Manchester United are not the first super club to suffer a bewildering identity crisis and they won’t be the last.
They have lost their standing among the Premier League’s top teams; their dynasty of success long gone.
There are – though – a couple of factors distorting perceptions of their place in the natural order.
One: Jose Mourinho. The fallacy might go like this: Mourinho manages important clubs, Mourinho is managing Manchester United, therefore, Manchester United are an important club. His presence alone might lead some people to think that they’re back. They’re not. The truth of the matter is both were at low ebb when they found each other.
Two: the chequebook. United demonstrated last summer that being an average team need not be an inhibitor in the transfer market. You don’t see Schalke or Ajax or Anderlecht or any other of United’s Europa League rivals paying the same kinds of money for players on the market. That would be ridiculous; of course, they can’t attract them - but United can. World record transfer fees, wages to blow even Real Madrid or Barcelona out of the water, you name it, United can stump up the cash.
We are left then in the slightly incongruous situation where the world’s most expensive player is traipsing around European outposts on Thursday nights as the world’s most famous football team - being managed by the world’s most famous manager - seek a back door into the Champions League.
The United ship is listing and not yet sunk; so long as United can keep signing those landmark players – Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial and Angel Di Maria – their fans can keep up the pretence that they are actually in with a chance of contending.
The delusion is catching. This year a quick search on social media reveals that United’s fans would quite like Atletico Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann to arrive in the summer as the man to take them back to the top.
The club could probably finance a deal for the Frenchman but – regardless of the actual difficulty of any transfer - it is inadvisable for any top star to choose Old Trafford at present.
They cannot guarantee this season – or next – the leap in quality needed to get among the prizes. As well as that, they don’t have enough world-class talent to help a player like Griezmann slot in.
But the crucial point is this: the money would surely be better at United but there’s one thing the massive pay packet cannot compensate. Confidence.
That Manchester United attack is a confidence-free zone and should act as a deterrent to any player that might be misfortunate enough to come with the tag of United saviour.
No one can seem to score; no one seems capable of providing a decent assist. They have won only one league game since early February and haven’t won any of their last three at home. A bigger cause of concern – however – is that Mourinho doesn’t have the answers.
He admits that he gives his forward players plenty of freedom – to pick passes and change positions during matches – but a crisis of confidence is consuming every one of them.
Marcus Rashford is without a league goal since September. Martial is in and out of form and in and out of the team. Henrikh Mkhitaryan can get neither rhythm nor consistency in his performances. The less said about Wayne Rooney the better.
Mourinho depends on that intuition - on his players coming up with the ideas to win matches - and he says he is helpless if they’re bereft of confidence.
When self-belief goes low, the ball goes high. United went “direct” against Everton on Tuesday - in the words of Mourinho - and there’s no fancy way of dressing that up. They have no confidence in the creation or taking of chances and are trapped in a vicious cycle; a funk stretching almost one season long.
“To play more direct, we don’t need so much talent,” he said. “We don’t need so much intention. We don’t need so much creativity. It becomes more mechanic.
“To play the way we like to play and the way we’ve played so many times so well this season, you need what we have – creativity and [being] dynamic.
“[It’s] only possible when the confidence levels are there. It is the basic thing.”
Mourinho sought to limit the mistakes he assumed were present in his creative players by bypassing them altogether and aiming instead for Marouane Fellaini’s head.
That is a worrying state of affairs. If Mourinho is intending to abort his players’ attempts at creativity at the first sign of resistance then maybe it’s best that Griezmann stays clear.
It would be too big a risk for Griezmann to go there and suffer. He’s not been prolific – 14 goals for Atletico Madrid this season is a relatively modest return – but would be expected to turn them around singlehandedly.
Pogba is playing diligently for United but lumbering under the weight of expectation. No mention of him goes by without a reference to the £90m fee United paid to Juventus for his services.
If Griezmann were to come it would likely be for another world record and that would make two players under close-to-unbearable scrutiny due to their price. Every goalless game, every missed chance would have the mobs baying for improvement and sneering at an inability to carry the team.
United are indeed known to be keen on the man who finished third to Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in the Ballon d’Or running but recognise the difficulty in getting him to sign. They are among the second-tier category of clubs at present and – if Griezmann decides to leave – he’d be better off looking elsewhere.