As the embers of the Manchester derby begin to cool, Manchester United legend Roy Keane is leading calls for his former club to buy an entire new defence this summer to ensure that being second best doesn’t enter United’s DNA for good.
As the final whistle blew at Old Trafford, United’s disappointment at a 2-0 defeat was tempered to some extent by the knowledge that they had at least put every ounce of energy and determination into the battle - a big contrast to the 4-0 reverse at Everton a few days’ earlier.
But, as encouraging as that might be for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, it only masks a far more uncomfortable reality: that his side are light years behind City in their development and in need of a drastic overhaul.
Even Solskjaer had to admit that his team lost to a better side; but Keane, as always, was willing to go much further as he contemplated what was required to rebuild a club which has been in rapid decline.
“United have been in free-fall over the last few years,” he said, speaking in his role as a pundit for Sky Sports. “They are way behind City and Liverpool. So, the club have to back Ole and go and buy some players.
“I think they have to start defensively and the worrying thing is they need two centre-halves and two full-backs - that’s four players already.
“The problem is there is chaos in the background. Will Ole even have the final say on who comes in? I don’t know, because if you speak to previous managers I bet you they’d say that was a problem.
“And who are these defenders? Will they even want to come to United if they don’t finish fourth? There are some tough years ahead for this club.”
Keane’s verdict is a brutal one but you’d be surprised if it wasn’t shared by a large proportion of United fans, and it’s hard to argue against.
Take a look at United’s current defenders. Ashley Young has played better than most but is nearing the end of his top-flight career and has been lambasted by his own fans recently; Luke Shaw has improved - but juxtapose him with Liverpool’s Andrew Robertson and the difference is vast; Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are squad players who have been given far too much time in the limelight and simply cannot be relied on; Victor Lindelof is growing in stature but a million miles away from Aymeric Laporte or Virgil van Dijk.
Keane took notice of how things have been done at Anfield and the Etihad when he said: “People praise Pep as one of the great coaches, a genius, but in his first year at City they didn’t win anything – so the first thing he said to his board was ‘I need to get some defenders into this club’. And a goalkeeper of course.
“Jurgen Klopp was doing well the first two years at Liverpool but they looked short. So they went out and bought a goalkeeper and a centre-half. Ole needs to do the same.
“In terms of the foundation for going on to win trophies, that’s what’s needed. How many points are they behind? I think it’s 25 and that’s mind-boggling. Get your back four sorted out or there’s a long way back for this football club.”
Keane’s view is that, ultimately, it may take years for United to bridge the gap - but there is still hope.
“You can’t give up,” he insisted.
“Things do change. If, when I was playing, you’d said that Liverpool could go 30 years without winning a title nobody would have believed you. They’d think you want locking up. But the years soon go by.
“Ole is a brilliant guy. They have tried other managers, experienced managers, and it’s not really worked out. So now they have to back him. I hope and pray Ole does well.”
Hoping and praying is something United have been doing for too long, however, and perhaps there is finally an acknowledgement at the club, amid reports they are searching for a Director of Football, that operations off the field have been just as responsible for the recent decline as managerial decisions on it.
United’s side which lost on Wednesday cost only marginally less than City’s, so it is not about financial investment but about having a strategy and vision in place.
Keane added: “City’s recruitment has been better. We’ve been quite critical of the players and what’s gone at United but the recruitment hasn’t been what it should be, either.
“When I was at United you always felt that United were on top of everything. We thought we were first class on the pitch and off it. I just get the feeling that United have slackened off in every aspect. They have invested heavily but a lot of the deals haven’t worked out.
“It’s not going to be an easy job to put that right but getting some proper defenders in is a start.”