European football’s annual reset button is upon us. New kits are being released and fantasy teams are getting built. Life seems to have picked up pace. For most clubs in England, the next few days are agonising. Armed with new players, new managers, new philosophies, it is time to – as the English would say – get stuck in.
For Manchester United, it feels like a pullback to the top of a never-ending loop, like the stylus of a gramophone placed back to the first track of a record. Six years into their transition phase, they are about to enter another season completely undercooked, as if the transfer deadline and Premier League kick-off have come too early.
As we cast our vision towards Chelsea, there are very few problems from the last six seasons that United have solved this summer.
It wouldn’t show from their form in pre-season, but then again, pre-season is hardly a good barometer to measure stability. Manchester United won all five of their games, and more importantly, they conceded just one goal. Against Chelsea next Saturday, possibly fielding the new center-back pairing of Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof, would you expect United to come away with a clean sheet?
It would be remiss of us to pass off United’s summer in the transfer market as completely unproductive, for they signed Aaron Wan Bissaka and Swansea’s Daniel James well before pre-season began. While Wan Bissaka looked as good as he did for Crystal Palace all of last season, Daniel James feels like a signing for the future, unlikely to immediately dethrone either Martial or Lingard from pole position on the wings.
Word on the rumour street is that United are in the chase to sign at least one, and hopefully two, of Paolo Dybala, Mario Mandzukic, and Bruno Fernandes. Neither Harry Maguire, whose signing they delayed for weeks only to end up paying the original asking price, nor the others, should they sign, will get any game time with their new team before United walk out at Old Trafford against Chelsea. It doesn’t say many good things about planning and structure at United’s football operations.
There is little doubt that Ed Woodward isn’t quite a football man. To his credit, he has run the business side of Manchester United rather well, growing in profit revenues every year. But the fact that he gets to make decisions on which player United must sign is a travesty. The need for a Director of Football cannot be greater, especially in times where every decently functioning club has one.
Three episodes of Amazon Prime’s fly-on-the-wall documentary All Or Nothing is enough to explain why Manchester City are so efficient in the transfer market. Sevilla’s rockstar Technical Director Monchi starts scouting and profiling players a season in advance.
Technical Directors are prominent figures in the football management ecosystem today, and by delaying their entry into the program, United are only stabbing themselves where it will hurt the most.
This is one of the many different tangents of institutional hubris that Manchester United have allowed themselves to build, all indirectly pointing to one man’s overarching presence at the club for the last three decades – in no way detrimental of course, but it ended up hoodwinking an entire generation into building up a sense of entitlement around Manchester United.
The High Priest
If we’re talking about United, we must talk about him. Manchester United, by which I mean the club, ex-players, and fans, suffer from a strange case of Alexus Fergusonitis. Everything the club does, every new managerial or coaching staff appointment, every new player, is viewed through tinted glasses of the wrong kind. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer reportedly refused to park his car where Sir Alex used to park. Because, you know, symbolism and stuff.
The expectations placed on new managers have been unfair too. The football must be pacy and cavalier, the players must be young, and the manager must be able to win the league immediately while blooding in academy graduates, and hopefully chewing some gum. If he can give an especially sharp quote or two against Liverpool, that’ll seal the deal.
Funnily enough, none of these characteristics were true for United under Sir Alex, even at the peak of his reign. To begin with, they were pragmatic in their football more often than most – even the very players who were playing – would care to admit. In fact, the ability to balance caution and freedom was one of their great strengths.
Secondly, even during Fergson’s time, academy graduates needed to have a certain level of ability to make their way to the first team of a club like United. Between 1992 and 1995, Manchester United made it to the finals of three FA Youth Cups, winning two. Most of the Class of ’92 belonged to that batch. Since 2003, they have reached the final twice – 2007 and 2011.
Ferguson, to his massive credit, never held back when he spotted a good talent available outside the club. He was never under any illusion that Manchester United, in the modern era, needed to behave like Ajax Amsterdam or Barcelona, where a special preference is given to the academy graduates.
Most importantly, Sir Alex Ferguson was a pioneer in an age where the manager was a father figure at a club, when football was simpler, and footballers merely happy to win a match for their club. His track record with those who yearned for glitz and glamour is rather scratchy.
The obsession for all things Ferguson isn’t entirely unfounded, but it needs some therapy. Sir Alex redefined sustainable success, and hence, Manchester United are looking in the right direction, but they’re reading the wrong signboards. In all this time after 2013 that they have completely deferred to him, they have, not once, bothered to dig deeper into the time he spent building the foundations for his success.
“We must not think that Manchester United’s failure to win the league is some sort of curse against the club. We must not sink into a slough of despondency, believing that the world is against us, for in that thought lies resignation and submission.”
Sir Alex Ferguson, then without the wreath of knighthood, wrote these lines in his book 6 Years at United, written and published in 1992. The book bears a certain poignancy, because, in a few months from its publication, Alex Ferguson’s life, Manchester United’s fortunes, and the very nature of England’s first division football league would change forever. These lines are written in those vulnerable moments when you can almost feel success on the tip of your fingers, but can’t quite grasp it, knowing you are one good leap away from landing a firm grip.
If United can learn lessons of defiance, ruthlessness, and courage, they will be better off than building up imaginary monuments of style and philosophy that never existed.
Scaling The Everest
A league table never lies. It is one of the singular sources of truth about a club’s position with respect to others. In the last six seasons, United have never finished within 15 points of the champions. Last season, the gap was 32, most of it thanks to the sorry run of five losses and two draws in their last nine matches, which included losses to Everton, Wolves, and Cardiff City.
Ole Solskjaer played his football at an era when Manchester United rarely gave easy points away, and it will be undoubtedly one of the first concerns he will address as he begins a new season. To reach the level of Manchester City and Liverpool, United must get to Tottenham – with all due respect – first. Having a dominant record against middle- and bottom-table teams would be a good start. Manchester United cannot take heart from a plucky victory against City or Chelsea if they’re capitulating to Crystal Palace the very next week. For far too long now, United haven’t looked like a team confident enough of steamrolling bottom-table teams. A lot of football, good football, too, is based on belief, and Ole will do well to pass on that lesson.
Then, the board must completely back Solskjaer for a sustained period, even if that means a couple of seasons. The current first team is a weird mix of players hired by different managers to play different systems, and Ole needs time to mold this team into his own. If United want to lay a firm ground on which another era of sustained opulence is built, they must allow a manager time and space.
It feels like blasphemy to even say this, but they could take a few notes from Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp’s book on rebuilding a team. The team that won the 2019 Champions League looked nothing like the one that Klopp began his Liverpool career with. Over three years, they have slowly shed dead weight and built a real team around individuals who are prepared to leave every last ounce of themselves on the pitch for their teammates and manager.
Manchester United, with or without a prospective new-look team, must play with a desire to win back everything they have lost over the last few years. Sure, they’ll lose a few matches because there are some teams better than them, but they’ll win a lot more than they’ll lose, and that will set them on their way to recovery.
A lot of the television sermons given by ex-United players can be classified as sensational hyperbole, but amongst all that, the word desire sticks out. It is unbelievable that this is a concern at a club the size of United, but the coaches and manager have to find a way of getting eleven people on the pitch who are talented and motivated enough to justify wearing that heavy crest.
As you’re reading the article, United’s deal with Juventus for Paolo Dybala is inching closer. For some of you, maybe it is already official by the time you get to read this. Point being, Manchester United, even at their lowest ebb, will be a big club. They have a certain glamour that cannot be detached, a sense of romance and history that draws the most elite talent from the world. Remember, United signed Champions League final Man of the Match Angel di Maria after finishing seventh in the table.
But, to be truly counted as one of the royalty on the front tables of European football, United need to start winning again. For that to happen, they need to be brave, break off chains that might be holding them back, and press the reset button. Now would be a good time.