Will Manchester United’s struggle paradox finally come to an end?
The last 10 years have been a huge struggle for Manchester United players and fans alike. As the cliché goes, all empires must eventually fall. And where it was once the empires of Rome and the Ottomans that fell apart, so too did the empire of continued success and total European dominance that Manchester United built under legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson, following his sudden retirement in 2013, fall with frightening speed apart.
To make matters worse, the club’s closest rivals took up the mantle of European heavyweights. Manchester City and Liverpool began to scare the opponents, because they did not see Manchester United in the match list. Old Trafford no longer made dreams for the home side and nightmares for the visitors.
No, it was the dreaded trip to Anfield or the Etihad. There, two of the world’s most prominent managers, Jürgen Klopp of Liverpool and Pep Guardiola of Manchester City, built awe-inspiring juggernauts. They did so while the ashes of United’s demise hung in the air.
A sudden departure
To put the chronology in perspective, we should start with the abrupt retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson. Many consider the Scot to be the most talented and successful football manager of all time. He is a renowned tactician and ferocious Glasgow manager. In his first season at the helm in 1986, United finished 11th. United won the Premier League in 1991/92, their first title since 1966/67.
From there, he didn’t look back. By the time SAF retired, United had won a record 13 Premier League titles, including their last season as leader in 2012/13. These incredible trophies were complemented by a measly 10 Community Shields, 5 FA Cup wins, 4 League Cups, 2 Champions League triumphs, a European Cup Winners’ Cup, a Club World Cup and the Super Cup.
But suddenly, towards the end of the 2012-13 season, Ferguson shocked the world by announcing his retirement.
Since then, Manchester United has plunged into a paradox of strife. The American owners, the Glazer family, pumped millions and millions of pounds into “star players.” Almost every time those players flopped and failed to succeed. United have failed to win the Premier League since Ferguson retired. In addition, United struggle to consistently finish in the top four. That valuable positioning secures the promised land of Champions League Tuesday and Wednesday. Instead, they entertain massive audiences in the much less impressive Europa League on Thursday evening.
Administrators have come and gone. Some of them have a world-class pedigree, such as Louis van Gaal or Jose Mourinho. Others were less flashy. For example Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, David Moyes or Ralf Rangnick.
Perhaps the most successful of this bunch was journalist favorite Jose Mourinho. The Portuguese won the EFL Cup, the Europa League and the FA Community Shield during his tenure.
However, in the 10 years since Ferguson retired, the club has won a whopping 4 trophies, 3 of them under Jose Mourinho in the same season, 2016-17. The other was the FA Cup triumph under Louis van Gaal.
Players have also come and gone, many of whom were considered undisputed world-class talents. People like Radamel Falcao, Angel Di Maria, Memphis Depay Bastian Schweinsteiger, Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez wore the famous red kit. Yet none of them could stand up for themselves. Nor could they make the desired impact their eye-watering price tags demanded.
Clearly, absurd expenses and flashy signings weren’t the solution.
Fix the club
The answer is not money, not individual players, and not property. Although United supporters dispute heavily, the latter is at fault. Rather, the answer is culture. How is culture created and nurtured? By a manager who carefully builds the desired success culture. By a group of players that he and the recruiting team sign who empathize with and further enhance the culture of the club. Scouts, owners, management and board members who also identify with this new culture, this sense of team, club and success over the individual, salary, royalties and marketing rights.
For the first time in a very, very long time, it feels like United have signed a man who is capable of assembling those components. He can combine them into the final product: a culture of success and determination. United can demonstrate hard work, humility, responsibility and high standards.
Erik ten Hag is the Manchester United solution to the struggle
Ten Hag made a name for himself as coach of an Ajax team consisting of Hakim Ziyech, Matthijs De Ligt, Frenkie De Jong, Dusan Tadic and Donny Van De Beek, among others. He brought them within minutes of a Champions League final in 2019.
He may have the ability to develop players. Yet it is his prowess in player and team management that makes him Manchester United’s most important cog. United welcomed a toxic dressing room after Sir Alex Ferguson for years. Narcissistic superstars cared more about themselves and a paycheck than the badge on their chest. The lack of character famously led to players leaking information to the press.
Ten Hag cut away the dead weight that dragged United down. Those on the road included Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata, Alex Telles, Paul Pogba, Edinson Cavani, Nemanja Matic, Lee Grant, Andreas Pereira and Eric Bailly. Finally, and most recently, he dismissed Cristiano Ronaldo, who brought Manchester United to relevance a season ago. But under a new boss, Ronaldo lost a place in the side and did enough to have his contract terminated mid-season.
Erik ten Hag then added players like Lisandro Martinez, Tyrell Malacia, Christian Eriksen, Antony and Casemiro. These players not only show class, but they are also strong and passionate characters.
Martinez is absolutely killing himself for the jersey. The Argentine World Cup winner earns his clean sheets with tenacity, perseverance and sheer willpower. The fans love him, and according to reports, his teammates do too.
Eriksen is a quiet genius, leading by example both on and off the field. At 30 years old, he is a father figure with experience to many of those younger talents in the squad. His emotional maturity, technical ability and experience exude class.
Malacia and Antony are still rough gems, young and playing well. They are waiting for the full height of their potential. Both can develop into truly world-class players. What’s more, at Old Trafford for the last ten years, their desire to fight for the badge and prove themselves to a manager has been sorely lacking.
Finally, there is Casemiro. He has a huge presence both on and off the field. A proven winner, with 15 major trophies at Real Madrid including five championship titles, he combines experience with incredible talent. His ability to not only interrupt play, but also facilitate attacks and spread the ball is remarkable. His range of passing, vision and tackling ability are second to none. However, his reading of the game and positioning is by far his strongest asset. United’s midfield finally looks world-class, with a midfield triangle of Casemiro at the base, and Fernandes and Eriksen up front, roaming around and causing chaos with their punching power and finishing ability.
On the trail
The team is certainly moving in the right direction and for the first time since Ferguson’s departure, it really feels like the battle for Manchester United is coming to an end.
And with the recent announcement that the Glazers are looking to sell the club, United’s future could look even brighter than before.
PHOTO: IMAGO / PA Images
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