Manchester United struggle with culture of misery as players enjoy international respite

Problems of Pogba, Maguire, Rashford and Co suggest there is litttle joy in playing for Red Devils at the moment

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Luke Shaw may not have planned to highlight a difference between club and country but his praise for Gareth Southgate was inadvertently damning. England have fashioned a culture that their players like.

"The environment here that Gareth creates, you always enjoy it,” said the Manchester United left-back. “When I come here, it's about playing games with a smile on my face. It's always important to feel like you're wanted. Especially here, I always feel that.”

A defender then had to backtrack a little. “I'm not saying I don't at United,” Shaw said, but his earlier comments lent themselves to that conclusion.

They came a couple of days after Paul Pogba, often a seemingly sunny character, had spoken of the depression he has suffered in recent years. It first struck him, he said, when Jose Mourinho was United manager. As Pogba said, it was a reminder that wealth and fame are no insulation from mental-health issues.

Perhaps they would have occurred anyway, but it reflected a wider problem. Too few people seem to actually enjoy playing for United. It can be a consequence of results, of nine years that have largely contained underachievement, all under the microscope of being at one of the three biggest clubs in the world.

Like Shaw, Harry Maguire was outstanding in Euro 2020. The United captain has had a still more traumatic campaign at club level. He has looked haunted, a man fearing the worst before it inevitably happens.

Harry Maguire has looked a haunted figure at Manchester United this season. Getty

Marcus Rashford seems to lost his spark and his joie de vivre. Ralf Rangnick admitted Jadon Sancho was initially weighed down by the pressure of playing for the club.

Donny van de Beek may have had the opposite problem: he didn’t enjoy not playing for United. Edinson Cavani looks completely committed when he is on the pitch, but seems to lack the same determination to actually be available for games. Anthony Martial claimed he had stopped enjoying football at Old Trafford this season.

Cristiano Ronaldo shows a different kind of dissatisfaction. His disappointment is apparent in his expressions and his body language. He is accustomed to higher standards, not to mention higher league positions.

At times, his is an unhappy homecoming. The Portuguese is one of the protagonists in United’s evolution into “whingebags,” to use Gary Neville’s word. They can spend more time moaning to referees than concentrating on football.

Luke Shaw's comments suggested that he enjoys the England playing environment to the one at Old Trafford. Getty

United’s recent past is littered with players who discovered the image was better than the truth. Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao and Alexis Sanchez head the list of signings who ended up – in some cases quite quickly – looking disillusioned.

Louis van Gaal dismissed them this week as a “commercial club” and it has felt that some joined for the money, while others stayed on inflated wages that no one else would rival. Some have been at Old Trafford for the wrong reasons.

All of which must hurt one of United’s most fervent fans. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer seemed to genuinely believe Old Trafford was a magical place. An idealised version of United was frozen in time from his playing days when they had a capacity to make their players and fans feel better. Wishful thinking alone was not enough to bring that time back.

There have been times when the marketing team have been better than the football team. Yet their spin is harder to maintain when the evidence of the gulf between dream and reality is so clear.

Ed Woodward once tried to lure the then Borussia Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp to Old Trafford by saying it was like Disneyland. Now that may only be true if the attractions leave those on the rides miserable.

Former United player Gary Neville criticised the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo for turning the team into 'a bunch of whingebags'. PA
Updated: March 30, 2022, 3:45 AM