Jim White

Manchester United: spineless in more ways than one

Jim White

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The signing of Angel Di Maria has taken Manchester United’s spending on new players since January 2013 up to £213.7 million.

Wilfried Zaha, Marouanne Fellaini, Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, Luke Shaw, Marcos Rojo and now Di Maria: when you study who they have signed in that time and for that money -for all that money - it would appear that what United urgently needed to restructure their squad were a couple of left backs, a couple of pacey wingers and some midfield fancy-dans. Plus Fellaini, whatever it is he may represent at some £27m of investment.

Last night’s performance against MK Dons in the Capital One Cup, however, would suggest there are more immediately pressing priorities for Louis Van Gaal. Indeed, anyone with a fully functioning pair of eyes would have spotted at any time over the past three seasons that United were crying out for reinforcement at centre back and in central midfield.

Yet still those gaping holes in their resources remain unfilled. Which is odd, given that such players are out there, available on the transfer market.

Take Manchester City. There are those who believe that any side is capable of being improved (even that which won the title). They might suggest that last season's champions could have done with a couple of those on United’s shopping list in the shape of a speedy winger and a left back, but Manuel Pellegrini preferred to reinforce the basics.

He paid a British record for a defender to bring Eliaquim Mangala from Porto for £32m and has yet to play him. So endowed is Pellegrini with centre backs, the elegant Frenchman will have to wait his turn. At least Fernando, a player who would immediately strengthen United’s squad, has had a game or two, despite being in competition for places with such luminaries as Yaya Toure, Fernandinho, Frank Lampard and James Milner.

In other words, City’s summer spending was a bit of business which did not suggest that the club are going to be anything other than as strong in their defence of the title as they were in its pursuit.

On the other hand United, despite spending more than the gross domestic product of several Latin American countries, appear to be no closer to a coherent pattern than they were 12 months ago. Losing Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra and bringing in Di Maria: well at least it is romantic. Attack has always been at the heart of the club’s tradition, after all.

Though you wonder what Di Maria, and indeed his international colleague Rojo, must have thought as they watched their new club go out of the Capital One Cup before half the Premier League has actually entered it.

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New United signings Angel Di Maria and Marcos Rojo

For sure, Van Gaal sent out a team largely made up of those he is seeking to offload, giving them a chance to demonstrate their skills in the shop window.

But - in Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernandez and Shinji Kagawa - this was a team which included three players who had featured in the recent World Cup. Which was three more than their opponents could muster. And yet they played with a lack of direction and purpose that was bizarre. Make no mistake - United weren’t just beaten by a side from two divisions below them, they were utterly humiliated. It was abject, wretched, pathetic. Shameful.

And it spoke, the loss, of a lack of confidence that appeared to be institutionalised.

Young players brought up in the finest academy in the country, taught by the best junior coaches in the game, seemed physically incapable of identifying who was wearing the same colour shirt as them. Although the Dons took their goals with admirable aplomb, all four featured at some point in their build up a United player giving the ball away.

Not just giving it away, either. Nick Powell spent the entire game tying a bow on top of the wrapping. It was baffling how poor this team was. Hernandez in particular looked like a man who had had his morale mechanically sucked from him. Everything he attempted turned to dust.

It is thus some job Van Gaal has on his hands, to turn that sort of hapless, stumbling excuse for a team into contenders. Yes, on Saturday against Burnley he will have Wayne Rooney, Robin Van Persie and Juan Mata available for selection. Not to mention Di Maria and maybe even Rojo if the work permit issues that have so far kept him on the sidelines have been sorted.

But you can’t help feeling that everyone in the club would be able to enter into the fray with a touch more certainty if they had a commanding centre back and snarling, box-to-box midfielder alongside them.

Team building is not rocket science, it’s pretty basic engineering. You need a spine. You need a backbone, then you can add the peripheries.

Right now, United seem to be under the impression that if they keep adding limbs, the whole will start functioning again. This could be a painful season.

Jim White - on Twitter @jimw1

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