Watching the epic heavyweight clash between Bayern Munich and Real Madrid on Wednesday night caused me to reminisce on those wonderful Champions League nights when Manchester United went toe-to-toe with Europe’s finest.
They were special nights and great times and they feel like a long time ago. Despite being a huge fan of enjoying and soaking up the history of the club, I don’t want to turn into one of those supporters barking on about what it used to be like in the good old days. The comparisons between the United of Ferguson and of the managers since are, and will be, inevitable. Will those successors ever be able to compare favourably? Probably not, yet the dramatic and sharp decline has heightened the differences even more.
Manchester United are a gigantic, mammoth of an organisation. The revenues have risen, the turnover is record-breaking and their flexing in the transfer market has been unprecedented. Why then, have we seen (almost in parallel with the off-field success) such relative failure on the pitch?
The problem is that the club is performing as a business but not as a football club. Money earnt and money spent has failed to halt the slide. The owners, often criticised, have shown their business acumen but, in stark contrast, an almost total lack of knowledge in footballing matters. They have been shown that a powerful brand does not mean a successful football team. The Glazers have enjoyed periods of success (2005-2013), but the evidence since then only serves to highlight the managerial genius of Sir Alex Ferguson. His, and David Gill’s departures, have left the club flailing in its own shadow of past success.
The problems currently being faced by Manchester United, in a bid to re-establish itself as one of Europe’s elite clubs, are rooted in a shocking lack of organisation and leadership. The club is already on its third permanent manager since 2013, with the board having their finger constantly resting over the panic button in case things go wrong.
Neither David Moyes or Louis van Gaal were, truthfully, given enough time in the job and Moyes was hardly given significant backing in the transfer market. There seems to be an expectancy of instant success and pretty much anything less has resulted in the manager getting the boot. Can we expect a manager to build a side of his choosing and have it playing his way in under three years? The constant changing of managers has only served to set the rebuilding project back even further. What one manager wants and needs doesn’t necessarily fit the next one.
There is a huge difference in the way Jose Mourinho operates both on and off the field, to the approach of his predecessor Louis van Gaal. Out of the major signings ahead of the 2015/16 campaign, only Matteo Darmian and Anthony Martial remain at the club (and at present, their futures hardly look bright under Mourinho). When asked by reporters who he would have kept from the players recently sold, Mourinho replied ‘Welbeck, Di Maria and Hernandez’. Again, this shows a startling lack of cohesion resulting from having a revolving door at the manager’s office.
Of course, the managers must share some of the blame. David Moyes, in hindsight, looked too in awe of the role to make a success of it, and would have needed plenty of time to get it right. Time is something he certainly didn’t get. Van Gaal is an interesting one. He secured the first major trophy of the post-Ferguson years, yet played a stoic and unattractive brand of football that ultimately failed to bring the minimum requirement of a place in the Champions League. The Dutchman was brought in as the antithesis of Moyes, being vastly experienced and previously successful, but showed to be out of touch with the modern club game. He failed in enthusing some of the players whilst his tactical approach seemed to shackle most of them. Under van Gaal there was a major overhaul of the playing staff with over £250 million splurged in the market. In fairness, he had to deal with the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Ryan Giggs departing all in one summer. Their leadership and experience hasn’t been replaced.
The transfer dealings of the club, in the last four years, have been a bit of a mess. We have spent close to half a billion but Jose Mourinho still inherited a poorly balanced squad with plenty of question marks over its quality and ability to compete at the very highest level. Van Gaal’s initial major signings, Radamel Falcao and Angel di Maria, were gone within a year and at a financial loss to boot. Bastian Schweinsteiger brought with him a reputation as having been one of the finest midfielders in recent times. He left having made just 13 league starts and showing us all why Bayern Munich had been happy to let him go. Morgan Schneiderlin probably represents the biggest problem encountered with many of the recent acquisitions. The Frenchman was meant to replace Carrick but seemed out of his depth at a club the size of Manchester United and you never felt as if he truly belonged in the red shirt. The summer of 2016, possibly for the first time since Ferguson retired, did the club look as if it had any sort of strategy in the transfer market.
Mourinho has strengthened the spine of the side with Eric Bailly, Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan and added a genuine leader in Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Still, the Portuguese manager has had to work with an unbalanced squad this season. There is quality and promise in it, the recent FA and League Cup successes prove this, but it will require time, patience and a lot of money for Mourinho to mould the team to his liking.
Manchester United still has the prestige and reputation of one of the biggest clubs in the world – and rightly so. That won’t go away anytime soon. All clubs go through periods of transition and you could argue that United are still in the early phases of theirs.
It happened when Sir Matt Busby stood down in 1969 and took a quarter of a century for the club to enjoy another period of dominance. There is no reason for this not to happen again. We will have to be patient and hope the mistakes made so far since 2013 are not repeated. United need a period of stability, to have a manager remain in employment for longer than two years. The transfer dealings need to be strategic and run with the same efficiency as the off-field business affairs.
The only difference between ourselves and AC Milan, another struggling giant, is that we have more money. Previous success will only generate sponsorship income for so long. We cannot, and should not, live off the past. We want to be competing with the likes of Bayern and Real Madrid but it will take time and patience and it certainly will not be an easy journey back to the top.