It’s that time of the year again — you’ve done your Premier League fantasy draft and are now checking which picks have worked out and which have let you down. If you selected any Manchester United players, it might already be a good time to move them on.
The painful reality for United supporters and fantasy managers alike right now is that no members of Erik ten Hag’s squad would come anywhere near to making a Premier League Best XI. And that won’t change if United are successful in completing one of the most surprising transfers of the summer — any summer — by signing journeyman forward Marko Arnautovic from Bologna.
Sunday’s 2-1 defeat at Old Trafford against Brighton & Hove Albion was a disastrous start for Ten Hag in his first competitive game as United manager. The former Ajax coach will have known that he was taking on a big challenge when, earlier this summer, he became the fifth permanent managerial appointment since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, but the manner of the Brighton defeat will have been a jolting reality check.
– ESPN+ guide: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, FA Cup, more (U.S.)
– Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
– Don’t have ESPN? Get instant access
Ten Hag saw first-hand that teams such as Brighton, without even half of the financial might and historical power of United, can outsmart and outplay a club with such apparent riches simply by being astute and strategic on and off the pitch. But with United, it always gets back to the players because they simply aren’t good enough, and that decline in quality stems back to before Ferguson stepped down.
That said, when Ferguson retired after guiding United to a 20th league title, more than half of his team would have made it into a best Premier League XI. Manchester City and Chelsea would have had a couple of players each, too, but the likes of David de Gea, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, Michael Carrick, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie would all have earned a place among the outstanding Premier League team of the 2012-13 season.
Throughout the first 20 years of the Premier League, it would have been a similar story. United may not always have dominated the best XI, but they would at least have had two or three players in it. If you were to repeat this exercise now, how many teams would you have to pick before a United player would be selected? The best Premier League XI of 2022-23 would be dominated by City and Liverpool players. You could make a case for Tottenham Hotspur’s Harry Kane being the one outsider, but the England captain might have to accept a place in the second XI due to the claims of Erling Haaland and Mohamed Salah.
The second XI would again be made up by those City and Liverpool players who didn’t make the first XI, with maybe Kane and Son Heung-Min added to it.
The third XI? Probably full of Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal players, with West Ham United’s Declan Rice anchoring the midfield as a rare selection from outside the so-called Big Six.
Which takes us to the fourth-best Premier League XI, and probably where Bruno Fernandes or Christian Eriksen — and maybe even Cristiano Ronaldo — would find a place alongside those City and Liverpool players who didn’t make the first three teams. De Gea’s decline in goal since 2013 would see him nowhere near any of the top 10 best XIs, while the rest of Ten Hag’s squad are either so low on confidence — Harry Maguire, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho — or lacking in top-level quality — Scott McTominay, Fred, Diogo Dalot — that they wouldn’t be in contention either.
This is obviously a fantasy exercise based purely on opinion and everyone will have a different view, but what is clear is that Manchester United no longer have the best players. They are stacked with mediocrity and struggle even to get rid of those who are no longer good enough, such as Phil Jones, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Eric Bailly. It’s probably a statement of the obvious considering the club’s performances and lack of trophies in recent years, but it is also an important point about how the team has been run in the post-Ferguson era.
United would always challenge to sign the best players. They wouldn’t always get them, with Alan Shearer, Ronaldinho and Eden Hazard being three of the most high-profile players to reject a move to Old Trafford, but they had the ambition to pursue them and, more often than not, they beat a big rival to sign a Ferdinand, a Rooney or a Van Persie.
Romelu Lukaku was probably the last high-profile player that United signed ahead of a Big Six rival, with the Everton forward rejecting Chelsea to move to Old Trafford in 2017. Since then, a failure to close the deal has seen United miss out on the likes of Haaland, Jude Bellingham, Darwin Nunez and, potentially this summer, Frenkie de Jong.
Joining United is now seen as a risky move by the best players. Why go to Old Trafford when the club is in such a state of flux, with fans protesting against the owners and the trophy cabinet beginning to gather dust?
That is the challenge facing Ten Hag. He not only has to build a winning team, but make the club an attractive proposition for new players to join. But it is a long way back, and it’s difficult to predict when United will have a player in the Premier League Best XI again.