It is not for want of a director of football that Manchester United were four kilometres short of Everton across 45 minutes on Sunday. Nor is it the fault of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
That was the masterstroke of the Jose Mourinho era. The players convincing everyone that when they fell shy on basic effort, it was somehow the manager’s fault.
That they would have run harder, run farther, put in a shift, were it not for Mourinho and his negativity.
He sucked the energy right out of them. And for a little while, in the immediate aftermath of his departure, that even appeared true.
Look at United’s players now the draining influence of Mourinho has gone. Look at them run, look at them jump, look at them play.
Look at them now. Mourinho’s final months may have been a masterclass in how to lose friends and alienate people, but he wasn’t entirely wrong.
What he said about Paul Pogba, the questions he asked of Anthony Martial, these arguments were not without foundation.
Solskjaer is raising many of the same points as United’s season falls away.
Unlike Mourinho, however, Solskjaer before the match on Tuesday has not spent his Old Trafford tenure seemingly at war with the world: so the players’ excuses won’t wash.
It suits a lot of people to view Mourinho as the bad guy, the problem, the cause of it all. Solskjaer isn’t like that. He has brought nothing but positive energy since being handed the job in December, been nothing but a unifying force for good.
And this is how he is thanked? United are not failing because they do not employ a technical director. It is the players who are rotten.
The way that football has evolved in the modern era, no Manchester United side should lose six games in eight, as this group have done. The opposition is immaterial.
Even if United lined up against the eight strongest teams in the world, with their resources, and their advantages, six defeats should not result.
As it is, this eight-game spell features meetings with Arsenal, Wolves, Watford, Barcelona, West Ham and Everton. So, with one exception, hardly the invincibles. Equally, the run of five straight away defeats — Arsenal, Wolves, Wolves, Barcelona and Everton — is the club’s worst run since 1981, when they lost six.
Yet Manchester United were a different club then. They had won a single major trophy, the FA Cup in 1977, in 13 years.
They were knocked out of the UEFA Cup in the first round, by Widzew Lodz of Poland.
And between August 16, 1980 and March 18, 1981 they won just nine of 42 games across all competitions. Dave Sexton, their manager, was sacked at the end of the season following an eighth-place finish.
United had finished ninth in 1979, 10th in 1978 and 18th in 1973. In 1974, they had been relegated. United were not the same entity.
The recent run under Solskjaer is more shocking because the status of the club, its potential and expectations, has alterbefore the match on Tuesday/ed entirely.
On Wednesday, United face Manchester City, with victory — or even a draw — potentially handing the title to Liverpool.
Is there any group of players who less deserve local bragging rights? What have they done to be the arbiters of success and failure down the road?
This will be the first season since 1973-74 that United have failed to outperform City in any competition. Yet draw or win, and they can strut around as if one little cameo is an achievement.
Actually, it’s catch-22. Lose and United are second best, as results show; win, and given what we have seen lately, they have plainly been short-changing their manager, and the fans.
That a club of this size does not possess a director of football is a surprise, but it is not the reason results have turned.
Much is made of United’s expensive failures set against the shrewd recruitment of Txiki Begiristain at Manchester City, but this overlooks that Begiristain was in for exactly the same players who have stunk out Old Trafford.
United beat City to Alexis Sanchez and Fred, so these failures can hardly be advanced as evidence of Begiristain’s wisdom.
Equally, financial decisions are usually made in accord with the owners, meaning the ultimate evaluation of Sanchez and Fred was most likely a collegiate one. Pep Guardiola’s arrival is the true game-changer.