One has to feel a little bit sorry for Morgan Schneiderlin somewhere along the line, even if the basic reason his move to Manchester United did not work out was because he could not prove himself a better midfield option than the 35-year-old Michael Carrick.
United splurging all that money on Paul Pogba did not help either, though even with the world’s most expensive player in the lineup this season Carrick has still been getting the nod over Schneiderlin and José Mourinho was being somewhat economical with the truth when he suggested on Tuesday that he had been reluctant to agree a deal with Everton because the player could still have been an option at Old Trafford.
Schneiderlin was an option for Mourinho like Bastian Schweinsteiger was an option. Someone not only a long way behind Pogba, Carrick and Ander Herrera but even a way off Marouane Fellaini when it came to sending on a midfield substitute to try to influence a game. Joining United from Southampton might have been a dream come true for the Frenchman but rejoining Ronald Koeman at an Everton whose season is effectively over already is confirmation that the dream stalled some time ago.
All of which begs the question, just how many of the players Louis van Gaal signed for a total of around £250m did work out? Schneiderlin, once the Everton deal goes through, can be added to a list of short stays from the Dutch manager’s troubled two-year tenure that is only likely to grow, even if United managed to recoup the bulk of the £24m they paid for the midfielder. A full roll call of Van Gaal’s big-money signings for United would include Ángel Di María (£59m), Anthony Martial (£35m), Luke Shaw (£26m), Memphis Depay (£25m), Herrera (£29m), Schneiderlin (£24m), Marcos Rojo (£14m), Schweinsteiger (£14m), Daley Blind (£12.5m) and Matteo Darmian (£12m). Not forgetting loans and frees such as Radamel Falcao, Víctor Valdés and Sergio Romero.
Not all of those turned out to be complete flops – and one or two might argue that their careers were sabotaged by Mourinho’s indifference – but it is still not a very impressive list, is it? Particularly as Van Gaal was initially welcomed at Old Trafford as the antidote to David Moyes, as a man who could talk to super-agents and their clients and a manager known around the world capable of attracting top-level talent to United by persuading them the club were on the up again. Four of the above 13 players (if we include Schneiderlin), have already left the club, and Depay and Schweinsteiger are not expected to hang around much longer. So regardless of money recovered, that’s a success rate of only around 50%.
Of the ones still on United’s books, Darmian and Romero could not be described as complete successes either, and Shaw’s and Rojo’s Old Trafford careers have been complicated by injury as well as non-selection. Blind is finding himself out of the team at the moment, though he is a useful player to have around, can play in a number of positions, and for the relatively modest fee represents good value. Martial looked a tremendous signing when he first arrived, and still has plenty of time to live up to his fee, though he too has found himself out of the team of late, his chances limited by the emergence of Marcus Rashford and Mourinho’s acquisition of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
That is not really Van Gaal’s fault – Martial remains an astute signing – though the bottom line is that only Herrera is now regularly holding down a place. The irony being, of course, that Herrera does not really count as a Van Gaal signing. He might have arrived on the Dutchman’s watch but United were trying to sign him at least a year earlier, and had Athletic Bilbao played ball he would have gone down as one of Moyes’s first captures.
None of this really matters now; Mourinho has his own ideas and preferences, United are on a nine‑game winning run and a club with its own tractor and noodle partners can probably afford to get more wrong than right when spending £250m in two years. Yet despite the very real recovery under Mourinho – United could climb to within two points of Liverpool if they beat Jürgen Klopp’s team on Sunday – there is a feeling that the club is still making up for lost time and the churn of players is still taking effect.
Liverpool have not been playing quite as well as their lofty league position suggests. In recent weeks they have not always been at the level their demanding manager expects, though they are expected to arrive at Old Trafford as the more settled team with a well-honed way of playing that suits the personnel at Klopp’s disposal. That does not make them favorites, though it might explain why Mourinho has been asking just about everyone at Old Trafford to raise their game at the weekend.
This is a big test for United. Apart from the game against Tottenham that kicked off their current unbeaten league run, they have not played a top-six side since Arsenal in November. The game at Anfield in October was a goalless draw, but that was before everyone came to realize that this season the top four positions would most likely be decided by results in games when top six sides played each other. United could afford to be a little bit sloppy – Mourinho’s words – against Hull in the EFL Cup on Tuesday, they could afford to be without Ibrahimovic and they could even force a smile as Mkhitaryan kept coming up with new ways to miss the target.
On Sunday, especially with an added day of rest over Liverpool, they will be needing everything to click into place. It is perhaps an exaggeration to suggest that after three years of rebuilding, rethinking and rescheduling United have finally arrived at evaluation day, though in the context of the rivalry with Liverpool, possibly not the most enormous one.