There were many dark days for Manchester United in recent times, but few have been as punishing as the humiliating defeat by Brighton over the weekend.
United have been hit by their fiercest rivals, defeated by the low sides and completely outclassed in the last calendar year, although few performances have been as pale as their embarrassing defeat on the South Coast. Loyal guest followers are often the voice of reason amid the wild surveillance of social media. For those at Amex Stadium chanting ‘you’re not capable of wearing a shirt’ is as bad as it has ever been from a player’s perspective.
Winning could be an expectation at United, but hard work is a requirement. The two often work in sync, although neither has been associated with the club this season.
The key reason behind United’s gloomy campaign was the poor attitude of many on the team, with so many players taking for granted the almost privileged position they are in and not appreciating how happy they are to play for the club – the tone given by last year’s transfer deal.
United managed to sell just one player permanently last summer, as well Daniel James left the club and joined Leeds. It thus became the fourth largest sale in the club’s history, a figure so impressive that Ed Woodward even bragged about the calls from his investors.
Selling the 24-year-old for £ 10m more than they paid for him for two years was certainly a tricky business move, but it also set the tone for what was to come as the club cashed in on a valuable individual and indulged in hollow promises to keep players in a club that didn’t want to be there.
It is important to note that James certainly had his limitations as a footballer and it is still unclear how good he can become. But it is precisely this uncertainty that is the argument as to why United should have kept him for another season, given that he was in no hurry to sell.
Given his tremendous speed, ability to push forward and United’s lack of right-wing options, he could be a regular under Ralph Rangnick, and he continued to be an effective player on the team under Erik ten Hag.
Instead, they sold him shortly after just two years, keeping Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard in his place, both of whom are expected to leave the club at the end of the season, as they hardly showed up during the campaign at all. Both were able to sell for more than £ 25 million obtained for James last year, another example of a short-sighted transfer strategy at United.
In recent weeks, the club has been warned by countless insiders about the demands that Ten Hague will have on the club, and especially its focus on hard-working individuals who are willing to sacrifice themselves for a collective group effort.
James ’commitment to that goal is matched by only a handful of those currently at the club, and it’s interesting to note that United have fared poorly in matches against their biggest rivals since leaving last summer.
The Wales international was a regular floor Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for such occasions, with a game plan to embrace their outsider status and choose their opponents at the break. In 13 games against Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City, James has won seven and lost on just three occasions, a statistic that reflects well on the Welshman as well as on the system adopted by their former manager against such opposition.
With significant investment last summer came a desire to try to emulate the Premier League elite whenever they face it, but the end result was a weak side without an identity that was easy to separate at the back.
If United stop ceasing to be a striker against their fiercest rivals next season, then Ten Hague will have to instill a new siege mentality and ensure that every player on the field is guided by the same collective ambitions rather than their own individual aspirations.
As a result, the new manager will have to relocate many abandoned stars, and the focus is shifting back to teamwork after a season in which many have struggled to meet their personal plans.
Most of the players that were supposed to be sold last summer are still a surplus in terms of requirements, and if last year’s sale of James really should have made room for new reinforcements, then many others have been ignored.