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What next for Manchester United?

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Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down as the Manchester United FC manager in 2013 as he had delivered on his promise, two seasons prior, by knocking Liverpool FC off their F-word perch. It was an end to an illustrious 27-year career and as little did we know back then, an end to the domination of one of the biggest clubs in the world.

Seven seasons have gone by and Manchester United never returned to claim their throne. With the eighth season running, since Sir Alex retired, the chances of Manchester United waging a war for the top crown are diminishing by each gameweek. Stories from around the world have popped up with the fans voicing their opinions on the Glazer family and the club’s transfer policy. Even the former players have acknowledged the frailties within Manchester United’s organization.

From all we know, the consistent failure despite being one of the richest clubs is a complex problem. In this column, I discuss a few issues embedded at the core of Manchester United FC and if there is a ray of hope at the end of the tunnel.


Ed Woodward and the Glazers

Is there a doom impending Manchester United?
Manchester United fans are not happy with their current owners and Ed Woodward (Image courtesy: Twitter/@utdarena)

An accountant by profession, Ed Woodward has made his way to the top at Manchester United’s board. He was initially a financial advisor to Malcolm Glazer and his family for the successful takeover of Manchester United in 2005 which later saw him overseeing the club’s commercial and media operations in 2007. He got the big break in 2012 when Woodward was enrolled among the board of directors as an executive vice-chairman.

The year 2013 was when we first heard the major outcry from the Manchester United faithful. Woodward assumed the top operational responsibilities following the retirement of David Gill. One of his prime remits included facilitating the transfer activity of the club. His first transfer window was termed as a “joke” by the Manchester United fans. He reunited Marouane Fellaini with David Moyes in 2013 on the deadline day which prompted the fans to call for Woodward’s head.

The present-day scenario is no different, with “#WoodwardOut” trending on Twitter in the past month. There has been an urgent demand by the football experts to restructure Manchester United’s management and hierarchy. The Red Devils’ supporters are in full support of this demand – to install a Director of Football at Manchester United, someone who is close to the game and the scouting network. Ed Woodward is better seen as a specialist in the commercial space of the club’s dealing – a region where he reportedly delivered a multifold jump in revenues from 2007 to 2012.

Sevilla’s Director of Football, Monchi was also left scratching his head for a lack of such personnel in Manchester United’s management. He expressed his concerns when speaking with The Telegraph.

“This is my opinion – all clubs should have this position. What is the main function? To dedicate the time to everything that relates on a sports level.

I do understand there are very successful clubs – Manchester United are probably one of the top five in the world, but they do not have that specific position – but I think that clubs more and more are aware that they really need this position and also we are the connection between the technical staff, the squad, the board, we know the ­market, we get lots of information through the different scouts.”

The Glazers family comes into the picture here. Manchester United’s majority shareholders have also been at the receiving end of the fans’ wrath. The Manchester United faithful have called for the Glazers to sell their stakes as they believe that the current owners are using the club merely for their own benefit. The American business family is condemned for churning money, leaving the club in a debt loop. The club reported a net debt figure of £391.3 million in their second-quarter results for 2020.

A huge sum of money has been spent on the new arrivals since Sir Alex Ferguson vacated his chair. With the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Romelu Lukaku, and Alexis Sanchez donning the famous red shirt under Woodward’s management, the wage bill has dwarfed the success on the pitch.

Paint him Red – The Jadon Sancho Saga

Manchester United’s pursuit of Jadon Sancho now seems to be an ever-present chronicle. It is widely believed among the Manchester United faithful that adding Sancho to Manchester United’s roster would turn things around.

And they really believe that to happen in a jiffy!

The Borussia Dortmund winger has been one of the best players in the Bundesliga over the past two seasons. The previous season was particularly the most impressive as Sancho scored 17 and assisted 16 goals in the Bundesliga. The Red Devils have not been able to fill the void left by Cristiano Ronaldo and now want Sancho to wield his magic at the Old Trafford.

United’s failure to procure Sancho on the deadline day is a blessing in disguise. Splashing over a hundred million quid would have never made sense – just for the sake of adding another attacker in the squad.

Mason Greenwood brought a fresh breath of life on the right-wing last season, spending only 1,320 minutes on the pitch. His introduction had a major impact on Daniel James’s career. The former Swansea City winger is now seen as a backup to the 17-year old Greenwood. Rising from the youth ranks, Greenwood registered the best scoring feat for United in the Premier League last season as he scored 0.68 goals per 90.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has a number of attacking options at his disposal. Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford, and Anthony Martial are the regular starters under Solskjaer’s system. They took Premier League by a storm when Fernandes joined the Red Devils. Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard, Daniel James, and Odin Ighalo are among the others available on the bench for Solskjaer. The deadline day also saw Edinson Cavani sealing his switch from Paris Saint-Germain.

If the argument falls in favour of the “quality” of the attacking players that United possess versus the other big clubs in Europe, one should definitely Google the number of “world-class” players to have played for Manchester United in the last seven years.

Manchester United have lost a mammoth £130 million on player sales which includes Europe’s finest talents, namely, Angel Di Maria, Memphis Depay, Alexis Sanchez, and Romelu Lukaku.

Asking Woodward and the Glazers to open their wallets on every occasion is not how Manchester United succeeded in the past two decades. What we witness for 90 minutes on the pitch is only a byproduct of the unseen events that take place behind the scenes.

Coaching and Tactics

Is there a doom impending Manchester United?
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (Image courtesy: Twitter/@UtdOptimist)

Manchester United have conceded 11 goals in the first three league games this season and we have a few eyebrows raised on Solskjaer’s appointment as the head coach. The Norwegian took over in the midst of the 2018/19 season, initially as an interim coach. The heroic second-leg performance against PSG in the UEFA Champions League ultimately led to his permanent appointment by the Manchester United board.

He went on an 11-game unbeaten run after replacing Jose Mourinho in the dugout. Ironically, he finished the 2018/19 Premier League season in the sixth place, the same position where Mourinho waved his final goodbye to the Red half of Manchester. Solskjaer’s journey since then has been a rollercoaster ride.

While Manchester United had the third-best defensive record in the Premier League last season, the current campaign so far has been a bad omen. They suffered defeat at the hands of Crystal Palace and Tottenham on either side of a lucky escape against Brighton.

Are tactics to be blamed?

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer used different versions of 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 in his first season before settling for a 4-2-3-1 formation in the previous campaign. Bruno Fernandes’s arrival added a bit of stability in the starting eleven. Paul Pogba was used as a box-to-box midfielder with Nemanja Matic as the pivot during the build-up. Their system was successful against teams that played with an attacking mindset. However, United struggled to unsettle teams that play with a strong defensive block. This is exactly the opposite of how Sir Alex Ferguson dominated English football with a firm hold over the teams lying in the mid and bottom range of the table.

Rio Ferdinand, who was a key character in Ferguson’s era, shared his views on United’s weak defense with BT Sport. (News source: Daily Express)

I want Jadon Sancho to come to Man United, he’s a generational talent, he’s someone who will get fans off their seats.

But does he solve the fundamental problems that I see happening with this team?

Yes, they had a fantastic goals-against record last season but there are moments in games, or before games even.

Are you looking across the tunnel across that line thinking ‘I’m going to have to be at my absolute best to get a chance against this Manchester United team’?

I don’t think so – and that’s a problem for me.”

Whether Alex Telles will solve this problem – is a question that will be answered in the coming weeks. United lacks a good modern-day full-back and Telles could be deployed as a wing-back in a three-man defensive lineup. On the other side of the spectrum, Solskjaer may completely replace Luke Shaw from the left-back role.

Three proven managerial figures have dictated the gameplay at Manchester United before Solskjaer took over the responsibilities of a head coach, post the Ferguson era. The head coach roulette will only push United further down the pecking order. Although not a quick fix, every member of the club needs to work in unison to tighten the axis before everything comes falling down.


Will the Glory days return to Old Trafford?

There is a wide bridge between success and being the richest club in the country. Sir Alex Ferguson’s Class of 92’ exemplifies as a cornerstone for reaping continued benefits over the long-term. Fortunately for United, the rejuvenation of the club’s youth system has rekindled the torch of hope.

Solskjaer deserves some credit for instilling the confidence in the young guns to play at the biggest stage. Scott McTominay, Brandon Williams, Mason Greenwood, and Timothy Fosu-Mensah are looking to follow Marcus Rashford’s path to become regular starters under Solskjaer’s tutelage. Athletic’s Andy Mitten gave a lowdown on how Manchester United have re-engineered their youth system after a long underfunded spell.

Is there a doom impending Manchester United?
Manchester United’s young guns have a big part to play in the club’s success (Image courtesy: Twitter/@Curiosidades_PL)

The next step on the bridge to success lies in Solskjaer’s coaching acumen and the backing of Manchester United’s board. The baby-face assassin scored full marks on reinstalling a positive mood in the locker room following Mourinho’s departure. Nonetheless, the Red Devils are lacking the burning desire to unleash their true potential on the pitch. The current season tellingly illustrates their lack of cohesiveness and willingness to win. Bayern Munich serves as a perfect example when Hansi Flick replaced Niko Kovac last season. The Bavarians had 18 points in ten Bundesliga games when Flick took over and completed a treble-winning campaign with literally the same squad.

The senior executives, on the other hand, should entrust the future of the club to Solskjaer – at least at the moment albeit with caution. Indulging into a frenzy of transfer market activity pays the same price as adding a new face in the head coach position every now and then. This is not how Liverpool FC regained their domestic clout after appointing Jurgen Klopp in 2015 and of course, not how Alex Ferguson prefixed his name with “Sir”.

As for the Board, they need to hire a professional in the Sporting Director role. Not because all the big clubs are doing it – because it is the need of the hour. The Premier League is far more competitive than it was a decade ago and there might be a doom impending Manchester United.


(Featured Image: Twitter/@xGPhilosophy)

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