Another Manchester United post-mortem as the hour-glass loses more sand

DIEGO SIMEONE sprinted off the pitch and down the tunnel, showered with water, beer and plastic cups. He knew exactly what to expect as his team knocked Manchester United out of the UEFA Champions League. United were disappointing, lacking the intelligence to deal with an Atlético Madrid team that knew exactly how to play their hosts. The Spanish champions made the most of every foul, every hold-up and every niggling challenge and were economical with their energy. 

United enjoyed the greater percentage of possession, as they should have given their home status, but they did very little with it, especially in the second half. Atléti put on a classic two-legged away performance, the type that once characterised such ties in the days before the European Cup became the bloated Champions League.

How much longer can Manchester United remain on this greasy pole of existence? How much more disappointment can fans weened on multiple trophy wins and a stream of star players slotted into the system under Sir Alex, tolerate? The club is fortunate it has legacy fans who believe in the religion that is Manchester United, and a waiting list of eager fans longing to join the throng. Nothing dramatic is going to happen to United, but they desperately don’t want to become a heritage act.

Success is relative, so for United, that is measured by trophies, Champions League success and high-end squads playing a brand of exciting football the club’s reputation and DNA has been built upon. Those days have gone, United enjoyed not one but two long eras where style was allied to success. It has now gone and it will not return in a hurry, because United is now a multi-national sporting institution, owned by people who expect (not unreasonably) some form of financial return. Success has to be engineered to ensure the graph goes in the right direction. 

The “style” that United always saw as a prerequisite, is no longer at the top of the list. Getting back to being title contenders (genuine contenders, not top four candidates), is now the priority. It’s not something that has to be achieved at any cost, United are not about to become a team of cloggers, but that’s why they have hired, in the recent past, Mourinho, Ibrahimovic, Cavani and Ronaldo. There’s no “class of ‘92” situation waiting to revitalise the club, firstly because nobody has the patience to realise it and secondly, coaches come and go rather quickly.

United’s golden age in Europe was not in 1968, 1999 and 2008, even though they won the top European prize in each of those years. Sir Matt Busby spent more than a decade trying to win the competition, Ferguson won it twice in a period when United stood emphatically astride English football. Some say he should have had more success, but 2008, when his United team beat Chelsea on penalties, was really the end of their time as a compelling force. In 2009 and 2011 they reached the final again, to their enormous credit, but they were way behind champions Barcelona. Since then, their record has been very disappointing and setbacks like their Atlético defeat are becoming all too frequent.

United’s decline and Ferguson’s departure are, to some extent, coincidental. But where United went wrong was inadequate planning around his retirement and then in expecting instant results from every appointment. It should be recalled that Ferguson was not an immediate success, he took over in 1986 and it was not until 1990 that he won his first trophy. There is not a top club in existence today that would give a manager that amount of time to get it right.

But it is not as simple as getting the coach right. United have been through a few since 2013 and they are still searching for the holy grail. They have a squad that has cost more than almost every other assembly of players in Europe – the players fielded against Atléti cost over £ 500 million – they have one of the top wage bills, they enjoy 70,000 crowds. They are still Manchester United.

There seems, however, no cohesion and a distinct lack of strategy around transfers and an ongoing erosion of the club’s culture. Hiring veteran players is something a lesser club would entertain, it implies a desperate need to give United a “lift”, a boost to morale. Admittedly, we are talking about big names who have been brilliant, but United are not a club that should be pinning its hopes on faded genius. The attitude of some players has to be questioned, as pointed out by pundits like Roy Keane.

The question is, if people believe the coach(es) are to blame, who do they want to manage the team? The blame doesn’t only rest with the coach, it is also with those employed in identifying new talent for Manchester United and how those players fit into the system. Until they become more rounded, more strategic and joined-up, the frustration will continue for England’s biggest club.

Manchester United’s latest conundrum – the role of Ralf

MANCHESTER UNITED appear to be in limbo land once more, appointing an interim manager to replace a caretaker (or was it the other way round?) and they are reliant on a 36 year-old striker to lift a club that seems further away from regaining past glories than at any time in the past nine years. The jury is permanently out on United and their decision-making ability, the latest issue being the near and medium-term future of Ralf Rangnick, their temporary coach.

Since Rangnick came on board, United’s form has been far from a disaster, but somehow things don’t seem right. This may seem unfair given Rangnick’s reputation in the game. He is, supposedly, the inventor of Gegenpressing and cites Ernst Happel, Valery Lobanovsky, Arrigo Sacchi and Zdenêk Zeman as his main influences. He has also helped shape coaches like Jürgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel and Julien Nagelsmann, among others.

Rangnick has walked into a club that seems quite ill-at-ease with itself. Manchester City’s constant stream of triumph must really irk the Old Trafford regulars, but it’s the gap between the two Manchester clubs that defines one as sleek, corporate football at its most successful while the other resembles a club from a different era that continues to struggle with its post-Ferguson identity. It’s now nine years since the iconic manager of the Premier League era retired and United are still looking for the right direction. In that period, they have won just three trophies, the last silverware secured in 2017. They’ve had four permanent managers in that time; David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, José Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Their average league position since 2013 has been 4.4 – compared to 1.3 for the previous eight years.

Rangnick’s credentials as a football academic may be impeccable and, in truth, he hasn’t done badly at all at the club. His eight Premier League games have resulted in five wins, two draws and one defeat. But there are conflicting reports about Rangnick’s relationship with Cristiano Ronaldo, who he substituted recently during a game, much to the disgust of the Portuguese superstar. On one hand, CR7 speak out in favour of the new coach, while other, whispered stories suggest he is unhappy at the style of play. Not everyone was convinced about the appointment of Rangnick, questioning if he had enough recent managerial experience. Some felt he was a white board and powerpoint man and a strategist rather than a football manager.

Others have been disappointed with the team’s performance since his arrival, although one of United’s weak spots, defence, has been improved. While Ronaldo scored plenty when he was first signed from Juventus, the goals seem to have dried up and he has netted twice in the league since Rangnick was hired. There were already question marks about Ronaldo’s affect on the rest of the team, such as Bruno Fernandes, who was spectacular a year ago, but has struggle to reproduce his best since CR7 joined United.

Anyone expecting activity in the January transfer window would have been disappointed, for United didn’t sign anyone but unloaded seven players, including loan spells for Anthony Martial and Donny van de Beek to Sevilla and Everton respectively. United’s squad remains top heavy but they still don’t seem to have the players they need. Their record in the transfer market, like almost all major clubs, is very patchy –  for example, they paid € 85 million for Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho and things haven’t exactly gone to plan. And what of Paul Pogba, the enigmatic French midfielder? His contract expires in June, so it looks like he will be on his way after a six-year period where he has rarely been at his best. Gnerally, United’s transfer policy has to be questioned.

Obviously, frustration with the club goes beyond playing matters, the Glazer family are still heavily criticised even though they have clearly demonstrated they are in it for the long haul. Their sports business, which also includes Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is valued at almost US$ 6 billion and is the eighth biggest sports empire in the world (source: Forbes).

Manchester United’s wage bill went up by 14% and is one of the largest in global football, totalling £ 323 million and representing 65% of income, one of the highest in the club’s history but still reasonably healthy given the environment and compared to most of their peers. According to KPMG Football Benchmark, United may have lost around 20% in revenues during the covid-19 pandemic. Their income for 2020-21, at £ 494 million, was 14% lower than the previous campaign and their pre-tax loss amounted to £ 24 million. 

Rangnick’s mandate at Old Trafford is not necessarily to become the permanent manager but may be to help stabilise the club and prepare it for the next big managerial hire, whoever that may be. His agreement with United includes a consultancy period that goes beyond a role in the dugout, which is really the key aspect of this discussion. 

United need Rangnick’s experience as part of the Red Bull football empire and that is understandable, whatever people think of controversial but impressive clubs like RB Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg. Rangnick, a strict disciplinarian and firm advocate of youth development, is widely considered to have been the most important figure in the story of the Red Bull football structure, so it is not difficult to see a major role for the 63 year-old German if the Glazer family want to build something new and make United into a more dynamic corporate football institution. 

This, of course takes time and it will demand a shift in mindset to be truly successful – English football has been notoriously myopic in its outlook and young players doesn’t always get its opportunity when experience can easily be bought in the market. Will the owners, the fans and media buy into a long game that transforms Manchester United, and if it does happen, will United have a profound influence on the English game once more? It could be there’s more at stake than the next managerial appointment at Manchester United.