How Close Is Greatness?
After 13 years, 253 goals, five Premier League titles, a Champions League and pretty much every other major honour available to him, Wayne Rooney departed Manchester United.
With the former captain’s practical significance to Jose Mourinho’s United side significantly downgraded from the role he played under Sir Alex Ferguson in some of the club’s best years, no one can deny the timing was right.
However, with Rooney goes one of the last members of United’s last great squad.
Michael Carrick is the last player from United’s 2008 Champions League-wining squad, but even he – while an important player – was never the match-winner the likes of Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Scholes were.
It begs the question, how far away is United from its next truly great team?
Some might say it is not far away at all, such is the promise of Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial and the considerable talents of David De Gea, Ander Herrera and Juan Mata.
Factor in the signing of Romelu Lukaku, and there is definitely fair cause for excitement about the years to come.
On the other hand, the lack of quality in depth on hand for Mourinho means his current squad remains lightyears behind the best in United’s history.
Don’t get me wrong., we have seen a strong start to the transfer window for Manchester United. Lukaku will bring the goals United has lost through Zlatan Ibrahimovic with greater mobility and fluidity to the forward line, while Victor Lindelof provides much needed reinforcement in defence.
But there is a lot of work to be done.
Standards have slipped at Old Trafford, and the standing of some current players among United fans speaks volumes for that.
Herrera, for instance, is a fantastic player and one of my favourites of the current crop, but if we all take our rose-tinted glasses off, can we really say he would get near the first XI of Real Madrid, the current two-time defending European champions? Probably not. Would he have pushed Roy Keane or Scholes out of the stating XI in 1999? Definitely not.
Of course, not many players would get into those teams – that’s why Madrid have won back-to-back Champions League titles and why the famous United team of 1999 won a treble – but that is the yard stick United has to measure itself by if it is to truly reinstate itself as the “biggest club in the world” as every new signing says it is.
That is the yardstick that the great United sides have stacked up to in the past.
As it stands, there are maybe two or three United players who would have a hope of playing for Real Madrid’s first team, those being De Gea, Pogba and Antonio Valencia and even then, most non-United supporters would probably think I am being generous to the latter two.
Lukaku might squeeze in as a squad option at centre-forward and, depending on their development, Martial and Rashford might be considered as having the required potential to play for Madrid in the near future.
But that is it. No matter how highly the United fan base might rate Herrera, Mata, Eric Bailly and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the cold harsh reality is that none of them would be a shoe-in to any of the continent’s best sides.
Thankfully – as the Champions League has shown – the bar in the Premier League is somewhat lower, so I have no doubt that if this transfer window continues along the strong course it has started, United will push for Premier League glory this season.
If Ed Woodward delivers on the last two pieces of Mourinho’s transfer puzzle, reportedly Inter attacker Ivan Perisic and a Champions League-proven holding midfielder, then he will have given the manager every chance of winning the Premier League – which would be a considerable feat in just his second season in charge the state of the club when he took over, no matter how much has been spent.
There is little doubting that Mourinho will have a good team at his disposal next season, but United are still some way off their next great squad.
United has only just begun on the long, hard journey to the top of the pile and if Mourinho truly relishes the challenge of emulating United’s greatest managers, he will have to spend the better part of the next five years developing and fine-tuning his squad to get it to the required level.
A Premier League challenge this season would merely be welcome – but mandatory – progress on that journey.