The Anderlecht game in the Europa League quarter-final would likely have been the kind of match Sir Alex Ferguson would have sent the Manchester United second team out for, in other to give them some game time and even that team would have fared better than the current United first team did last night.
Anyone with any doubts about this, need only to cast their minds to six years ago and a Champions League Semi-final against Schalke 04, where a team predominantly made up of United second team players, including the likes of Darron Gibson and John O'Shea, ran out 4-1 winners.
But last night, against a relatively average Anderlecht side, United struggled to put the game to bed eventually drawing 1-1 in a game where they should have won comfortably. More damning was that this is Manchester United's 10th 1-1 draw this season and every one of those games was an exact replica of the Anderlecht performance last night.
The start of the malaise
It would be wrong to solely blame Jose Mourinho for United's current predicament, this was a malaise that began four years ago with United's ill-advised decision to appoint David Moyes as successor to one of the games’ greatest ever managers. It would be interesting to know what Moyes said in his interview, what he suggested his plans were to take Manchester United forward and keep them challenging on all fronts as a world super power. Though it is likely, as is the suspicion, that Moyes got the job on Ferguson's approval and the United directors vetoed it without examining for themselves whether he had the capacity to manage at a whole different level to what he was used to at Everton.
David Moyes infamous dithering in the transfer window cost United badly in his only season at the helm and a man who claimed Sir Alex Ferguson highlighted to him a number of areas in the squad that needed improvement, finished his first window with the sole signing, at an inflated price, of Marouane Fellaini and his final window over paying for Juan Mata. David Moyes reign was an unmitigated disaster and the Scot paid the price before the season was over. Listening to David Moyes even now still insist that his approach of being willing to fail for 5 seasons as long as he was successful in the 6th, just goes to underline just how badly suited he was for the Manchester United job.
United decided to opt for the more experienced Louis van Gaal to succeed Moyes. Despite the behind the scenes lobbying for Ryan Giggs to take charge, his defeat at home to Sunderland during his interim spell in charge probably counted against him and United were determined to get it right this time around. Van Gaal had been away from the club scene for three years but his reputation of rebuilding clubs from Barcelona to Bayern Munich meant he seemed like just the man the club needed. Ed Woodward can be forgiven for opting for the Dutchman and he was backed completely in the transfer window by the United Chief Executive.
However, the Dutchman's dealings in the transfer window were erratic to say the least as he bought and sold without any clear strategy and his tactics on the football pitch weren't any better. The Dutchman's preferred style of play was dull, slow and cumbersome and whilst that might have been forgiven had United been successful, the team were poor and without an identity. After a first season where United just about sneaked into the top four, Van Gaal's United finished the second season in 5th place and even a much-laboured FA Cup victory against an out of form Crystal Palace side at Wembley couldn't save the Dutchman from the sack.
Turning to Jose
United were now desperate for instant success and a return to the top of English and world football so yet again the argument for Ryan Giggs, who had served as assistant to Louis van Gaal, was ignored and Ed Woodward went for the tried and tested Jose Mourinho. The former Chelsea manager had a track record of delivering instant success to whichever club he took charge of. He also had a track record of being able to build a successful team that could challenge in the present if given heavy backing in the transfer market. Both Moyes and Van Gaal had failed on both counts and so Mourinho seemed a logical choice. Concerns about Mourinho's track record with young players as well as his theatrics were brushed aside as United handed the Portuguese a 3-year deal with a charge to restore United back to where they belong.
Jose Mourinho acted decisively in the transfer market, immediately distinguishing himself from the two men before him as he recruited across the spine of United's team with real purpose. Zlatan Ibrahimovic to score the goals, Henrikh Mkhitaryan to provide creativity, Paul Pogba to provide presence and legs in midfield and Eric Bailly to shore up the defence. It was a very good transfer window for the Portuguese. However, the season hasn't quite turned out as hoped. United sit in 5th position, four points off the top four and though they have games in hand on some of the teams above them, they have some tough fixtures on the horizon, beginning with Chelsea at home on Sunday.
Lack of a number 7
Manchester United's major problem this season has been their inability to kill off games as shown again against Anderlecht. This brings back the argument, which was made earlier in the season when Manchester United broke the transfer record to sign Paul Pogba, that when a club breaks a transfer record it should be for a player who is capable in that moment to decide a game by himself, a player ready to take the team to a new level. A player truly capable of wearing the United famed number seven jersey with distinction.
It is disturbing that for all the money the club has spent since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, they do not have this player in their ranks. Arsenal have Alexis Sanchez, Chelsea Eden Hazard, Manchester City Kevin De Bruyne/Sergio Aguero, Liverpool Philippe Coutinho and Tottenham Dele Ali but Manchester United do not have that player. One who is capable of deciding a game by his own individual genius.
This is the key ingredient missing from Mourinho's Manchester United and one could argue that rather than spending £90m on Paul Pogba, maybe that investment would have been better placed on a player with the kind of star dust that say a Luis Suarez had when he almost single-handedly led Liverpool to their first title in years.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic has had an amazing season, scoring 28 goals as has Michael Carrick but they are both 35 years old. They should be players United turn to in the last 15-20 minutes of games not ones they build the team around who are crucial first team players. United being in this position highlights a bad recruitment strategy. Indeed the desperation of United to hold on to Ibrahimovic shows an inability to learn a lesson. For years, the club held on to Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs failing to recruit players capable of filling their positions in the team and even bringing the former out of retirement, the result of this was a gaping hole in United's midfield and wing, one the club had to spend £90m to solve the former and are still yet to find a solution to the latter.
Jose Mourinho may argue that signing Paul Pogba was essential as United needed to solve their midfield problem but the performance of Morgan Schneiderlin since moving to Everton added to performances of Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick seem to suggest that the midfield issue was more a problem of mismanagement by Louis van Gaal rather than personnel. Manchester United's priority last summer should have been to buy that special player capable of deciding a game by himself so it can be argued that given the option of spending £90m on one player, perhaps that player shouldn’t have been Pogba. Maybe the midfielder’s signing could have waited till this summer instead.
It is the absence of this special player that has led to United's consistent habit of turning victories to draws and finding themselves in a position where they are fighting for Champions league qualification rather than for the title.
In Mourinho's defence, the manager seems to have recognised this deficiency which explains United's links with the likes of Antoine Griezmann, James Rodriguez and Robert Lewandowski. While Mkhitaryan, Mata and Martial are all very talented players neither are as decisive as the likes of Griezmann and an addition of this calibre of player is what is needed to take United back to the level they aspire to.
In summary, unlike other pundits have suggested, United do not need four or five signings to get back to the top, they need a really special one. This is how you solve the current problem, this is how you stop the rot, this is how you turn draws into victories and not the other way around.