Kenny Archer: Manchester United's players must show mettle against silverware-seeking City
ONE WhatsApp group I’m in consists of fans of Leeds United, Liverpool, Manchester United, Nottingham Forest, and West Ham United. Yes, we are an old and strange crew.
The Leeds fan recently posted, with disgust, a picture of a cake his eldest daughter had made, topped with the Man U crest.
The Man U fan was gleeful, until I pointed out that she was only doing it for the money - “like your players”.
Of course the footballers at Liverpool and Manchester City are very well paid too, but at least they are providing value for money.
The fact that it’s those two clubs battling it out at the top of the table in record-breaking style is particularly galling for supporters of the Red Devils.
Manchester United supporters currently find themselves in one of those awful quandaries, knowing that one of their two greatest rivals will win the league – and that their team can influence the outcome. In theory at least.
Tonight they are at home to City in the Manchester derby, aware that anything other than an away win would keep Liverpool top and boost the title hopes of Jurgen Klopp’s team, with just three more rounds of matches to go.
So there’s the bizarre scenario of Liverpool supporters wanting Manchester United to win while many Man U fans may want their team to lose.
Yet Man U as a club are desperate to win themselves, not only because they are currently in sixth spot but also because they were humiliatingly hammered 4-0 at the weekend by Everton – ‘Everton?!’ as the arrogant Gary Neville put it. That latest stumble kept them out of the Champions League places.
There are similarities with the final day of the 1994-95 season when Liverpool hosted Blackburn Rovers, knowing that an away win would guarantee their visitors the title.
Even though they were 18 points behind Blackburn – who also happened to be managed by Liverpool legend ‘King’ Kenny Dalglish – the Anfield Reds still did the honourable thing and beat Rovers. Liverpool were also playing to ensure a place in Europe, albeit only in the Uefa Cup.
Whatever Man Utd supporters may feel about the destination of this season’s title, they and their team know they may need at least a point this evening, not only to restore some pride but also to revive their chances of playing in next year’s Champions League.
Arguably too many current Man U players want to ‘have their cake and eat it too’, in the sense that they love the status and rewards associated with being a Red Devil without putting in the effort required.
The dilemma for those in charge of recruitment at Old Trafford is that players motivated by money are not necessarily the type they need to restore the club to its former glories.
Player assessment is not only about ability but also attitude. There’s little point in attracting an almost embarrassing amount of sponsors for everything from airlines to watches, and paints to pharmaceuticals, if the money accrued is not spent wisely.
An ideal part of the solution would be to have player pay be much more performance-related. That could only relate to the overall success of the team, otherwise players wouldn’t pass to a team-mate in a better position if they thought they might score themselves.
However, a far higher proportion of players’ salaries should be dependent on where their team finishes in the table, and whether or not they win trophies.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer moved smartly to remove one symbol of what has been wrong at Manchester United, selling the lumbering Marouane Fellaini.
Another personification of their problems is Alexis Sanchez.
Truth be told, he only preferred Manchester United to City because the former agreed to pay him much more money.
Even had he performed well on the pitch that would still have led to problems off it, in the form of star players such as goalkeeper David de Gea demanding similar remuneration.
The Old Trafford outfit will have to spend big over the next few years, not only to keep their better current players but to attract some who are superior to certain members of the present panel.
Sure, most players, unless they’re rabid Liverpool or Man City fans, would be delighted to play for Manchester United.
However, truly top level players will want to play in the Champions League.
Years of bitter experience have taught me never to write off Manchester United. They are too rich and well-supported to fall far away from the top of the table.
It’s beyond debate that Manchester United is the biggest club in Britain in terms of support, and one of the biggest in the world.
Yet it’s also indisputable that, at present, they’re far from being the best in England.
Both City and Liverpool have squads which seem capable of claiming places in the top four for several more seasons at least, leaving just two places up for grabs.
Spurs, boosted by the move into their magnificent new stadium, which should release the transfer purse-strings, also appear to be well-placed to continue their status as ‘a Champions League club’.
Chelsea and Arsenal are also competing to be in that category, with both also still in with a chance of earning a place by winning the Europa League.
So, from the ‘Fergie time’ when Manchester United were ever-presents in the Champions League as either League winners or runners-up, they are now scrambling to be involved at all.
The consequences of missing out for a season are not disastrous, but the longer the absence, the harder it will be to get back in.
City and Liverpool certainly have squads capable of competing at the top both domestically and in Europe. Spurs are edging closer to that level too and stand a very good chance of reaching this year’s Champions League final.
The gulf in class between the two Manchester teams now is probably greater than the gap between Blackburn and Liverpool was almost a quarter of a century ago. Try as they might, they'll probably still lose. But they have to try.
Tonight is a test of the mettle of Manchester United, their recent permanent appointee as manager, Solskjaer, and their current players.
The key word in that sentence is ‘current’. Quite a few will be playing for their futures at Old Trafford over their remaining league games – starting tonight.
Manchester United will always have the gold – but they may need to hold out the promise of silverware too.