Manchester United have their totem within reach, they just need to look

Five years since Fergie left, and Manchester United still look in transition. What’s gone so wrong with a club of this size? The key to their solution is probably lurking around the corner, waiting for them to look hard enough.
Manchester United
Art by Akshay Narwekar

Inspiration is a peculiar concept. It has a magical and profound meaning, yet is most popular in its absence, when it can be used as a crutch for inability; it’s a man-made thought, yet you feel the weight when it hits you in the face.

I’m mid-air as I write this, “sitting in a tin-can” like David Bowie would’ve called it. The parting visuals from the airport lounge spurred me to ditch the in-flight siesta I was looking forward to. England just won a riveting cricket match against India, and two men, from Durham and Northampton, have been the catalysts. Ben Stokes and Sam Curran are a great reflection of why the current England cricket team, unrecognisable in their methods from previous generations, are a formidable force; they’re technically proficient, yet fearless, aggressive and in your face.

English football is also at one such inflection point, especially after the exploits of the national team at the recently concluded World Cup. Gareth Southgate’s men, like Trevor Bayliss’, are fresh-faced, spunky and ready to take the fight to herculean oppositions. With the Premier League now playing host to the best coaching seminar of the world, these are good times, or at least the dawn of a promising future.

Clubs in the top tier of English football are changing with the times too; most of the top six look sleek, sophisticated and ready to challenge the elite of Europe. They have the players to execute modern tactical systems and coaching staff that’s progressive and empowering. Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool will enter this season as the best equipped to finish in the top four, and the full-stop I had previously put at the end of that sentence sounded like a million red-coloured guns locked, loaded and pointed towards my face. I will take my chances.

As we celebrate the birth of a new England, purely with respect to sport one must add, it prompts a glance at the times gone by, filled with amusement at how fashionable it was to throw dirt on the old one. Writing an essay on the muck of pre-historic formulae and tactics English sport so consistently finds itself in is a lot like playing Summer of ’69 on the guitar; everyone’s done it and it’s usually the first step before you graduate to something more advanced and nuanced. It’s timeless in its relevance too. Writers, young and old, will keep writing it just as novice guitarists will warm their fingers up with that Dsus4 to Asus4 progression.

But curiously enough, in between the emerging trend of writing those articles, English football touched a peak, slid back down, and has found a way of repeating the cycle every few decades. Manchester United currently find themselves closer to the bottom of the mountain than the top, and given the time it has been since their oracle decided to rest his cloak, they must be frustrated at not hitting consistent ascent yet.

What plagues such a massive club? They enjoy popularity that would be the envy of many governments, leave alone football teams, have players and managers clamouring to wear their crest, and are sitting on top of a financial well that is deep enough to turbo-charge them through transition.

Conversely, what made Ferguson’s teams so very successful while their rivals were constantly replenishing themselves to even mount a challenge? Technical ability, currency of sport as it is, matters exponentially less as one goes higher up the ladder of the elite. Skill cannot be the explanation for a lineup of luminaries like Henry, Bergkamp, Pires, Vieira and Adams reduced to sideshows in United’s run of a treble and a hat-trick of Premier League titles between 1998 and 2001. So is it hunger? Drive? Mental-strength?

The punditry of today will lull you into believing that Ferguson’s United never scored less than twelve goals a game, but one of their less-celebrated attributes was the inner steel that the team could call upon to win those late-March, title-deciding, 1-0s against bottom-table teams. Who formed the core of the team? The Nevilles, Dennis Irwin, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Ryan Giggs. Accomplished technicians every last one of them, but hard-as-nails for thirty-eight matches a season. Points against United had to be earned after playing out of the skin. Ferguson’s team were unmistakably English in their grit.

A lot is spoken about the intimidating aura of the old United teams, but an explanation must be given to what made the team so fierce. Roy Keane, even if he was on one functioning arm and leg, wouldn’t give you an inch. Scholes, if he wasn’t getting to dominate possession, would be nipping at your ankles, harassing you off the ball. Beckham and Giggs were popular in the dressing room for being global superstars with the work-rate of Division 1 strugglers.

Who makes the core of José Mourinho’s team? David de Gea, Paul Pogba, Juan Mata, Matic, Lingard and Lukaku now, Ashley Young. There are a lot of things that these men do right, for some of them are World Cup semi-finalists, some ex-World and Euro champions, one recently-crowned World Champion. How have United looked so out of pace, then, in the presence of footballers of such pedigree?

For some of the current United team, the red jersey looks almost too heavy far too many times in a season. If there is one glaring eyesore with the current Manchester United, it is how insipid and lost they can look at times, unsure of how to construct a basic attack on the opposition defence. It would be lazy to place the blame entirely on Mourinho’s tactics; they can be restrictive, but he’s not against the concept of victory and success. On those gloomy days, which were once a trigger for United teams to dig deep and somehow eke out a victory, they now look like they wouldn’t win a lottery even if they were the only ones participating, so vapid is their football.

Personnel can be bought and sold, and the United board have been active on the transfer market for a few windows now, but how do you instil a sense of pride and hunger in millionaire athletes, some of whom use football as a brand-building tool?  It is a classic problem that puzzles corporate hiring departments too; you can judge technical competence, how do you gauge integrity, grit and work-ethic?

The solution is a lot more complex than, with all due respect, just hiring promising footballers from Newcastle and Leeds to make your side more “English”. Football is extremely multicultural today, and with the bar on the number of English players in matchday squads touching the ground, the key cannot lie in the colour of passports alone.

United are itching to find their way back to the top, and if a fraction of the old aura has to be rebuilt, it has to emerge from a group of footballers who’d leave every last ounce of energy on the pitch, even if it was a match against the reserve team of a non-league side. Right now, Manchester United’s team resembles a group of millionaire kids at the morning of a Turkish bazaar. No one cares anymore for their ancestral heritage, and there is enough competition in every square inch of the bazaar for them to not have a shot in the near future.

They’ve been lurking around hopelessly for far too long, often leaning on the paucity of inspiration for lacking the competitive edge. José Mourinho will do well to empower them and look earnestly himself, rather than turning their collective backs on such a magical, profound concept.

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Sarthak Dev

Computer engineer, pianist and writer; not necessarily in that order. Can kill for a good football story.