Manchester United are in a strange position. A new manager, substantial financial backing and the largest fan-base in the world bear all the hallmarks of success but something is missing – such is the strangeness of life at Manchester United at the moment. This an existence where colossal spending and second-rate outings form an incongruous double act.
Perhaps it is as well for them that Angel di Maria seems certain to join. Yet if he was watching, this should have provided a reality check for the Real Madrid player.
Farewell magnificence and hello mediocrity: he is leaving the European champions for the club who limped to seventh place in last season’s English Premier League and who, while procuring a first point under Louis van Gaal, were fortunate to avoid defeat against Sunderland, who were almost relegated in May.
And so, a poor performance will precede a demonstration of United’s riches. With United purportedly paying £63.9m for Di Maria, both the club, and the British, transfer records have been obliterated. It is an extortionate amount considering the Argentine, wonderful player as he is, cannot get into the Madrid side.
If retail therapy is the designated solution, actual therapy may be required for some of their fanbase. Few could have imagined life after Alex Ferguson would be quite so depressing.
Once again, they are looking to outsiders for answers. Van Gaal deserves sympathy because none of his three signings were available. With Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera both injured and Marcos Rojo ineligible as he waits for his work permit, the Dutchman is currently overseeing a United side that, man-for-man, is weaker than David Moyes’ teams.
Di Maria can improve United. Then again, so could dozens of other players, many of them infinitely cheaper. The harder task is curing all their ills.
If Di Maria can teach the wing-backs to defend, or the centre-backs to pass forward with accuracy and pace, or the midfield to control games and play at pace and with purpose or the entire side to resemble the United teams of the past, then he will be a bargain.
Yet, he is a creative player and the foundations of this side are not strong enough. Like Juan Mata before him, he has the potential to be an expensive sticking plaster. And not even on a gaping wound as much as near it.
Arturo Vidal, the all-action Juventus’ all-action central midfielder Van Gaal namechecked afterwards, would have been a more logical addition than a winger or a No 10.
United should worry least about the final third, where Mata, Rooney and Van Persie operate. It is in the rest of the pitch where their shortcomings are clearest. They have a trio of attacking talents and a terrific goalkeeper, in David de Gea. Yet, how many of the seven defenders and midfielders separating them would even get in the Sunderland side?
The slow start that Van Gaal had warned about could be attributed to their teething troubles in a new shape, but there are deep-rooted problems, given the undistinguished nature of his squad.
The defensive deficiencies of the United wing-backs were exposed, Will Buckley targeting Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia losing Jack Rodwell for Sunderland’s goal, scored by a Manchester City cast-off. In the middle of the defence, Chris Smalling was first awful and then injured.
The estimable Darren Fletcher struggled and Van Gaal ended up pairing Tom Cleverley with Adnan Januzaj: brought on at wing-back last week and as midfielder this, he is neither. Collectively, they looked lacklustre and laboured, insipid and ineffective.
Nevertheless, United led against the run of play. Mata is at his most prolific in a central role; this 3-4-1-2 system might havebeen designed with the Spaniard in mind.
Yet, Di Maria could be an alternative and still more expensive flair player who covets the role behind the strikers, raising the question of what happens to the man who – if only for a day or two – remains United’s most expensive signing.
Off the field, things are changing. They must on it, too.