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.

Manchester United: Who will want to sip from the poisoned chalice?

EIGHT YEARS after the club’s most glorious and prolonged era of success, Manchester United are still looking for a manager that can live with the past while moulding a new, contemporary future. 

The departure of Ole Gunnar Solskjær, far from being a bolt from the blue, was always a case of “when, not if”. It would have been an uncomfortable decision to make, the dilemma of hiring favoured sons and then discarding them is never an easy situation once the goodwill and friendship tokens run out. Nobody ever wanted to criticise Ole too much, especially as coaches don’t always select their new squad members at some clubs, but the biggest problem was the cherubic Norwegian being one of United’s own. 

It’s a warning to clubs in this hire-and-fire world of instant gratification that employing guys that were once part of the furniture and much-loved figures is not a good idea. It invariably ends in tears, even if those tears manifest themselves in the form of emojis on social media that include multiple hearts and kisses!

And who do United turn to now? Succession has long been a subject to avoid at Old Trafford by all accounts, going back to the days of Sir Matt Busby. United took almost a decade to compensate for the loss of the guiding hand of Matt and it’s heading in that same direction now in the post-Ferguson years. Since Sir Alex retired in 2013, United have had four permanent coaches and have won three prizes. By their own standards, this is a lean period, although they did go from 1968 to 1977 without a trophy. Two of the three were won by that lovable pantomime villain José Mourinho in 2017, the last time anything remotely gilded was placed in the trophy cabinet at Old Trafford.

Solskjær’s future was judged almost on a game-by-game basis. His appointment had the look of an interim holding job, but United got carried away by six consecutive wins and rather hastily gave him the job full-time in March 2019. For a coach to be on the brink for so long and for a rabbit to be pulled out of the hat at the 11thhour so very often tells its own tale – nobody was ever too convinced about Ole. Watford 4 Manchester United 1 was never going to look good for him.

It didn’t help Solskjær that Manchester City have been harvesting trophies like over-zealous farmers. Since 2013, City have won 11, including four Premier League titles, six Football League Cups and the FA Cup. As Morrissey once sang: “We hate it when our friends become successful, and if they’re northern, it makes it even worse.” Certainly, as City have taken over, United have had more than a hint of Morrissey melancholy about them. Meanwhile, Chelsea, the other thorn in United’s side, have lifted six, Arsenal four and reborn Liverpool have won two in that period. 

When Ferguson left the job, he had won everything – 13 Premier Leagues, five FA Cups, four League Cups, two Champions Leagues and the European Cup-Winners’ Cup. It was always going to be impossible to follow such a record which, incidentally, was built on the back of 1,500 games in charge.

But United’s relative lack of success since Ferguson moved to the comfy seats is also down to their very average record in the transfer market. United cannot complain that they’ve lacked transfer market clout because since 2013-14, they have spent £ 1.22 billion gross and £ 855 million net. Only City and Chelsea have spent higher. Since 2018-19, United have spent more than City (£ 487m versus £ 474m) and are among the top six across Europe in terms of transfer activity.

But as well as some disappointing signings, they’ve also, rather curiously, become something of a retirement home for big-name players – Cavani, Ibrahimovic, Ronaldo – which hasn’t been a disaster but smacks of desperation and seems rather demeaning for one of the world’s biggest and richest football clubs. Cristiano Ronaldo’s signing now seems like a publicity stunt rather than part of a team-building strategy. He’s scored and kept his side of the bargain but United’s team doesn’t look better for his presence.

So who will want a job that should be one of the most coveted in world football? United have missed out on some big names who have recently found new employment, the most recent being Antonio Conte, but Allegri, Pochettino, Ancelotti, Benitez, Mourinho, Howe, Nagelsmann, Flick, Tuchel and Gerard have all moved into new jobs over the past year or so. Zinedine Zidane is out there, but apparently, he’s not interested. If United want or need a huge name, they may struggle, but others, such as Unai Emery, Roberto Martinez and Ajax’s Erik Ten Hag, will surely be mentioned in the coming days. Of these, Ten Hag may prove to be the favourite, but United’s board will be only too aware, they cannot afford to get it wrong and slip further away from clubs like City, Chelsea and Liverpool. Equally, they may decide to play safe and lure someone away from their club in mid-contract. Leicester’s Brendan Rodgers has been tabled as a possibility, but after leaving Celtic halfway through a season, will he risk being torn apart in the media for doing it again?

It’s not only United that have to make the right decision, the man who takes the job also has to be sure where he stands in terms of resources, transfer targets and long-term objectives. The club should not be as far away as it is from the main title challengers or lack the vision of most of its peer group at home and abroad. Not everything can continue to be blamed on an iconic manager’s long reign coming to an end. One possibility is that United’s success under Ferguson in the latter days of his career possibly masked other problems within the structure. In the coming months, United do not just have to make the right choice for the dugout, they also have to ask themselves what else is really wrong at Old Trafford?