Manchester United’s current predicament and their struggles on the pitch are all stark reminders of how football can change in little less than half-a-decade. In 2013 Sir Alex Ferguson received a perfect send-off as he walked into retirement by winning the league title for Manchester United in a dominating fashion. Any tactical analysis or deep-rooted study of their fall from grace in the last five years is a grim reading of numbers and statistics. It is hard to fathom now but Ferguson’s side won the title with an eleven-point margin.
Old Trafford has already seen off two managers in David Moyes and Louis van Gaal since Ferguson’s retirement. Jose Mourinho, by all intents and purposes, is set to become the next victim of expectations at Old Trafford. But the question remains, is the club’s failure’s in the last five years all down to the manager?
In my opinion, at the moment Manchester United are not set-up for sustained success in the future. The structural problems across the board at Old Trafford are not meant for the club to succeed.
Ferguson worked ten roles at Manchester United and finding his replacement was always going to be a challenge. Arsenal showed the way in their approach to finding Arsene Wenger’s replacement. They appointed serious football men behind the scenes before ushering the Frenchman out last summer. Manchester United needed to do the same, but they didn’t so here I am writing about what went wrong.
In hindsight, the selection of Moyes was a disaster that they never recovered from. Ferguson played a key role in his appointment, but what was the board doing in terms of due diligence?
The Scot crashed and burned but since then Manchester United have shown very little nous in finding a manager. Louis van Gaal was a great manager, but all of his success came in the 1990s and 2000s. By the time he left Bayern Munich, the Dutchman was past it as a club manager. He did brilliantly in taking an average Netherlands side to a third-place finish in the World Cup. Van Gaal had the ego to root for at Old Trafford, but the Dutchman was well past his best as a manager.
The former Ajax manager received his P45 after winning the FA Cup with Manchester United in 2016 and then arrived Mourinho. The Portuguese was supposed to be a sure shot ticket to success. He talked a big game and despite finishing sixth in his first season, the League Cup and the Europa League were good enough to term it as a successful campaign.
A second place finish last season looked good on paper, but the league table and the football suggested Manchester United were miles behind champions Manchester City. A fractious summer window led the foundations to a Mourinho third season-syndrome.
We are now aware of how badly Manchester United are floundering and history is against Mourinho turning it around. In the coming weeks and months, the Portuguese is expected to become the third manager to depart after Ferguson’s retirement at Manchester United.
The rumour mill is Manchester United are eyeing Zinedine Zidane as a replacement for Mourinho. It seems they are following the same pattern as their last two appointments.
Opportunism and a Lack of Vision
Since Moyes’ sacking, it is hard not to come to the conclusion, that Manchester United’s managerial appointments have been opportunistic. Van Gaal was the only big name available in the summer of 2014. Was enough due diligence done? Was his style of football, his much-touted philosophy or his hard taskmaster approach assessed properly? Van Gaal got us back into the Champions League in his first season. However, in his last year, he played one of the most anaemic brands of football. The Dutchman failed to acknowledge the problems and his disconnect from the fan base until his last day at the club.
Mourinho was another opportunistic appointment. Chelsea sacked him and since December 2015, it became apparent that the Portuguese was going to replace Van Gaal. His ability to win trophies and working with big-name stars were obvious pluses. However, his brand of reactive football was always going to be a problem. But Manchester United signed a devil’s agreement with him as long as he was delivering on trophies. Getting him on board in 2016 was the logical and right decision and if anyone was going to turn things around at Old Trafford, he was the one.
However, in recent days it has all gone pear-shaped. One can tolerate Mourinho’s football as long as he is winning and bringing in trophies but once that tap stops running, it becomes a chore. The current Manchester United boss is not someone who is going to build sides for the future. He is also not one of those managers who can go through a rough period and inspire his side to turn things around. Once things start unravelling under him, the car usually goes over the cliff under Mourinho’s tutelage.
Zidane is being touted as the next ‘saviour’ of Manchester United but there are no guarantees that he will succeed at Old Trafford. If The Frenchman is brought in to replace Mourinho, it would be another opportunistic appointment. He is a big name, successful manager, who is now available. That’s the only due diligence the decision makers at Old Trafford seem to be carrying out at the moment.
From Moyes to Van Gaal to Mourinho and then to possibly Zidane. Is there a vision? An overarching football philosophy? No.
Where are the football men at Manchester United?
Manchester United have a football board where Ferguson and Sir Bobby Charlton have seats. But they have little to no say on decisions at Old Trafford. The real power lies in the hands of executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward. He is helped by managing director Richard Arnold and head of corporate affairs Matt Judge. Notice a pattern? The three men have no knowledge of the game but take all the key decisions at Manchester United.
The manager at Manchester United is the only man who has a direct contact with the game. The rest of the hierarchy are made up of men who have little to no idea about how things work on the pitch.
Woodward makes sure that Manchester United are raking in the moolah from their gazillion sponsors. But what knowledge does he have to overrule Mourinho on whether the club need a new and experienced centre-back?
He has played a key role in the managerial appointments since Moyes’ departure and the lack of a football vision is apparent. Woodward is not the man to take these decisions but he is the Glazers’ boy at Old Trafford. The former banker orchestrated their debt-loading takeover in 2005 and then played an instrumental role in turning the club into a money-making machine for the Americans.
He said in one of the investors’ calls in the last year that results on the pitch will not have any tangible effect on what he can do in terms of monetising the club. Woodward is staying true to his word. Under his watch, Manchester United have become a business who also happen to play football. His true allegiance lies with the Glazers and making money for them.
And in his words, the results on the pitch don’t matter.
The Glazers: Manchester United Owners
Any success Manchester United have achieved since 2005 is despite having the Americans as their owners. Malcolm Glazer’s takeover of the club 13 years back was controversial. The way he and later, his sons, have run the club has been ridiculous, to say the least.
The Glazer family have taken £1bn out of Manchester United in interest, costs, fees and dividends since 2005. To put that number into context, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan of Abu Dhabi has pumped in £1.3bn into Manchester City in terms of transfer fees and wages since taking charge of the club in 2008.
Manchester United recently published their financial accounts and it read clearly, the Glazers took another £24m out of the club. A sum that could have gone into buying a centre-half or a winger that Mourinho craved for in the summer.
The six Glazer siblings who collectively own 97% of the shares, were paid $23m (£18m) in dividends, the third year dividends have been paid. The total paid to them and financial investors was £22m, following £23m in 2016-17 and £20m the previous year. A total of £65m went out of the club. The salary packages paid to directors and senior executives, which includes the six Glazers, was £13m, following £12m in 2016-17 and £11m the year before. Notice the incremental rise every year?
A year ago, the Glazers’ holding company, Red Football, sold 4.3m shares in Cayman Islands-registered Manchester United, for $17 per share. That is a further $73m (£56m) made by the Glazers from Manchester United.
Our American owners got away with their parsimonious ways in the first few years because of Ferguson’s genius. It is hard to fathom how he kept Manchester United at the top despite getting outspent by rivals towards his last years at Old Trafford.
Since his departure, the purse strings have been loosened but here the lack of football knowledge hampered the club. Manchester United lack an over-arching vision and the current squad are a result of three different managers with varying ideas about football.
One of the good news to come out of the club in recent months is the club are looking for a director of football or a technical director. Manchester United want to bring in someone who will have an overarching vision for the club and drive recruitment at Old Trafford. This will be aimed at avoiding the highly personalised process which soured the relationship between Mourinho and Woodward in the summer.
Manchester United are five years too late to embrace this modern way of running the football side of things of a club. But it remains to be seen what remit the new guy would have. Will Woodward give away his power on the playing side of things and concentrate on what he does best – make money for the Glazers? Power is too tempting a force to just walk away from.
It is also key on what the Glazers want? It seems they have calculated playing Champions League football each season will be enough for them to make more money. Will they decide to achieve more? At some point, they would have to realise that success on the pitch will open fresh avenues for them to earn more. Are they prepared to strip Woodward of some of his power? It is important to note, if Mourinho is sacked, that’s on the former banker. He would be Woodward’s third failed managerial appointment.
On the bright side, Manchester United have been investing more money, £24m a year, into their academy. It was a reaction to the strides Chelsea and Manchester City made in the last few years. Over the last year, Woodward has overhauled the scouting system, with new scouts recruited across the world. The club are not completely standing still.
But the tangible feeling remains that the people who are taking the key decisions are not equipped to do so.
Manchester United remain a great institution and will continue to attract players of high quality going forward. But the success of a club on the pitch is not just down to the players. A lot goes on behind the scenes to make a club successful.
Ferguson finished eleventh, second and thirteenth in his first three seasons at Manchester United, but he laid down the foundations for the eventual domination in those years.
The football under him in the first few years was dour and uninspiring, there were calls for a change and fans were getting impatient. But in the background, he was carrying out the necessary changes, which would go on to define his legacy at Old Trafford.
The Scot was a genius – he was the manager, the director of football, the head of recruitment and academy boss at Manchester United. It is impossible for a new generation head coach to handle multiple roles. That’s why it is important he gets the right support system to realise Manchester United’s full potential and take the club forward into the modern age.
The decision makers just need to look across the road, at Manchester City, to get a blueprint of how to run a football club, be successful on the pitch and still rake in the moolah.