London: How far will Manchester United sink? Just two points above the relegation places, the one-time powerhouses of English football are without an away win since March and are enduring their worst start to a league season for 30 years.
Old Trafford has witnessed a decline in fortunes since Alex Ferguson stepped down in 2013.
Under Ferguson, United finished in the top three every year from 1992 until 2013, winning 13 league titles. In the six seasons since, the Red Devils have finished in the top four just twice.
But while they kept their heads above water in the immediate aftermath of the Scot’s departure, winning a handful of cups and finishing second under Jose Mourinho, they are now in the middle of a full-blown crisis under beleaguered boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Mourinho, speaking a few weeks after his rancorous departure from Old Trafford last year, spoke about how taking the club to second in the table in 2017/18 was one of his best achievements.
Eyebrows were raised as Solskjaer oversaw a dramatic turnaround in fortunes during his caretaker spell in charge, but the wheels started to come off towards the end of last season.
United’s 1-0 defeat at Newcastle on Sunday left them languishing in 12th spot in the Premier League — an incredible 15 points behind leaders Liverpool after just eight games.
Goalkeeper David de Gea apologised to United supporters, saying it was the toughest time he had experienced since moving to Old Trafford in 2011.
“It’s difficult to say something. Sorry to the fans, we will keep fighting for sure,” he told Sky Sports. “We will come back but at the moment we are in a difficult situation.”
No goal threat
United are woefully short of midfield spark and clinical finishers. Just two goals in their past five games is part of a longer-term trend, with Solskjaer’s men scoring more than once in a game just three times in their past 23 matches.
The risk in allowing forwards Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez to depart to Inter Milan without signing a replacement has massively backfired, with a out-of-sorts Marcus Rashford shouldering the attacking burden alone in the absence of the injured Anthony Martial.
Over-reliant on a crop of raw youngsters, Solskjaer pointed to a spate of injuries after the Newcastle defeat but said it was not an excuse for their lame display.
United have spent hundreds of millions of pounds under four different managers since Ferguson’s departure and have the highest wage bill in the Premier League, but are still miles behind rivals Liverpool and Manchester City.
Former United defender Gary Neville said the club’s hierarchy should take responsibility for the mess, saying they were getting the pain “they deserve” for poor decisions at board level related to recruitment and managerial policy.
“They (the club board) have cocked this up over many years,” Neville told Sky Sports. “They’ve cocked it up. They are responsible for this.” Last month executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, himself in the fans’ firing line along with American owners the Glazers, pledged his faith in Solskjaer and the Old Trafford hierarchy will be wary of making yet another managerial change.
But since the Norwegian was appointed permanently in late March, United have won just 17 points in 16 Premier league matches, the fourth-worst tally among the 17 ever-present teams in that time. United remain one of the richest and biggest clubs in the world but their lustre is rapidly fading.
Liverpool, who dominated English football during the 1970s and 1980s, have taken 30 years to get back to the top.
Ferguson famously quipped his biggest challenge at United was to knock Liverpool “off their perch” in his early years in charge.
“We are back on our perch, as we famously say,” Liverpool chief executive Peter Moore said at a conference last month.
Liverpool are flying high after winning their sixth European Cup last season and opening up an eight-point lead at the top of the Premier League.
Next up for the league leaders is a visit to Old Trafford after the international break with few expecting the gloom over United to be lifted anytime soon. — AFP