Kenny Archer: Manchester United cannot afford to keep paying cost of Mourinho's poor football
ALEX Ferguson has, quite rightly, received some criticism for his signings in his last few seasons at Manchester United.
However, one of those continues to keep his latest successor, Jose Mourinho, in the job.
It's a damning indictment of what Manchester United have become since Fergie's departure that a scrap of paper is what has saved them from mediocrity in recent years.
Mourinho alone has spent more than £340 million on bringing in players – at an average of almost £50m per seven significant signings – yet the main man at Old Trafford remains that skinny kid signed on June 29 2011, David de Gea.
He'd have gone to Real Madrid in the summer of 2015 but for some fax machine shenanigans – and what might have become of Man U in his absence?
Sure, they were to get Keylor Navas in part-exchange, but de Gea is the best shot-stopper in world football.
The Spanish goalkeeper has literally saved the Red Devils from embarrassment and earlier exits from cup competitions on umpteen occasions.
His latest 'worldie' probably saved his side from a humiliating home defeat by Swiss side Young Boys last week.
As a consequence, combined with a fortuitous last-gasp winner from the talisman of Mourinho's Manchester United (Marouane Fellaini), and a lucky win away to Juventus, somewhat surprisingly, Man U are through to the last 16 of the Champions League.
Credit where it's due, that's a feat that both Liverpool and Tottenham are struggling to match. With Juve and Valencia in their group, progress was not a given for the Red Devils.
Yet it might have been better for Man U to finish third in their group, and slip into the Europa League, as that would give them a much greater chance of reaching next season's Champions League.
It would be absolutely astonishing if the Red Devils qualified by winning this year's competition given their manifold flaws (at least under the current manager).
They'll also find it tough to do so by finishing in the top four in the Premier League.
Champions Manchester City surely have one spot already sealed, probably the top one, while Liverpool are looking good to join them having improved their defensive record immensely.
Then the three leading London clubs are battling for the other two places – and Chelsea, Arsenal, and Spurs all appear considerably superior to Man U at present.
Yet Mourinho really should have no excuse not to be challenging for the top two, never mind the top four. Remember that it was just over a year ago that Manchester United fans were crowing about Nemanja Matic being the last piece in a title-winning jigsaw.
De Gea, arguably the best goalkeeper in the world, provides a brilliant base.
Going forward, Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Paul Pogba, Juan Mata, Ashley Young, Luke Shaw, and Antonio Valencia offer a vast array of attacking ability.
There are problems in midfield, but Ander Herrera and Fred have quality.
All the bleating from Mourinho and his sheep-like sycophants about the failure to sign a centre half in the summer ignores the fact that he already had England duo Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, Argentina's Marcos Rojo – and himself spent £30m on Eric Bailly and £31m on Victor Lindelof.
The talent is there at Old Trafford, if deployed properly.
Mourinho himself has bought in much of it: those two centre-halves, plus Matic (£40m), Fred (£47m), Pogba (£89m), and Lukaku (£75m). He also spent £30m on Henrikh Mkhitaryan before under-utilising him, then swapping him for the over-paid and under-performing Sanchez.
Matic is clearly past his best, but seems to be undroppable.
Even if he wasn't, there's no need for Manchester United to play a two-man 'screen' in front of their defence. That tactic restricts Pogba, reduces the number of attacking players, and sets the tone for ponderous, poor football.
Besides, if you believe your defenders aren't good enough then obviously attack is the best form of defence.
At their best, the Red Devils were always about pace and width. Those traits would bring the best out of a classic 'number nine' like Lukaku but instead he's expected to play with his back to goal and lay the ball off for more pointless passing around a narrow midfield - and not one narrowed deliberately in order to allow full-backs/ wing-backs to surge forward and deliver crosses.
That grinding sound heard at Manchester United matches isn't just their supporters gnashing their teeth in frustration, it's the team playing with the handbrake on.
The contrast with City's fabulous, free-flowing football is frankly embarrassing for the Reds of Manchester.
As this column has argued before, Mourinho has been a great manager, but he has failed to adapt to the more attacking modern game.
His desire is always to score first, then shut up shop.
He wants to 'kill' a game not by scoring a second goal (or more) – as the likes of Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, and Unai Emery try to do – but by avoiding conceding the game's second goal.
There were signs last season that Manchester United might actually be able to put together a real title challenge this season, given their results against the other leading sides.
They beat Spurs, Liverpool, Chelsea, and Arsenal (twice) – and famously denied City a title-clinching triumph in the Manchester derby with a Pogba-inspired comeback win at the Etihad, the champs' only home league defeat.
However, in this campaign they've needed such revivals to beat the likes of Newcastle and Bournemouth, and to draw with bottom-of-the-table Southampton.
It's entirely possible that they'll end Arsenal's unbeaten streak tonight at Old Trafford, but the impact Emery has made with the Gunners show what can be achieved by a positive manager.
Ironically, given his and Manchester United supporters' jibes at Liverpool fans, it's the Red Devils boss and his supporters who are living in the past by sticking up for him.
Red Devils may dream of a return to 'Fergie time' but Mourinho is turning the clock back further, to the days of another former Chelsea boss, Dave Sexton.