In recent seasons, United have turned to the Premier League for solace after experiencing disappointment in Europe. This season, however, things have taken the opposite course as United have secured qualification to the round of 16 with a game to spare and a draw against Shakthar Donetsk tomorrow will secure top spot in Group A.
Considering the abysmal form the Reds have shown against Everton and Newcastle as they suffered back-to-back home defeats in the Premier League for the first time since the 2001-02 season, Tuesday night represents a timely opportunity to forget, albeit momentarily, about the league, while at the same time making things slightly easier ahead of February.
David Moyes has taken the blame for Saturday’s 1-0 defeat against Newcastle, which has seen United plummet 13 points off the top, as the Reds have now lost as many games in three months as they did in the whole of last season and now failed to score in consecutive league games at home.
A 12-game unbeaten run had seemingly steadied the Reds’ ship, but consecutive 2-2 draws away at Cardiff and Spurs have now been followed by successive defeats at home, with United looking bereft of confidence and devoid of any momentum and inspiration as the lack of quality that had threatened to cripple this squad for years is finally being laid bare for all to see.
In many ways, this was Wednesday night all over again. There was the dire performance, the inept passing and the lack of tempo, there was the illusory promising spell at one stage in the second half and the woodwork was rattled, as it had been midweek.
There was, to make things even more similar, an extremely well taken goal by a team that had not won at Old Trafford in decades – two as far as Everton were concerned, four in Newcastle’s case – albeit aided by a shambolic piece of defending and, most worryingly of it all, the complete and utter recognition that, having fallen behind, United were never going to come back into the game.
Never have the words “must win games” and “need to bounce back” been used so often when talking about Manchester United. Not in the last two decades anyway, for during the Sir Alex Ferguson era, setbacks were nothing if not a platform to propel United towards more success and trophies.
This season, unfortunately, lows have been more common than highs and, after a positive run which saw the Reds going 12 games unbeaten, United were outplayed and beaten at home by Everton on Wednesday night, the Toffees’ first win at Old Trafford in 20 years.
After a lifetime in football, Mike Phelan may well have spent more time in the spotlight in the last few weeks than at any other stage of his career.
Phelan has been without work since David Moyes decided not to retain his services after taking over at Old Trafford this summer, yet the name of the former United Assistant Manager has been at the forefront of fan discussion after Phelan claimed he had controlled the United team in all but name during Sir Alex Ferguson’s last five years in charge. To all but the most blinkered observer, it was a thinly-veiled plea for new employment. If reports that he is about to be offered the vacant manager’s position at Wigan Athletic are to be believed, it may well have worked.
With less than four weeks to go before the January transfer window opens and with United’s midfield seemingly on its deathbed after the injury that has sidelined Michael Carrick – even though, it has to be said, it did not enjoy particularly good health before that – it seems only sensible for David Moyes to look at strengthening his squad next month.
While the rumour mill is yet to fully kick on – and, hopefully, it won’t reach the ridiculous levels it did last summer – United have already been linked with a host of names, some of which seem strangely realistic, considering the reputation Ed Woodward developed last summer.
If last night’s shambolic defeat against Everton taught us anything is that the current squad, quite plainly, isn’t good enough to compete at Premier League level, now that Sir Alex Ferguson’s aura can no longer be expected to paper over the cracks.
David Moyes needs to strengthen his squad, he needed to do so in the summer and failed miserably, and will need to address his team’s deficiencies when the transfer window open next month if he’s to ensure that United can clinch a spot in a European competition ahead of next season which, at present, looks far from being a formality.
Drawing conclusions and delivering verdicts with December only four days old can be an extremely short-sighted, impulsive and irrational exercise but bar a minor miracle United surrendered their chances to retain their Premier League title tonight.
Even more worryingly, considering the way things have disconsolately panned out so far this season, it could be a long, long time, before we get the chance to challenge for the title again, for, quite plainly, United are simply not good enough. Not this season, not, perhaps, anymore, unless some drastic measures are taken to improve a squad that needs reinforcements with desperate urgency.