Do you fear Manchester United? Probably not. Decent teams attack United, whether at home or at the Theatre of Dreams. Top teams certainly look to dominate, and even the strugglers have some belief. Is it what United want to see after the massive outlay of spending that shows them to be the fifth highest spenders since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson? Only Manchester City, Barcelona, PSG, Chelsea, and Juventus have spent more in that time frame. Even the most loyal and passionate United supporter would concede those teams are vastly superior at the moment. So are Juventus, Liverpool, and Real Madrid who come next. United are in a class alongside Atletico Madrid and Roma and a few others who come next in transfer fees since 2013/14.

The story of net spend tells an even more concerning tale for the team that has finished above Arsenal once since Fergie’s retirement. This is Arsenal in crisis who regularly mounted protests; on ground and in the skies against their own legendary manager, Arsene Wenger. In net spend, only bling boys and city rivals Man City have a more one sided net spend. United still play like a team handcuffed, a team with the handbrake up. What’s the story?

1. What’s up with the Sanchez buy?

As perplexing a transfer as there can be. Alexis Sanchez, a former talisman for the Gunners of London, was brought in as the statement signing in January of 2017. Since then, he’s looked more like an invader sent to perpetrate and weaken the enemy than a member of the Man United team. A world class player at his best for sure, but one on the down and one in the direct path of two prodigious talents.

Lest we forget the several high profile criticisms of his selfishness that finally overshadowed his undeniable brilliance.

Sanchez at United looks like the player Arsenal weren’t too opposed to getting rid of when it became a net negative to have him on their books. A man who loves the game that much can be a problem when he also is in love with the ball at his feet and his feet alone. He would rather lose it than shunt it off to teammates he believes may not be at his level. And at Arsenal, outside of Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla, they weren’t. At striker, he thrived. When Arsenal were up against it, and that was almost all the time against top tier opponents, Sanchez berated his teammates and complained. A team desperately in need of leadership figures and direction got the man who did very well for himself in the white and red of Arsenal, but didn’t elevate his team often enough.

2. The first-team young-ish talent is better than 2012/13

Anthony Martial looks like a man in chains. Against Watford, it seemed that he was actually shackled around the ankles. His downturn after January was a certain contributor to his exclusion from the World Cup winning French squad. A man with a talent not too dissimilar to that of the much praised and coveted super-talents Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele is now struggling to get garbage minutes at United. Add to that the ringing endorsement from his manager who proudly and nonchalantly professed him to be starting in the 2-3 loss to Brighton because Sanchez and Marcus Rashford were not available.

Why is it that United have not brought young players through of late? Fergie would make do (to the future detriment of United in fairness) with average to above average talent towards the end of his tenure – a carryover that also is striking Arsenal post-Wenger. A selection of those younger than 25 and who enjoyed creditable playing time/were coming through before Fergie’s retirement:

  • Gabriel Obertan now plays for Levski Sofia in Bulgaria
  • Darron Gibson is on the books of Wigan Athletic
  • Thomas Cleverley, the Spanish midfielder, plays for Watford
  • Javier Hernandez, a star off the bench, now languishes at West Ham
  • Danny Welbeck has Arsenal fans asking how he cost money
  • Anderson is now an Adama Demirspor player. That’s Turkey by the way
  • Rafael enjoyed his best spell under Fergie
  • Nani, too, had his prime under the great Scot

Jonny Evans, and veterans Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs also trod through a fair few to give United their last title to date. Then, United’s squad had most the second most valuable squad (to Man City) and boasted the third most valuable squad per player (to Man City and Chelsea). They won the league by 11 points. Now, Man City have the manager with the Fergie touch and the results have United fans in resignation on their title chances.

There was also a certain inspired Robin van Persie who was Alexis Sanchez before Sanchez. One thrived under Fergie. The other looks like a big roadblock. The class players were class and they were leaders. That was key. That was crucial. It’s not on one individual, but it can be made obvious who the principal offenders are.

Fergie did have his shortcomings in Europe, and many of these players ultimately didn’t work out for United, but those teams weren’t punching as heavy as the heavyweights of the time.

3. Before and After Sanchez

  • Anthony Martial’s league goals and assists before and after Sanchez reads as this (including this season):

Before Sanchez – 9 goals 4 assists

After Sanchez – 0 goals 1 assist

Total minutes played – 1663

Minutes per goal contribution – 118.8

  • Marcus Rashford’s league goals and assists before and after Sanchez reads as this (including this season):

Before Sanchez – 4 goals 5 assists

After Sanchez – 3 goals 0 assists

Total minutes played- 1932

Minutes per goal contribution – 161

  • Sanchez’s league goals and assists before and after his transfer to United reads as this (including this season):

Before transfer – 7 goals 3 assists

After transfer – 2 goals 4 assists

Total minutes played – 2826

Minutes per goal contribution – 176.6

Half a million per week (or do we want to call it £400,000?) doesn’t value as much anymore. At least it appears to have stifled and stalled two talents in one shot and prevented Pep Guardiola from getting his hands on a player showing signs of doing a Wayne Rooney dip on touching 29-30 years old.

United are a deeply flawed construct with an underbelly of quality. It’s often enough. Too often, it isn’t. There are signs that this team can compete with the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool, and some day rise to be worthy opponents in European knockout rounds. One feels and probably knows that there’s something coming. There’s something that will expose the shortcomings of a team that doesn’t look coached – doesn’t look very happy. Something is amiss. Key players are disgruntled and we know how productive employees that aren’t that motivated to turn up are.

They’re high paid employees, too, and for that they should not be absolved of responsibility. Are they being given the tools to succeed? Are players improving? Is there an identity to this team that’s discernible and different from a collection of individuals relying on their quality to rise above the noise? So many questions. Too many questions. Not enough answers. The sheet is being hidden from our view.

Next in the series about Manchester United: The striker conundrum. Does it exist?