Have Manchester United become Average United?

manchester_united_footballTwo years ago, you wouldn’t have imagined Manchester United finishing seventh in the Premier, failing to qualify for Europe, losing regularly at Old Trafford and appointing two managers in the space of 12 months. But it has happened and after their first opening day home defeat since the days when Bobby Charlton almost had hair, some alarm bells may be ringing in Salford.

If David Moyes was Wilf McGuinness, is Louis Van Gaal the latter day Frank O’Farrell? Is Wayne Rooney just the new George Best, vainly trying to prop up a team lacking in many departments? For so long, the club has been the driving force in English football, reliably chasing championships. How has it gone so wrong, so quickly?

Many people blame the current ownership structure of the club, but there’s not much substance to this. True, the club has become an investment vehicle. In 2005, when the Glazers purchased a 28.7% stake in the club. This was valued at £ 800m, which was purchased through Red Football Ltd in a leveraged buyout. If you look at the amount of expenditure that United’s managers have been permitted in recent seasons, it compares well to the club’s rivals. True, in the first few years of the Glazer’s reign, not too many big names came to the club, but apart from the first season, United’s on-pitch progress was in line with expectations – Champions League winners in 2008 and a couple of finals to follow.

But take a look at the transfer activity in recent years and there’s been a distinct lack of marquee arrivals, despite a lot of signings. Robin van Persie was sought after, but how many others were? There have been some bad or rather unfortunate signings in Teve, Berbatov, Hargreaves, Young, Zaha and Fellaini that haven’t been as successful as anticipated. In other words, not all cash has been wisely spent.

Expenditure (£m) Income (£m) Major signings
2005-06 19,500,000 18,500,000 Vidic (7m)
2006-07 18,600,000 14,500,000 Carrick (18.6m)
2007-08 61,750,000 36,200,000 Hargreaves (17m), Anderson (16m), Nani (13.5m), Tevez (9m)
2008-09 35,750,000 2,000,000 Berbatov (30m)
2009-10 21,000,000 85,500,000 Valencia (16m)
2010-11 27,200,000 13,650,000 Smalling (11m)
2011-12 52,900,000 14,750,000 De Gea (18.9m), Jones (17m), Young (17m)
2012-13 63,000,000 11,900,000 Van Persie (22m), Zaha (15m), Kagawa (12m)
2013-14 67,700,000 1,000,000 Mata (37.1m), Fellaini (27.5m)
2014-15 56,000,000 8,300,000 Herrera (29m), Shaw (27m)

Sir Alex Ferguson squeezed a lot of mileage out of the fabled “Class of ‘92”, but that had more or less burnt out by the time he stepped down, with the exception of the marvellous Ryan Giggs. Ferguson’s team that won the title in 2013 was the last knockings of a generation. Quite a few players needed replacing, fresh impetus was required and Ferguson got out at the right time. A rebuilding programme was needed and the veteran manager may not have fancied a period where his reputation may have been tarnished. Nobody can deny that Ferguson was a master craftsman, but who would want to follow him. In many ways, he should have gone earlier, but who wants to get off the ride when it is so exhilarating?

With the 92 boys out of the way, there was no core to fall back on for David Moyes. He, and any future United manager, will be judged on their transfer activity and what they BRING to the club. It is not inconceivable that Ferguson’s sometimes “hit and miss” transfer record was masked by the fact he had a number of long-serving players he could call on. Moyes did not have that luxury, and neither does Van Gaal. United’s apparent fall from grace has been, in relative terms, dramatic.

Look at the United side that ran out against Swansea and ask yourself, how many would get into the Manchester City and Chelsea teams? Rooney, probably, maybe Mata on a bench somewhere, but anyone else? It’s debatable.

Van Gaal has a tough job, but United have the resources and the cachet to rebuild. It’s only game one, but it does already have the look of 2013-14 part two. They have all the necessary qualities to be back at the top, but do they have the patience? That’s a question for the boardroom class of ’05.

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