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MANCHESTER United really are that delusional guy, the one who thinks he’s still got it. We’ve all met him. In his heyday, he captained the school team, slept with all the cheerleaders and wallowed in his pre-eminence.
But that was 10 years and several belt sizes ago. And yet, he awkwardly insists that he’s still the guy, the envy of others, the perfect specimen, the one that they all want. He only needs to make eyes at Robert Lewandowski and the athletic behemoth will be reduced to jelly; a wobbly, giggly mess just grateful to be seen by the old demigod.
That’s when a friendly intervention is required. That’s when a kindly voice needs to whisper, “You see, the thing is, Lewandowski is at least a nine and, you, Manchester United, on a good day, you’re just a six. On a bad day, you’re drunkenly wandering around with your shirts hanging out, belching into strangers’ faces and asking for phone numbers.”
It’s nothing personal. It’s just a numbers game. Every fallen giant must participate at some point in these cyclical declines. Indeed, the Red Devils went through a similarly deluded phase in the 1980s, when the shiniest stars of the period were reportedly being offered the chance to play with Arthur Albiston (and, really, that was just an excuse to lament the fact that English Premier League footballers are no longer called Arthur Albiston.)
Post-Kenny Dalglish, Liverpool similarly struggled with delusions of grandeur, insisting that their storied history was capable of attracting the world’s best as Torben Piechnik and Julian Dicks joined the ranks instead.
Clubs and their supporters have to be delusional, at all times, an obvious and necessary defence mechanism to ward off the existential dread that hovers over their stadium as the trophy-less seasons pile up and household names head elsewhere.
So Manchester United must insist that they’ve still got it, essentially turning the famous Keyser Söze quote upside down. The greatest trick the Red Devils ever pulled was convincing the world that they still do exist, to alluring targets like Lewandowski at least.
And what an attractive proposition that must be for the most complete and consistent No.9 of his generation. While Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona circle the restless Bayern Munich striker, United are reportedly keen to woo Lewandowski with a full suite of mediocre options.
Should he choose to spend the final years of his career at the Theatre of shattered dreams, the 33-year-old could share the diminished spotlight with a partner that doesn’t share the spotlight. The combined age of Lewandowski and Cristiano Ronaldo is usually found in The Expendables movies, rather than the upper echelons of the English Premier League.
Playing duties might need to be negotiated and divided. Luckily, Ronaldo always shows such magnanimity in these situations and never behaves like a toddler threatening to crap in the sandpit if his playtime isn’t extended.
At least Ronaldo delivered last season. Alongside David de Gea, the pair just about pulled themselves clear of the quagmire of perpetual underachievement. Few others could say the same. Marcus Rashford and Harry Maguire were the most notable strugglers, but they were hardly alone.
Once again, United must reconcile a new manager’s pragmatic ideas with old and established sensibilities on what supposedly constitutes ‘the United way’, whilst pacifying a global fan base and Roy Keane in a TV studio, hosting his regular forensic analysis show, ‘CSI: Manchester, No Spirit, No Desire’.
Why would a striker with 344 goals in 375 appearances to his name - along with eight Bundesliga titles and the Champions League - want the aggravation of performing in the Old Trafford pantomime when there are other alternatives for a colossal, final pay day? Especially when the option of a quieter life is available at Arsenal.
The Gunners need Lewandowski. Having lost Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang last season, they’ll also see off Alexandre Lacazette at the end of this month.
The Frenchman was dropped in favour of Eddie Nketiah, who proved an able replacement, but Arsenal’s goals dried up in the latter stages of the season, ending their Champions League ambitions. Lewandowski’s value is obvious.
Additionally, the Polish forward’s recent outspokenness has been frowned upon by the Bayern hierarchy, but the Gunners crave a little feistiness in their line-up.
Last season, manager Mikel Arteta picked the youngest starting XIs by average age in the EPL 20 times. His midfield of Emile Smith-Rowe, Gabriel Martinelli, Bukayo Saka and Martin Odegaard defied their relative inexperience – all are 24 or under – but ran out of puff, confidence, or tactical nous during the squeaky bum times.
The Polish forward’s recent outspokenness has been frowned upon by the Bayern hierarchy, but the Gunners crave a little feistiness in their line-up.
They missed a bullish, intimidating presence, a physical and mental battering ram to push them through unfamiliar challenges. There are none more blunt and direct than Lewandowski.
He no longer presses with quite the tenacity of previous seasons, but the Gunners already have younger, eager legs in midfield and a progressive manager with an attacking plan. What they lack is a focal point.
Of course, the Gunners are not alone at the table. Lewandowski stands before a cruise ship buffet, a long line of international offerings, any one of which would fill him and his family for a lifetime. He’ll choose wisely, which arguably rules out the flaky pastries from Manchester.
The Gunners are not exactly a state banquet either, but in the race for Lewandowski’s signature, there’s probably only going to be one winner, isn’t there?
That’s right. It’ll be Barcelona.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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