Manchester United – an enfeebled giant?

In 2012, the great Sir Alex Ferguson famously responded to Alan Pardew’s criticism of him:

I am the manager of the most famous club in the world. I’m not at Newcastle, a wee club in the North-East.

He most certainly did not aim to downgrade Newcastle United, for everyone in England knows what a special football club they are. What he did wish to do, however, was to accentuate Manchester United’s stature as the greatest on earth, a colossus in the world of football. As such, he was infallible in his remark.

Manchester United is no ordinary club. On the contrary, its fascinating history has always had to do with the extraordinary. Late drama and last-ditch goals are synonymous with the name of this club and are part of its folklore.

But the Manchester United of the last three seasons has been a mere shadow of a side that undisputedly ruled England for over two decades. So, what exactly has happened to this gigantic football club?

 

Sunday it was, May 19, 2013. As Michael Oliver blew his whistle to signal the end of a scintillating 5-5 draw between West Bromwich Albion and Manchester United, the Red Devils’ fans from all over the world shared an overwhelming sentiment, a feeling many had never known before: that of supporting a Manchester United side next season with no Sir Alex Ferguson as its manager.

It was truly the end of an era and so it would prove to be in the coming years. In truth, so much was said about who would replace him that almost everyone failed to see that a man of his calibre is simply irreplaceable.

Indeed, the likes of Ferguson are not born every day, a man so resilient by nature who was well-moulded for his upcoming adventures by a tough upbringing. Coming from a very modest family background, this man from Govan was always destined for greatness.

So when he announced his retirement in 2013, United knew his absence would be sorely felt. The Reds of Manchester have missed everything about him since his departure: his touchline presence, his superior tactics, and even his clever manipulation of officials and fellow managers.

His favourite 4-4-2 formation may be dying out now, but he put it to praiseworthy use for years. For 26 years he carried the enormous weight of this football club almost singlehandedly and artfully handled some of the game’s biggest egos.

Certainly, it would not be imprudent for one to say that there will never be a better all-round manager than Sir Alex.

Indeed, what was to come after his departure would further highlight the importance of the man to the club. In a sense, Old Trafford was devastated on three occasions in its history, twice back in 1940 and 1941 at the hands of Germans, and once in 2013 when Sir Alex said goodbye.

It was the most captivating of tales; After so many years of loving care, King Ferguson was about to deliver his beloved maiden to a knight all of his own choosing. Manchester United was about to be left in the trustworthy hands of David Moyes.

Touted as the best successor to his legendary countryman, David Moyes started his work at Manchester United’s Carrington on July 1st, 2013. Moyes had every quality required to succeed Ferguson: just like his predecessor he had a sturdy, charismatic personality and was unperturbed by the hardships posed by this profession.

More importantly, his longevity in management had been previously tested at Everton­, something that was a major factor in his appointment as United manager. In addition, he would give young talent a chance in the first team that made him all the more suitable for the job.

All in all, he was the perfect man to take the club forward in the post-Fergie era.

In his first official match the ‘Chosen One’ got off to a promising start with a 2-0 victory over Wigan Athletic in the Community Shield, but things would soon get ugly for the Glaswegian. After a home win against Swansea City in their first match, his side went on to record the club’s worst ever start to a Premier League season.

 

Less than a year on since his appointment, the ‘Chosen One’ had become the ‘Wrong One’ as many supporters called for his immediate sacking, and eventually on 22 April, 2014, ten months after his arrival, he was sacked by the club.

And just like that, what had promised to be the perfect marriage ended in acrimonious fashion.

At the end of that season Manchester United finished seventh in the Premier League table following a glorious campaign under Ferguson that had seen them claim their 20th league title. The next in line was the Netherlands’ World Cup hero: Louis van Gaal.

In his first interviews as a United manager, Louis van Gaal promised but unconditional success. He stated that he took great pride in how his ‘philosophy’ had guaranteed him success everywhere he had ever been. He talked with such resolve and confidence that the British were soon enchanted by him.

They thought in him they had found a saviour for England’s most celebrated team, one to get United back where they really belong: the very top. But over two years on since that early romance, United fans find themselves increasingly disillusioned with the Dutchman and his modus operandi.

Of immense concern to the fans is not only the stuttering results but how the team is set up to play. Man United under Ferguson had a non-negotiable tradition of playing high-tempo, attractive, entertaining football.

However, much to the fans’ discontentment, Manchester United has ruthlessly unmarried that tradition.

Gone are the mesmerising footballing displays of the Ferguson’s era, and that is a bitter pill to swallow for the Red Devils’ faithful. The famous Old Trafford, a venue that had been pampered by a sumptuous brand of football for years, is now made to make due with a spiritless way of playing the game.

Never before did it have to endure such monotonous spells of fruitless possession yielding no spectacle. All this is courtesy of a man who so unwaveringly adheres to his ‘philosophy’, a pragmatist for whom entertainment always comes second to results.

But this has never been the Manchester United way. At this club how you win is given as much credit as the victory itself, and this is a fact which is instantaneously grasped by players upon their arrival. They feel it their duty to not only get the win but to do so in awe-inspiring style.

Sadly, this has not been the case for LVG’s Manchester United.

In fact, so bad have their performances been at times this season that the man himself has called for improvement, and let’s not forget that he is a coach who has always stubbornly defied criticism in his whole career.

In his book ‘My Autobiography’, Ferguson touched upon the very issue from which the club seems to be suffering under Van Gaal: ‘Ball retention is a religion at Manchester United, but possession without penetration is a waste of time.’

Surely, in the last two years Van Gaal’s United have wasted a lot of time keeping possession inside their own half painfully incapable of producing any meaningful incisive football.

In the current 2015/16 Premier League season with six matches to go, of a total of 15441 passes United have completed so far, 5823 have been back passes. This means 37.71 percent of their total passes have been back passes which is the highest percentage among all Premier League teams this season.

Quite shockingly, they also hold the lowest percentage for forward passes at 62. Incredible as it may be for United fans, even a struggling Sunderland side has better numbers at 32 and 67.

 

Yet another astonishing statistic shows that United have the lowest number of chances created among the top ten this season.

This shows exactly why many people fall asleep watching United under Van Gaal, and why his team carries the tag ‘boring’.

At the moment it is very hard to envisage Van Gaal on the bench for United beyond this season, and we may well be talking about a new manager in a matter of weeks with Jose Mourinho’s rumours permeating the media these days.

Another issue that stands in startling contrast to the Man United way of the past is how they recruit players nowadays. When Sir Alex bid farewell to United in 2013, many squad members had also reached the end of their Manchester United adventures.

The unrepeatable Paul Scholes was about to announce his retirement for a second time; Ryan Giggs would only play for one more season; Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, who had formed one of the best centre back pairings of all time, were to have their last campaign together at the club; Patrice Evra and Darren Fletcher too would be on their ways out in a year’s time.

Thus, many winners were on the verge of leaving unfillable voids at Manchester United, and there would be no Ferguson at the club as of the next season to rebuild and rejuvenate the squad like he had done for years.

So Manchester United faced the tall task of replacing some truly great players with equally good ones, and it’s quite clear that to this day they have not been able to perform this onerous task.

Sir Alex was the one who made the club tick in every aspect of the game, including matters of player recruitment, and once he was gone, the club was completely bereft of ideas. Another man who followed Ferguson out the door, but under less high-key circumstances, was David Gill whom the Scott described as ‘the best administrator or chief executive’ he had ever dealt with.

He served the club extremely well during his ten years in charge. Ferguson and Gill were responsible for some truly wonderful deals. Save for Cristiano Ronaldo’s deal that was administered by Peter Kenyon in 2003, every major signing between 2003 and 2013 was done with Gill in charge.

The signings of Louis Saha, Alan Smith, Wayne Rooney, Edwin Van der Sar, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, Michael Carrick, Owen Hargreaves, Dimitar Berbatov, Chris Smalling, Javier Hernandez, Ashley Young, David de Gea, and Robin Van Persie all materialised during his time at the club.

Back in the old Fergie days, much attention and focus was given to the club’s youth academy and the players who came through the ranks at the club. United’s squad was a well-assembled mixture of both academy graduates and international stars.

They would cherry-pick the best in the world to partner home-grown players. There was always a British core to which only exceptional, high-quality players were added. All this was done while keeping the average age of the squad at a reasonable low.

A balance was struck between youthful exuberance and experience, but just look at how they do business now. An example could be the signing of Bastian Schweinsteiger that epitomises a change of approach in the United’s recruitment department, a change that’s either down to the waning power of the club’s youth academy or a lack of confidence in the youth products.

Either way, it’s very unlike a club of Manchester United’s pedigree to pay money for players who are already past their best. All throughout their glamorous history, Manchester United have had a tradition of nurturing young players into top prospects, and subsequently integrating them into the first team.

In 1952 Sir Matt Busby gave youngsters like Jackie Blanchflower and Roger Byrne a place in the first team and the outcome was rewarding: Manchester United won the First Division title for the first time since 1911.

 

One might argue that they are giving youth a chance right now with the likes of Paddy McNair and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson currently getting first team minutes but were it not for the injury setbacks United have suffered this season, they would be benchwarmers at best especially given the pressure that is on LVG at this moment in time.

With the exception of Lingard who has developed into a fine footballer, no academy graduate at Manchester United is currently good enough to make it to the first team, something that is very alarming for the club.

James Wilson showed glimpses of quality last season but has so far failed to prove himself worthy of a place in the team and is currently on loan at Brighton, and players like Tyler Blackett, Donald Love, and Michael Keane have also failed to make an impact.

As for Marcus Rashford, he might have sparked a few glimmers of hope for the fans, but it is too early to think of him as a future star, with the names Federico Macheda, Ravel Morrison, and Fraizer Campbell still fresh in everyone’s memory.

Unfortunately for the fans, to see United produce players in the mold of Roger Byrne, Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton, George Best, Denis Law, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs again appears to be an impossible dream now.

In the aftermath of Ferguson’s retirement Manchester United find themselves stuck in an abyss of troubles. The Scot’s successors have failed to pick up where he left off, and the squad lacks quality players the club’s name merits.

United are turning their back on their long-established traditions and if there’s any substance in the reports that Jose Mourinho is to take over in the summer, then it’s only a matter of time before the club is stripped of all it has stood for down the years.

Sir Bobby Charlton would concur with that for sure.

It’s not the first time that United have gone through a rough patch in their history, but the way they have dealt with adversity this time betrays their historical values of tenacity, diligence and commitment. Perhaps, the Man United of the past would have stood by Moyes.

They would have thought long-term in their choice of players, and probably would have fancied Ryan Giggs as the future of the club in the dugout.

If things remain as they are, Manchester United, this behemoth of a football club, risks going into hibernation, and as Liverpool’s decline attests, this kind of descent into mediocrity is very difficult to stop.

Tragically, the giant has lost its powers and may never fully regain them.

Author Details

Farzad Amirmahani

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