham team that Mauricio Pochettino picked up. A group of players that looked like individuals, nothing there, no real spirit and he dismantled it piece by piece, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer needs to dismantle this piece by piece."
Whether you agree with Neville or not, it at least reflects the challenge facing the Norwegian as he aims to revive a club that still consider themselves to be one of the biggest in the world.
Solskjaer, at least, is trying to be realistic. He branded the Europa League "the right place" for United, and he already has questioned whether they can get anywhere near Manchester City and Liverpool next season. They've averaged around 70 points a season since 2013, and this year Liverpool could rack up 97 and still finish second.
Debate about when they will be ready to challenge for the Premier League or the Champions League again is, for now, pointless. Solskjaer's first job is to get United back into the top four, and judging by the performance at Huddersfield on Sunday, that is easier said than done. It is a club without direction, seemingly lurching from one crisis to another.
It's tempting to think that a chance to throw money at the problems during the transfer window will fix everything, but there is nothing from the recent past to suggest that is the case. Brazilian midfielder Fred was signed for £48 million a year ago but was an unused substitute at the John Smith's Stadium. Alexis Sanchez, who arrived six months earlier on wages that have crippled the wage structure, limped off after 55 minutes to restart the conversation about whether he is the worst signing in the club's history.
It's difficult to think of the last signing who has been an out-and-out success. Zlatan Ibrahimovic? Robin van Persie in 2012? It is an uncomfortable truth for Woodward and the scouts, analysts and deal-makers who have been tasked with spending the money.
For Solskjaer, there is one more game left to suffer through this season when Cardiff visit Old Trafford next Sunday, and after that, there will be talk of optimism and fresh starts. Unfortunately for United, it won't be the first time. History suggests it will not be the last, either.