After all those years of Arsenal and Manchester United competing for the highest honours it was interesting to see their differing fortunes in Europe this week as they prepare to face each other today.
A lot was made about Arsenal making all those changes against Hull in the Cup only to then get beat easily by Barcelona. Louis van Gaal didn’t have the same luxury with his injury hit squad for their Cup games.
Arsenal were light years behind Barcelona. And United’s problems are even greater. Watching them struggle as they have this season has been painful as a former player who did his best to play for that badge, the shirt. The best I did to entertain. It’s not only seeing the struggles in the results, but the way they are playing is alien to me.
As much as I agree that Louis van Gaal’s time is probably up – and has been for some months – I worry about those who think a change of manager is suddenly the fix to the many problems Manchester United have. And don’t even get me started on Jose Mourinho, who I am still not convinced is the right man. But I’ve made those comments on a regular basis and this is about the problems at United.
I see United play with no flair and more worryingly no heart and I think the main problem is due to a lack of home grown players who are good enough. It’s a problem through the English game, it isn’t restricted to United.
I know the club have given chances to many kids, but it’s been sink or swim for so many of them; this isn’t the classic case of one kid coming in and getting his opportunity, it’s a case of injuries meaning so many are getting a chance before they’re ready or, more often than not, after we know that they aren’t. The most impressive for me has probably been Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, but I look at his promise and I compare it to the likes of Arthur Albiston and Jimmy Nicholl who were breaking through when I was at the club and I’m sorry but I don’t see the same quality. I want to see it, more than anyone, but I can’t lie – there are some players at the club who are millions of miles away from what it takes to be a Manchester United player, and I’m not just saying this about the kids.
We have fallen into the trap of over-spending on average foreign players; Memphis Depay has so much to prove and it may not be the most popular opinion but for me the jury is still out on Anthony Martial. Perhaps you can say my standards are too high, maybe if there were better players around him he would be better, but I still expect more from him. I am worried that because standards are so low at Old Trafford at the moment, people are starting to accept less than what Manchester United are renowned for, and to me that is a very, very dangerous trap to fall into.
We only need to look at Arsenal and how they have flattered to deceive over the last 10-12 years. They look like they’re on the right track, but how many times have we said that over the last few years only to see them cruelly exposed as so far behind the top European teams.
I’m convinced that this is all traced back to the age old problem – and I make no excuses for bringing it up again – about the influx of cheap and average foreign players. It has not only ruined the English game but it has damaged the identity of great football clubs. We are witnessing it at United and it hurts and frustrates me. People complain about the lack of heart, the lack of fight, that old United teams used to fight to the death, and they’re right, but the problem is so obvious and it isn’t being addressed.
I’ve been talking about this problem for years and it hurts to see the figure of players available for England drop from 50% to under a third. 50% is still way too low. It is criminally low. Yes, I will agree that to some extent, there was a time when the introduction of foreign players did mix it up a bit, and added something to the game, but somewhere along the line, the balance was lost and now it is gone it is difficult to get back.
What we’re witnessing at Old Trafford goes far beyond the manager, it is a moment of transition which threatens the identity of the club at a time when it may be impossible to reclaim it. Is this an over-reaction? You may think so, but I disagree. Arsenal are a great example, as United prepare to face them, but look at Liverpool, who fell from grace and are yet to get back to what they were.
I have recently released more copies of my autobiography. You can get copies here.