Where Manchester United Went Wrong

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Manchester United has dismissed Jose Mourinho, the third manager they have sacked since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. A club that once espoused the merits of stability has become the most rudderless team in Europe. In result, where does the most successful club of the Premier League era go from here?

A decline years in the making

There is plenty of blame to go around for United’s decline, but some of the causes go back even decades. Many fans trace the club’s problems back to the Glazer family’s leverage buyout back in 2005. The protests have run over the Glazer’s running of the club, and has seen the US owners take fortunes out of the club and spend enormous amounts of money servicing the debt they created.

Sir Alex Ferguson always staunchly defended the Glazer family, pointing out they funded the new training complex and always stumped up the money for transfers. Would Ferguson have asked for more were the club not in private ownership? United was at the zenith of their power in 2011, coming off a 3rd Premier League title and 3rd Champions League final in 4 years.

The root of the first team problems began that summer. Ferguson, as he’d done many times before, saw the need to rebuild an ageing defence. He was on the money in bringing in David De Gea, but got it wrong with Phil Jones and Chris Smalling.

Ferguson also dispensed with Dimitar Berbatov, convinced young striker Javier Hernandez was the long-term answer. However, Hernandez’s best season in Manchester was that first 2010-11 season. A year later, perhaps unnerved by Manchester City winning their first title at his expense, Ferguson bought Robin Van Persie.

The Dutchman was an instant hit, but at 29 was not the long-term solution. Van Persie’s goals guided United to their 13th Premier League title in 2013 and the Footballer of the Year Award, but never looked like repeating this feats beyond that season. When Ferguson rode off into the sunset that summer, he left the club as Champions, but with a team dependent on veterans Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra, Scholes (who left with Ferguson), Giggs and Van Persie. Sir Alex then picked his successor, and that was when the trouble really began.

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Wrong one, again and again

David Moyes was seen by most as an odd choice a mid-table manager with little  knowledge of managing a team with title ambitions. Matters were made more difficult by the loss of CEO David Gill, who was replaced by Ed Woodward. With the team ageing, Moyes identified Cesc Fabregas as a replacement for the retired Scholes. When Woodward couldn’t deliver, they bought Marouane Fellaini, a player quickly derided as not United quality.

Failing to get Fabregas was on Woodward, but not changing the ageing defence and forward line while still on top was all on Moyes. An early season thrashing at City was a taste of things to come, and United’s veterans appeared to burn out quickly. Moyes identified Juan Mata in the January transfer window, but had no idea how to deploy him. By the time of Moyes’ sacking that spring, United was on course to finish seventh in the League, having never finished outside the top three in the Premier League era.

Next came Louis Van Gaal, who unlike Moyes, was big enough for the job. While Moyes was too slow to make changes, Van Gaal was too fast. He dispensed with Evra and Hernandez, both of whom went on to stellar seasons elsewhere. Star signings in Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao and Memphis Depay were all disasters. Van Goal followed Ferguson’s doctrine of promoting from the youth team with Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford as the standouts.

After a first season of progress that saw the club regain Champions League status, the second was expected to deliver the title. However, United began to flatline, and the progress became painfully slow. Then came the announcement the club dreaded, as Pep Guardiola joined City the next summer. It seemed Woodward panicked, knowing City had Pep meant United must replace Van Goal with the biggest name possible: Jose Mourinho.

Much like Van Gaal and Moyes, Mourinho’s brand of defensive football never became a match for United. The first season was predictably techy, but the signing of Zlatan covered over the cracks, and two major trophies followed.

In Mourinho’s second season, things started well, but City went into overdrive while United finished a distant second. Although they made the FA Cup final, Mourinho was under pressure. This past summer saw Woodward fail to back Mourinho, who wanted to sign another central defender.

The season has seen Mourinho constantly at odds with his players, the board and the press. The results have been awful, with United easily beaten by Liverpool, City and Tottenham. Even the likes of Crystal Palace and Southampton proved too tough for United to break down.

From here to where?

United will appoint an interim boss and then look for a long-term replacement in the summer. The first priority has to be to patch up an unhappy dressing room. It is easier to list the players Mourinho didn’t fall out than those he did.

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In addition, speeding up United’s play is another major task. Paul Pogba’s awful season needs to be addressed. The club has other performers who have disappointing, most notably Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku.

Disharmony in the dressing room has been matched only by apathy in the boardroom. The club has desperately lacked a Sporting Director. Instead, five years of transfer policy have been conducted by three different managers. Predictably, the signings have been scatter-gun with no discernible strategy in place, and the results have been very mixed.

The club needs to think far more carefully about who they eventually appoint as manager In terms of footballing philosophy and how they will fit in the club structure. United will not compete for the title, or even the top four this season. Right now this a club in need of long-term planning and some short-term harmony, neither of which looked attainable under Mourinho.

Picture Credits: Evening Standard, Eurosport, Sky Sports

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