When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was unveiled as permanent Manchester United manager in March 2019, following a hugely successful interim stint, he talked about the past as much as the future.
Solskjaer discussed the influence of Sir Alex Ferguson, the Class of ’92 and the ‘Manchester United way’. Understandable, perhaps, given that the Norwegian spent the bulk of his career at United and had his footballing philosophy shaped by Ferguson.
At the time it was music to the ears of United fans who were smarting from the disastrous stints of David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho and who longed for a return of the ruthless, winning mentality which coursed through the veins of the club during the Ferguson era.
Ten months later though, Solskjaer isn’t being heralded as United’s saviour anymore. In fact, at times, his reign has descended into farce. Providing ample ammunition for the army of internet meme-makers who have gleefully embraced every United slip.
Suddenly his repeated namechecking of Sir Alex and his musing about the vague and undefined ‘United DNA’ no longer seems charmingly retrospective. It now casts him in the light of a man who is unable to escape the past and is symbolic of a wider issue at Manchester United.
Once the most forward thinking club in the land and one who became the most powerful financial juggernaut in sporting history, United managed to convert their economic might into trophies. Financial and footballing success were seen as mutually beneficial, if not mutually dependent.
That is no longer the case. Ed Woodward, a former accountant and investment banker, has realised that huge corporate tie ups are obtainable regardless of whether United are competing with Manchester City and Liverpool on the pitch. Predictably that is where they have suffered as a result.
Manchester United currently have 50 official sponsors, including official partners for tyres, wine, paint, office equipment, outdoor apparel, feature films and leisure headwear. This wouldn’t be an issue if they had remained competitive in the league.
However, in United’s case the relentless corporate whoring of the club has led to a complete neglect of the the actual football. Indeed, United hadn’t finished outside the top four in the 22 years prior to Ferguson’s retirement and they’ve only managed it twice in the six seasons since.
One particular source of irritation to the supporters has been the club’s refusal, or inability, to implement a sporting director as so many of their rivals have done. Nowhere has the success of such figures been more pronounced then at Liverpool and Manchester City where Michael Edwards and Txiki Begiristain sit in such roles.
In each case they have overseen the appointment of a manager with a specific footballing philosophy that fitted the ambitions of the club. The sporting directors then worked methodically alongside the managers to recruit specific players to fit those philosophies. Has it worked?
In the last two seasons, Manchester City have set consecutive points totals of 100 and 98 whereas Liverpool also managed 97. The tallies are the three highest in Premier League history. Furthermore, Liverpool are currently on course to set a new record this year.
It has been a stark contrast to United’s transfer approach in recent years, largely maintaining the mantra of ‘throw mud at the wall, hope some of it sticks’.
Each of United’s ten most expensive signings have been made in the post-Ferguson era. Paul Pogba, Harry Maguire, Romelu Lukaku, Angel Di Maria, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Fred, Nemanja Matic, Juan Mata, Anthony Martial and Victor Lindelof have each arrived for a collective £544 million outlay.
It’s genuinely difficult to argue that any of them have been a resounding success. Two have already left the club and several more are likely to this summer including Paul Pogba, at the time the most expensive player in history, who was clearly bought with marketability in mind rather than his suitability to the club. Even those that have done fairly well, such as Maguire and Wan-Bissaka, still look expensive in comparison to the likes of Virgil Van Dijk, who cost a similar fee.
United have no cohesive style of play anymore because they possess no transfer market strategy. They have appointed a series of managers with inconsistent footballing outlooks, given them free reign with the chequebook, fired them and now wonder why they have an imbalanced squad. Indeed, players tend to thrive as soon as they leave the toxic environment which has developed.
There is no consistency, no gameplan. The only thing that their managerial appointments have had in common is that each has had some sort of nostalgic angle.
David Moyes was supposedly the closest thing to a Fergie-clone. Louis van Gaal’s appointment seemed to be a hark back to his glory years in the late 90’s and early 00’s. Jose Mourinho harbours a footballing philosophy that has been rendered archaic by those of Klopp and Guardiola, who have proved that football doesn’t have to be a choice between defence and attack.
Even when they have turned to a young manager, they’ve done so with one foot firmly in the past. Appointing someone who has previously described Ferguson as being ‘like a second dad’ and one who continues to watch from the stands as a director of the club. Absolute madness when the likes of Mauricio Pochettino remains available.
Whilst Ferguson’s continued presence may be innocent in motivation, how can any manager truly emerge from the shadow that he continues to cast over the ground from the director’s box? Who can drag United into the modern game when the club continues to be haunted by the ghosts of the past?
It is a past that United simply can’t escape. From the constant references to the Class of ’92, to former players lamenting the loss of the ambiguous and undefined ‘United way’ on television or their newspaper columns.
If United are to reclaim their place at the summit of English football, they need to exorcise the demons of their past and work on implementing a progressive management structure to lead the club forward, rather than worrying about recruiting official condom partner. Until they let go of the past, they cannot embrace the future.
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