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?

Solskjaer is the fall guy, but are United still in a post-Ferguson hangover?

SURELY, after eight seasons, Manchester United should have recovered from losing their iconic and most successful manager? There was always going to be a period of instability after Sir Alex Ferguson hung his stopwatch up, but United are still looking for some sort of formula, some kind of leadership that can make them genuine contenders once more. But where is it coming from? – they have tried several different routes to success since 2013: innovative appointment of unsung manager (Moyes); track record managers (Van Gaal and Mourinho) and “one of our own” (Solskjaer). The next step will surely be to employ a manager who represents football’s future, not the past.

United have won three major trophies in eight years, a haul that Ferguson might have achieved in a solitary campaign. Furthermore, the club have lost their joie de vivre, and they’ve been left behind by City, Chelsea and Liverpool. Even with the financial platform they have and their enormous support, Manchester United have rarely looked more jaded and uninteresting than they do at the moment. 

Losing 5-0 is a disaster, getting dismantled 5-0 by Liverpool is like bathing in a tub of iron filings, but losing 5-0 at home to their old rivals is just plain humiliating. How the scousers must have loved their journey back through Manchester. How galling it must have been for United’s faithful. How era-defining it may turn out to be. Football will be watching for signs of tinted smoke billowing from the hallowed rooftops of Old Trafford this week. 

Nobody wants to be too severe on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. He’s a fresh-faced character, decent and likeable, but he’s now struggling to stay afloat, and the results speak for themselves. The problem with employing ex-Manchester United and ex-Liverpool players is you rarely get a truly objective view from the pundits, but the jeering and the exodus at half-time and into the second half couldn’t be varnished over. United were abysmal, despite having one of the world’s greatest players in their line-up.

Money isn’t the problem, United have spent over £ 1.2 billion since Ferguson departed and their net spend is the second highest (£ 855 million) in Europe, just £ 63 million lower than Manchester City’s net outlay. Their expenditure is the third highest in the Premier League, behind City (£ 1.34 billion) and Chelsea (£ 1.24 billion). In 2021-22, so far, they have spent £ 126 million, higher than City and just £ 23 million lower than top spenders Arsenal.

Solskjaer took over from José Mourinho, who was never going to fit the bill. To his credit, though, Mourinho won two trophies in 2016-17, albeit lesser priority pieces of silverware, and left Old Trafford with the best post-Ferguson win rate (58.33%). The issue with some managers, Mourinho included, is that in some ways, they are figures that outshine their employees, but in the case of United, that’s really not possible. Mourinho remains a sideshow of his own, no matter where he goes, as evidenced in his recent body language in Rome. But if you are manager of Manchester United, you play second fiddle to the club’s heritage. Busby and Ferguson were giants of the game and figureheads of the club, they were able to look the body United in the eye.

Hence, a manager like Mourinho was expected to play something that resembled “the United style”, even though everyone at Old Trafford should have known that Mourinho’s success was built upon his own methods. It was the same for Louis van Gaal to some extent, but by now the club should realise that hiring a top coach means you are effectively buying what has made them attractive in the first place. The only way to maintain a mythical style is to plan properly for succession, groom your coaches and develop a dynasty where continuity becomes a mantra. That rarely, if ever happens, in football.

At the root of United’s deteriorating status is a quite appalling record in the transfer market since 2013. So many of the club’s signings have either cost too much, failed to live up to expectations or simply been underused. You don’t have to dig too far to see how hit and miss their system is; Jadon Sancho was signed from Borusssia Dortmund for £ 76 million last summer after much speculation over United’s interest in the 21 year-old. He’s only started three Premier League games and Solskjaer has yet to discover the best way to use him. He’s young, but he’s also a key member of the England squad, so he naturally appears slightly out of sorts at United. And then there’s Donny van der Beek, who was signed for £ 35 million from Ajax in 2020. He started just four Premier games in 2020-21 and was clearly upset this season when he didn’t get a run-out in a Champions League game against Villareal. 

The list of players that didn’t work out is quite lengthy and includes: Ángel di María (11 months, 32 games, 4 goals);  Memphis Depay (20 months, 53 games, 7 goals); Romelu Lukaku (23 months, 96 games, 42 goals); and Alexis Sanchez (17 months, 45 games, 5 goals). Of those still at the club, the jury seems to have been out on Paul Pogba (£ 89 million, from Juventus) and Fred (£ 47 million, from Shakhtar Donetsk) ever since they joined United.

There should also be question marks about the signing of Edinson Cavani and Cristiano Ronaldo, not to mention Zlatan Ibrahimović. All three were signed when they were in their 30s, notably Ronaldo, who was 36 when he arrived back in Manchester. Extrordinary characters this trio may be, but should a club of United’s size and stature be pushing the boat out for veterans, almost with an air of desperation?

Ronaldo has scored six goals in nine games, but United’s form has plummeted since he joined the club and their Champions League form has been less than impressive, despite two wins from three. The victories against Villareal and Atalanta, both secured by Ronaldo’s penchant for drama, both looked like ending in defeat. Ronaldo has not scored in his last four league games. United’s win rate in the Premier with Ronaldo is 40%, before he arrived, it was 67%. While he has performed, United’s shortcomings elsewhere have not been addressed. At the moment, he looks like a luxury acquisition in a half-built team.

United will recover, but it is hard to see Solskjaer being part of that process. Yet he must have learned to live with this uncertainty for he has been one or two games from the sack ever since December 2018. That level of scrutiny goes with the job.

Photo: Alamy