Sunday’s 4-1 scoreline at the Etihad Stadium and the current 22 points between the teams in the Premier League table speaks volumes about the gulf that has been allowed to open up between Manchester United and Manchester City.
But everyone knows on-pitch matters only scratch the surface of the enormous differences between these two rivals at present. And, for that matter, between United and Liverpool.
While City and Liverpool have become expert in long-term planning, of getting behind a manager and their philosophy, of signing players that slot effortlessly into their system to make them better, United have been shambolic.
It was another Manchester United debacle as rivals City thrashed them 4-1 on Sunday
Scenes of dejection and demoralisation have become commonplace for United this season
A succession of managers have come and gone since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent on signings who never were suitable and the culture of winning in the dressing room has vanished.
A new manager will be appointed this summer but United are likely to remain in a completely inferior class to City and Liverpool for at least the next two years.
Once again, a thorough gutting of the current squad and a comprehensive rebuild over the course of several transfer windows will be necessary. United fans expecting instant results are likely to be left disappointed.
Even Pep Guardiola at City and Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool needed time and money to build up their sides into the game-winning machines we see today. Now United need something similar and a bucket-load of patience.
Ralf Rangnick and his side looked completely out of their depth during the Etihad Stadium loss
Arsenal are strong favourites to claim the fourth Champions League place and there’s no assurance United will finish in the top six either
To kick things off, a number of players are out of contract this summer and will be moved on. But the indications are this exodus will extend a little way beyond this group.
Naturally, whoever comes in will depend on the new manager – which is why it’s imperative the club have someone in place before pre-season begins and the sooner the better.
Mauricio Pochettino and Erik ten Hag are the two frontrunners to be the next permanent United boss but whoever gets the job will have their own ideas about how they want the squad to look.
Another big factor is whether United qualify for next season’s Champions League. Finishing in the top four looks less and less likely – Arsenal moved a point above them on Sunday and have three games still in hand. Tottenham still have a couple of games in hand.
Paris Saint-Germain manager Mauricio Pochettino (left) and Ajax boss Erik ten Hag (right) are the favourites to take on the unenviable task of rebuilding United
Only qualifying for the UEFA Europa League or, humiliatingly, dropping into the Europa Conference League, will inevitably reduce the pool of potential high class signings they can attract and potentially limit the funds available.
Unless interim boss Ralf Rangnick can conjure a miracle and lead United to Champions League glory, they’ll likely be playing in the Europa League next season.
So we consider how United could line-up next season if they manage to bring in some realistic transfer targets in the summer window.
Who is set to leave Old Trafford in the summer?
Paul Pogba, Edinson Cavani, Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard are among the first-team players out of contract on June 30 and it’s a pretty safe bet all four will be departing.
Lingard wanted to depart in January and was left frustrated when his wish wasn’t granted on deadline day, Cavani continues to frustrate by not making himself available for every game and Pogba will surely be snapped up on a free by a leading European club. Mata has been a wonderful servant to the club but barely plays.
The cull is unlikely to end there. Cristiano Ronaldo’s homecoming certainly hasn’t been like the brochure and the 37-year-old isn’t going to spend the twilight years of his career slumming it in the Europa League.
Cristiano Ronaldo is unlikely to hang around to play in the Europa League next season
Paul Pogba’s United contract expires in the summer and he is expected to leave the club
Sportsmail has also reported that Marcus Rashford is attracting the interest of Paris Saint-Germain as a potential replacement for the Real Madrid-bound Kylian Mbappe.
The United academy graduate would command a substantial transfer fee but nobody wants to see him depart. Rangnick, however, clearly doesn’t rate him and he’s started just two of their last 11 league games.
This included Sunday’s derby at the Etihad, when he could easily have played centre forward in the absence of both Ronaldo and Cavani.
Reports suggest that Marcus Rashford, who has struggled for form, is a target for PSG
Edinson Cavani is also set to depart having not made himself available for some recent games
Rashford does, however, have another year on his current contract, plus the possibility of a further one-year extension.
Anthony Martial and Donny van de Beek, on loan at Sevilla and Everton respectively, are likely to leave this summer, while Eric Bailly, Dean Henderson, Nemanja Matic and Phil Jones could also be part of the sales.
Goalkeeper and defence
No question who the undisputed No 1 is – David de Gea has saved United time after time this season with crucial saves and has seen off the competition from the ambitious Henderson that threatened to unseat him last season.
As he said ahead of the recent meeting with Atletico Madrid, De Gea is content in Manchester and has another 16 months on his contract, plus a 12-month extension clause.
It’s in front of De Gea that United really need to rip it up and start again, with the horrific performance at City on Sunday merely underscoring the urgency of that need.
Goalkeeper David de Gea performs heroics for United but can’t always hold back the tide
There are serious question marks over not only defensive abilities of captain Harry Maguire but also his leadership, which has been reportedly challenged by Ronaldo’s presence this season.
City once again made the England international look sluggish on Sunday and his lapses in judgement and positioning too often leave United wide open at the back.
Maguire may have cost United £80m and he may be their captain but the new manager needs to bring in competition of high quality and play them alongside Raphael Varane, who only came in last summer and hasn’t shown his best yet amid injury struggles.
Harry Maguire’s form has been increasingly erratic this season and he could be dropped
Borussia Dortmund’s Manuel Akanji (left) and Barcelona’s Ronald Araujo (right) are potential centre-back signings for the summer with United realistically needing two in that position
The Borussia Dortmund defender Manuel Akanji would be a good option and United have made initial enquiries for the Swiss international, who is valued at a modest £26m.
United have also been linked with the Barcelona and Uruguay centre-half Ronald Araujo and Chelsea’s Antonio Rudiger, who is shortly to be out of contract.
Any two of those three would shore things up at the back and reduce the reliance on Maguire and the equally shaky Victor Lindelof.
It would also allow Bailly and Jones to be sold with Axel Tuanzebe as a potential back-up when he returns from his Napoli loan.
Both Maguire and Victor Lindelof could be ditched for a new central defensive partnership
United’s need for a new right-back is also glaringly obvious. Aaron Wan-Bissaka seems to have gone backwards this year and doesn’t have the look of a £50m defender.
They do have Diogo Dalot, so the area isn’t as pressing a need as centre-back, but ideally United would bring someone in there. The brilliance of Trent Alexander-Arnold at Liverpool and Chelsea’s Reece James underlines how United are lacking in this area.
Brighton’s Tariq Lamptey is a strong option but United need to raise their bid to closer to the £40m asking price.
Luke Shaw and Alex Telles offer decent options still at left-back.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka (right) has regressed this season meaning United need a new right-back
Brighton flyer Tariq Lamptey (left) has been mentioned but United would have to pay £40m
A long standing sore for United, where any combination of Fred, Scott McTominay or Pogba never really seems to cut it in the biggest games.
The ‘McFred’ partnership had become favoured and certainly offers plenty of perspiration, but you wouldn’t place either in the ‘world class’ bracket. With Pogba leaving, United ideally need two new players in this area.
Leeds and England midfielder Kalvin Phillips would be a good option but the Elland Road club will demand a premium to sell to their bitter rivals.
Still, he’d be cheaper than West Ham’s Declan Rice, another long-standing target who has made it very clear he wants to play in the Champions League.
He won’t be short of interest so why compromise if United are in the Europa League, as West Ham have been this season, in a sideways step?
The midfield pairing of Fred (left) and Scott McTominay (right) has had its time
Kalvin Phillips of Leeds is one potential midfield option but United’s rivals won’t sell cheap
A more straightforward signing is likely to be RB Leipzig’s French midfielder Christopher Nkunku, who is admired by Rangnick. The German club would be likely to do business with their former coach, who let’s not forget is stopping on at Old Trafford in a consultancy role.
Nkunku would be more of a Pogba figure, liking to push on down the field, but could link back and front as a powerful No 8. His versatility would be a real asset though United would have to be wary of him treading on the toes of Bruno Fernandes, their favoured No 10.
There’s talk of Nkunku being a £60m outlay but he is reportedly keen to join whatever the European competition and would help United regain a sense of presence in midfield that has been almost entirely lost.
RB Leipzig’s Christopher Nkunku is one possibility to replace Paul Pogba when he leaves
At the start of the season, plenty were fawning over United’s myriad attacking options and that was even before Ronaldo returned to the club in September.
How they’d love to get that initial optimism back again because things have unravelled pretty spectacularly.
Rashford looks out of sorts, Sancho took ages to get going, Lingard and Martial will be leaving and who knows when, or if, Mason Greenwood will play again.
Bruno Fernandes has been frustrated this season but is still an excellent No 10 for United
One of the few bright points about United’s season has been the emergence of 20-year-old Swede Anthony Elanga, with the fans singing ‘come from Scandinavia to be United’s saviour’ to the tune of Rhythm is a Dancer.
The club cannot simply rely on someone so young to save them but Elanga has every chance of being a regular starter next season, with Fernandes in the centre and Sancho on the left side. Rashford can obviously feature on either flank (assuming PSG don’t make United an offer they can’t refuse).
Realistically, with all the other black holes in the team and limited funds, this isn’t going to be an area of great change though they may end up relying on youngsters presently out on loan like Amad Diallo and Facundo Pellistri to fill in the gaps.
Jadon Sancho took time to adapt after his £70m move but increasingly looks a United player
With Cavani and quite possibly Ronaldo on their way out, centre forward has become a priority area for the summer.
Of course, Rashford could be converted back into a centre forward but they’ll still need someone else who can guarantee them 20 goals a season.
If United don’t make the Champions League next season, we can pretty much rule out Harry Kane or Erling Haaland. Why would they come and not play at the top level in Europe? Could United afford over £100m given all their other targets?
They’d have to be more modest in their ambitions but there are possibilities.
United won’t be able to compete for Harry Kane without offering Champions League football
Likewise Erling Haaland, who will have the pick of Europe’s leading clubs this summer
Inter Milan’s Lautaro Martinez is one striker mentioned and he has scored 15 times this season. However, he has recently been on a rather alarming goal drought and is tied to Inter until 2026, making him expensive.
The Real Sociedad striker Alexander Isak is another name linked but the Spanish club let Arsenal know in January that they want all of his £70m buy-out clause to consider a sale.
Bayer Leverkusen’s Patrik Schick could be a more realistic option. The Czech forward had 20 goals in 20 Bundesliga games prior to a recent injury, second only in Germany’s top-flight to Robert Lewandowski.
Bayer Leverkusen striker Patrik Schik could be an affordable source of goals in attack
Oh yes, Lewandowski. The super-prolific Polish striker has less than 18 months remaining on his Bayern Munich contract and admitted last week he is ‘open to everything’ this summer.
Bayern may wish to cash in on a player who turns 34 in August but therein lies a potential issue. He turns 34 in August, hardly a solution for the long-term.
So there are no easy options in this department but, realistically, United will need a centre forward if they’re to get anywhere near their rivals next season.
Could United try and tempt the super-prolific Robert Lewandowski away from Bayern Munich?
There really isn’t any quick fix at Manchester United. They’re not merely one or two new signings away from being genuine title or trophy challengers but half a team, not to mention a top class manager and a whole cultural re-fit.
This summer must see them make the right managerial appointment, first and foremost, and do it ahead of the summer so suitable transfer targets can be lined up.
You can’t win the Premier League title race in the first three months of the season but you can certainly lose it and United must hit the ground running.
But realistically, they are still years away from catching City and Liverpool. The new manager will be responsible for building the team from scratch – yet again – and it won’t all be done in one summer.
There could certainly be a very different look about Manchester United’s line-up next season
They need to prioritise a central defender and a midfielder but, as we’ve seen, they really need two good quality players in those positions plus a right-back, a centre forward and potentially another attacking midfielder.
To buy all of those players will cost upwards of £200m but the real cost of restoring United to anywhere near their old level from here will likely be three times that.
And going against them is the very realistic possibility that they won’t have Champions League football next season to attract top signings.
So best of luck, new man in the hot-seat…
HOW MANCHESTER UNITED COULD LINE UP NEXT SEASON