Manchester United: Below the Promised Land

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On Top of Their Perch

As Sir Alex Ferguson left the Hawthorns’ turf after one final farewell to the travelling faithful, his 1,500th and final match in charge of Manchester United, the sleeping giant he inherited in 1986 were now the envy of the footballing world. Their consistency over the past 20 years had been matched by nobody. Real Madrid, Barcelona, they may wobble for abit now and then as managers came and went, not United. For they had Fergie. For 22 consecutive seasons, they finished in the top 3, nineteen of those in the top 2. There was no team more likely to be there or thereabouts when it came to the end of season honours. 

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After fighting off calls for his sacking with an FA Cup secured in 1990, United and Fergie would go on to win major trophies in 19 of the next 23 seasons. A first European Trophy since 1968 came in the 1991 Cup Winners Cup and two years later United’s 26-year long wait to be English Champions ended. The following season came United’s first double. In 1996, the Double Double, and then in 1999, the one Sir Alex had always dreamed of, the European Cup, won as part of an unparalleled treble. Manchester United had reached the Promised Land. 

By 2002 and the end appeared to have been reached, Ferguson spoke of retirement in a season that ended with Arsenal outclassing United at Old Trafford to snatch away the league title that had resided comfortably there for three years and secure Arsene Wenger’s own double double. For the first time in the Premier League era, United finished outside the top 2. But Fergie ultimately decided against retirement and against expectations, took the title back the very next year. But it was to be United’s only league title in four seasons. 

After Arsenal’s Invincibles came a somehow even more immovable looking force, Chelsea. Powered by a Russian Oligarch’s endlessly deep pockets and managed by the swaggering Jose Mourinho, Chelsea spent and won like it was going out of fashion. A 3-0 win over United secured back to back titles for Chelsea, who finished a combined 26 points clear of the Reds over those two campaigns. 

Any United fightback against Chelsea emulating their 90′s dominance was made more unlikely by the deeply unpopular takeover of the Glazer family in 2005. The Americans soon saddling the club with huge debts and restricting spending at a time when it looked like nothing but cash splashing could close the gap to Chelsea. But despite the difficult transfer windows that would follow with Ferguson comically repeating his “no value in the market” line to explain lack of necessary signings, the Scot would still establish his third great United side, this one arguably the best of the lot. 

2005/2006 would see United make four key signings, though you’d have been forgiven for doubting it at the time. Whilst Chelsea were splashing out on Michael Essien, who had agreed to join United before changing his mind, United were signing a 35 year old goalkeeper from Fulham and Park Ji-Sung, who were joined in January by a left-back from Monaco and a centre back from Spartak Moscow. All for peanuts. In a five year spell that saw United finish third three times and win just 3 major honours, it wasn’t the big money signings fans craved and were now being deprived of. 

But by 2008 United were back on top. Not just of England, but the whole of Europe and the World. Defeating none other than Chelsea in the Champions League final, despite a penalty miss from soon to be Balon D’or winner Cristiano Ronaldo, signed as a scrawny teenager and polished into the shiniest of diamonds. Alongside him was Wayne Rooney, signed as a not so scrawny teenager, together they had developed to give United the deadliest attack in Europe.

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United put together a run of three straight league titles, and three Champions League finals in four years, twice coming short against Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. Faced with a formidable opponent, transfer windows such as the one where Ronaldo left for a record breaking £80M and in his place came Michael Owen, Gabriel Obertan, Biram Diouf and Wigan Athletic winger Antonio Valencia surely played a part in leaving United short in some departments, of the quality they needed to match the likes of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi. 

Another fierce foe was emerging on the home front however, in the shape of noisy neighbours Manchester City backed by huge wealth courtesy of the Abu Dhabi United group. They started by taking United’s Carlos Tevez, and almost convinced Wayne Rooney to join him. Unsatisfied with United’s ambition in the market, he handed in a transfer request but in the end stayed ‘loyal.’ The lowest moment of Ferguson’s United career came at the conclusion of the 11/12 campaign, as Aguero’s Fergie time winner stole the title from United in the dying embers of the season. For the first time, a Ferguson team had really rather thrown it away. Squandering a sizeable lead by somehow drawing from a commanding position at home to Everton, and losing tamely at both Wigan and City.

But Ferguson would not be laughed at for long. The last laugh was always likely to be his, such was his career and character, he was simply too much of a winner to not bounce back. The addition of Robin Van Persie was the key ingredient to Fergie’s and United’s 13th league title in 20 years, and the clubs 20th league title overall. 

After the struggle of the first three years, Ferguson amassed an astonishing 38 trophies in 23 years. United had become what everyone wanted their club to be. They were winners, yet still found time to develop youth, bringing through talented players who were happy to spend their entire career at United, not interested in the slightest in playing anywhere else. They managed to find a place for less talented but hardworking professionals, finding a way for them to contribute vitally to overall team glory. They were as their fans rightly put it ‘not arrogant, just better.’ 

So where did it all go wrong? How did Football’s best performing club transform into its worst? and go from serial trophy winners to an underachieving laughing stock in the process.

The Chosen One

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David Moyes always felt he had a chance of one day being offered the Manchester United job and it’s easy to see why. The club had never yet appointed a manager from outside of Britain & Ireland, and not only was Moyes British, even better he was Scottish. Just like the only two great managers in United’s history, Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson. Moyes had shown United he could operate on a meagre budget, thriving at Everton despite the clubs inability to go big in the transfer market. Moyes began his managerial career at Preston North End and took the club from the verge of relegation to the fourth tier, to being just one game away from the Premier League in the space of three years. He arrived at Everton with a couple of months left of the 01/02 campaign as Everton finished below 12th for the 6th straight season. After a good first full season saw the team finish 7th, his second saw Everton fall back to where they had been when he first joined, fighting relegation and the Toffees survived the drop by a single place, their points total of 39 the lowest in the club’s history. 

2 key players arrived in the summer of 2004, Tim Cahill and Mikel Arteta (originally on loan, later made permanent). With that the club rose a miraculous 13 places, finishing above Liverpool to qualify for the Uefa Champions League. That was as good as it got but continuous shrewd signings over the years such as Tim Howard, Leighton Baines, Seamus Coleman, Sylvain Distin, Phil Jagielka, Steven Pienaar, Fellaini, Andy Johnson, Louis Saha and Yakubu meant that Everton finished in the top 8 in 7 of the next 8 seasons. The one shot at silverware came in the 2009 FA Cup final after beating United on penalties in the semi-final, but despite taking an early lead they were defeated by Chelsea. So United were to be appointing a manager who had proven he could stay at a consistently good level in relation to his club year after year, but had yet to lift any silverware bar an Old Second division title with Preston.   

When the time to be offered the job came, he was in fact not so much offered as told he would be taking over from Ferguson by the man himself, when noone was yet aware hewas stepping down. Upon arriving at Sir Alex’s house in a pair of jeans, he was told “you’re going to be the next Manchester United manager” over several glasses of wine. Moyes later recalled “I never got the chance to say no.” Which goes a way to showing just how unsure Moyes himself was that he was up to the challenge of following on from the greatest managerial stint in football history. 

One man who certainly felt up to the challenge and had made as much perfectly clear was Real Madrid manager, Jose Mourinho. He felt sure that his carefully developed friendship with Ferguson, huge personality and huge medal cabinet would be enough to entice United to overlook any potential shortcomings. Such as his tendency to poke opposing teams coaches in the eye from behind. As it turned out, to Jose’s horror they were unwilling to overlook the risk of his image tarnishing ability, with Sir Bobby Charlton in particular thought to be less than fond of the man. So Mourinho settled for a return to the club that had sacked him six years prior, Chelsea. 

On the 1st of July 2013, David Moyes and Ed Woodward were appointed as the manager and chief executive respectively at Manchester United. Moyes signed a six-year contract. And this was their opportunity for a statement window, to show the type of club Manchester United were going to be in the post-Ferguson era, the world was watching on with interest. In Ferguson’s final summer in charge, United had signed the Premier League’s best player Robin Van Persie from fellow top 4 side Arsenal, the Dutchman choosing the club over then Champions Manchester City. So how would David Moyes first act compare to Sir Alex’s last?

The squad was clearly in need of plenty of work, though champions it had been the least talented and most workman like team of Ferguson’s reign, a league winning team has never I think before or since relied on one player like United relied on Van Persie. So there was plenty of room for strengthening, but the position crying out above all others for reinforcements was the midfield. How bad did United need a midfielder? put it this way, they’d just had to replace the retired Paul Scholes, with Paul Scholes. But having now retired for a second and final time, the need was great for a top midfield player. Luckily for United there was no shortage of them with names linked such as Cesc Fabregas, Thiago Alcântara, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Mesut Ozil. 

But United were terrified of being rejected. Moyes tried to give the impression of being uninterested in them, whilst making it so blatant that the exact opposite was true. And still United refused to make any move, seemingly too afraid of how it would look if they were turned down. The manager didn’t seem to believe a world class player would be interested in signing for him, so opted not to try. He himself admitted at the time “the level I’ve been shopping in the past was not the level Manchester United have been shopping in.”  

One midfielder they did decide to try for was Bilbao’s Ander Herrera, but that descended into bizarre chaos when three lawyers turned up at La Liga’s offices to help finalise the deal, despite not being asked to do so by Bilbao, the player, Manchester United, or anyone in fact. As deadline day arrived United had not signed anyone, their first summer window without Sir Alex was in danger of passing without a solitary signing. When Arsenal moved for Real Madrid’s suddenly available playmaker Mesut Ozil, rumours flared that United would look to hijack the deal. Instead Moyes decided against pursuing this possibility and moved for Marouane Fellaini, a player he had managed at Everton. Fellaini became Moyes’ first Manchester United signing for 27.5M pounds. The transfer was to show that Moyes did not feel comfortable shopping in a high end market and making statement signings like Fabregas or Ozil, instead opting for a player he’d already worked with and dealing with a club he already knew so well. Though not that they did him any favours with Moyes paying almost double for Fellaini what he’d paid to bring him to Goodison Park 5 years prior. 

It was not only potential incomings that people were interested in that summer but potential outgoings aswell, with the relationship between Ferguson and Rooney completely broken down. Ferguson’s departure didn’t make a Rooney exit look much less unlikely however given Moyes once sued him for things said in the striker’s autobiography about his then Everton manager. But despite bids from Chelsea, Rooney in the end stayed and signed a new £300,000 a week deal, a £2.6M a year payrise which looked like great work from Wayne’s agent given his very best days looked behind him, as his physical capabilities had already shown very clear signs of decline. 

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The Moyes era began with a 1-0 defeat to Thai All-Stars XI, and the rest of pre-season wasn’t much of an improvement. In 7 friendlies against all extremely weak teams bar Sevilla who were by far and away the strongest, United won just twice. Just pre-season, but a warning. Another warning in pre-season came when Moyes decided a bit of exercise on Bondi Beach was just what the doctor ordered, rejecting security concerns of the players being mobbed by observing “it was fine when I was at Everton.” As United’s security told him: “yes, but you’re at Man United.” Mounted police soon arrived as the beach descended into chaos with fans desperately trying to get close to the team. This was a small example of Moyes’ incapability of adapting to his new environment. It would be a common theme all season, rarely did he ever look comfortable, but overwhelmed and overawed. 

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Moyes became the first Manchester United manager to win a trophy in his first competitive game, a 2-0 win over Wigan in the community shield with both goals coming courtesy of Van Persie. Another RVP brace followed in the opening Premier League game of the season as United won away at Swansea to go top of the league. It was for the last time. With Chelsea at home and trips to Liverpool and City in his first 5 games, Moyes publicly questioned the fairness of this draw. This was seen as a very negative comment for a Manchester United manager to make. Though likely had a Mourinho said it, it would have been perceived as trying to influence and pressurise the authorities, and playing an early mind-game. But coming from Moyes, it was taken as an admission of weakness. 

After a 0-0 draw at home to Chelsea, United travelled to Anfield. The spotlight was on Moyes especially for this fixture, due to his record of never having won away in the Premier League against a member of the traditional big four. A draw being a respectable and hard-fought result on these grounds as Everton manager, that had always been the result Moyes set up for in these fixtures and it was clear he wasn’t able to change this approach. As Rio Ferdinand recalled “as players we were never worried about the opposition before. We never set out thinking we need to contain the opposition. But I remember the first couple of games against Liverpool and Chelsea, we were talking more about Hazard and Coutinho than we were about our own attacking tactics. There’s doubt and players looking at each other thinking ‘This isn’t us. We’re not used to this. We’re better than them, we won the league last year and we can beat these. Put us on the front foot and let us go out and attack these players.’ 

United lost 1-0 at Anfield but worse followed later that month at the Etihad as a late Rooney goal was the sole consolation in a 4-1 demolition. The following week United were beaten at home to West Brom for the first time since 1978. An unbeaten October and November also saw the emergence of 18-year old Adnan Januzaj and a 5-0 away win to Bayer Leverkusen saw a cause for cautious optimism. This was vanquished with two home defeats in four days at the beginning of December including a first home defeat to Newcastle since 1972 and a loss to Moyes’ recently departed Everton. 

By the time a Samuel Eto’o hattrick meant another defeat to top 4 opposition away from home for Moyes, things had begun to look overwhelmingly bleak. They had already exited the FA Cup in the 3rd round with Swansea’s first ever win at Old Trafford, but worse still yet was to come just three days after Stamford Bridge with United falling at home yet again this time to Sunderland in the League Cup semi-finals. In a penalty shootout, United missed four of their 5 kicks. 

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Rival fans who for whole generations could remember nothing but United success, gloried and revelled in Moyes’ failure, a popular chant of away supporters of the time being the ironically sung “David Moyes is a Football Genius.” he became a target of social media’s meme makers for whom the manager was giving rivals enough laughs in a few months to make up for decades they’d been unable to. This perhaps reached its peak on the day United slung in a ridiculous 81 crosses at home to Fulham, only 18 of which were successful in their 2-2 draw. 

In between two 3-0 home defeats to Liverpool and City, United were able to reach the last 8 of the Champions League, a hattrick from Van Persie overturning a 2-0 deficit against Olympiakos in the Dutchman’s last great United performance. In Van Persie’s last two seasons he had featured in all 76 Premier League games scoring 56 times, he played just 21 games in the league this season and scored 12. The absence of Van Persie was perhaps the biggest reason for United’s complete collapse, potentially self inflicted with Moyes thought to have changed the notoriously injury prone striker’s training program to match the rest of the teams. The saying if it ain’t broke don’t fix it comes to mind. A few days after the City defeat, a plane flew over Old Trafford before their match against Aston Villa baring the message “Wrong One-Moyes Out”.

The fanbase which was so recently as United as it’s name behind one Scot, was now fiercely divided over another. Those who heeded Fergie’s message to them to “stand by the new manager” and pointed to Ferguson’s lack of immediate success at the club, and those who felt Moyes woefully out of his depth. His comments that City were at a standard United had to aspire to infuriated many fans who remembered that just last season it had been City finishing comfortably behind them.

United led for a short time in both legs of their Quarter-Final against Bayern, an Evra screamer at the Allianz Arena quickly turned redundant by three Bayern goals. A 2-0 defeat at where else but his former club Everton on the 20th April was to be Moyes’ last match in charge. The result made it mathematically impossible for United to be in next season’s Champions League, considered a minimum requirement for the manager. It had been an absolutely disastrous 9 months for the manager and the club. 

A reign which began with replacing a team of popular and successful coaches with the likes of Phil Neville, and did not pick up from there. A host of other bizarre decisions would follow to show this was the blind leading the blind. Ferguson’s final United signing Wilfred Zaha went straight into the team for the Community Shield but disappeared from the team so suddenly despite a promising start that it led to the bizarre rumour he had slept with Moyes’ daughter, which was so widely believed that Zaha himself felt it necessary to address on a tweet. 19-year old Zaha was living alone away from London for the first time, and was left feeling completely isolated by the club in the midst of this saga, as Moyes nor anyone else spoke to him to explain his absence from the pitch or offered any advice on how to handle such intense speculation. Zaha wasn’t the only one tweeting as Ferdinand began using the site in a way he surely wouldn’t have got away with if Ferguson was still the manager, with cryptic tweets galore doing little to disguise his views on the situation.

But what United fans struggled with more than anything bar the results, was Moyes’ talk of ‘trying’ and ‘hoping’.  For them “trying” to stop Newcastle, and “hopefully” getting the right result wasn’t language that filled people with confidence pre-game. After giving it Giggsy till the end of the season, Manchester United finished the 13/14 campaign in 7th place, their lowest position since 1990. Giggs’ 2 wins from 4 games was not enough to convince the club to offer him the big job, so the search resumed for Fergie’s next replacement..

Louis Van Gaal’s Army

On the 19th May 2014, Louis Van Gaal was appointed the first manager of Manchester United born outside of Britain & Ireland. The Dutchman could have been taking the job alot sooner, having been lined up as one of United’s top choices back in 2002 as Ferguson contemplated retirement. Van Gaal had been one of the top managers of the 1990′s perhaps behind only Sir Alex, with Ajax he won three back to back league titles including one without suffering a single defeat. In 1995, Ajax won the Eredivisie, the Dutch Cup, Dutch Super Cup, the Uefa Champions League, the Uefa Super Cup and the Intercontinental Cup. They almost retained their Champions League crown only being denied by Juventus on penalties. 

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Next, Van Gaal joined Barcelona winning back to back league titles, one as part of a domestic double. He then left to manage the Dutch National side, but returned to Barcelona as the Netherlands failed to qualify for the World Cup. His second stint was much less successful however, with Van Gaal losing the dressing room and departing after just 6 months with the team in 12th place and just three points above relegation. LVG rebuilt his reputation back in his native Netherlands with AZ Alkmaar. After narrowly missing out on silverware in his first 2 seasons, it looked like Van Gaal’s time at the club was up after an 11th place finish in his third season. He intended to leave, but the players wished for him to stay and so after losing the opening two games of the 08/09 season Alkmaar went 28 games without defeat and won the Eredivisie for just the second time in their history.  This earned LVG a move to Bayern Munich and in his first season, he was one game away from completing the treble, but a Champions League final was lost against Mourinho’s Inter. Van Gaal was however sacked before the end of the following season as it became clear the Bundesliga wouldn’t be retained. 

He returned for a second stint with the national side and this time successfully qualified for the World Cup. It was on the eve of the 2014 tournament that he would be confirmed as United’s new boss for the 14-15 campaign. Excitement over this appointment grew for United fans after the opening game where the Netherlands thrashed reigning World and European Champions Spain 5-1, with Van Persie getting on the scoresheet and fans looked forward to their continued link up at Old Trafford. The Netherlands ended up finishing 3rd in the World Cup, losing the semi finals on penalties to Argentina, but overall exceeding expectations. 

Van Gaal, with his vast experience of coaching big players and picking up silverware wherever he’d been was thought by all to be a much better fit for United than Moyes, and many fancied the Moyes era had been nothing but a short blip, that a top class coach in LVG would now immediately go on to rectify. The pre-season results were alot more in line with what United were looking for, his first game being a 7-0 triumph over LA Galaxy. Real Madrid were beaten in front of 110,000 spectators, as were everyone else United faced that summer including rivals Liverpool. 

But when the serious business of the Premier League returned, a 2-1 home loss to Swansea, United’s first opening game loss since 1972, made apparent that the problem’s of last season had gone nowhere. The Red Devils picked up just 2 points in their next 2 games away to Burnley and Sunderland, and inbetween that were knocked out of the League Cup in the 2nd round by MK Dons. It was the first time United had entered the competition at the 2nd round stage since 1995 and players such as De Gea, Johnny Evans, Chicharito, Anderson, Danny Welbeck and Kagawa, who a year earlier had been lifting the Premier League title were now on the pitch as United shipped four goals to the League One outfit.

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On the same night as this humiliating result, United announced the £59.7M signing of Angel Di Maria from Real Madrid, the largest fee ever paid by a British club. He would be joining fellow new recruits Luke Shaw, bought for 30M from Southampton (the 18-year old left-back becoming the most expensive teenager ever), fellow Argentine Marcos Rojo, Dutchman Daley Blind, Colombian goal-machine Radamel Falcao and Ander Herrera, this summer successfully acquired without any help from Basque based lawyers.

Against Queens Park Rangers, Blind, Falcao and Di Maria all made their home debuts in a 4-0 victory, which saw Di Maria open the scoring and win man of the match. And as United raced into a 2-0 lead inside 16 minutes away at newly promoted Leicester, their fortunes seemed to have fully transformed. Normality seemed restored, United were scoring with ease again with a wealth of attacking talent. A sumptuous chip for Di Maria’s second United goal seemed to exemplify this. Leicester immediately pulled one back, but Herrera’s first United goal reestablished the two-goal cushion. But suddenly, two goals in three minutes saw Leicester draw level, and from there the home side looked the only likely winner as they added another two goals to run out 5-3 winners. United conceded two penalties and went down to 10 men as the whole defence, especially the dismissed Tyler Blackett, were ran ragged by Jamie Vardy and co. 

United then lost just 1 of their next 15 league games, which included a six-game winning run. This was thanks in large part however to the performances of their goalkeeper David De Gea whose string of impressive saves were covering up for a wobbly defence which featured Tyler Blackett, Chris Smalling and Paddy McNair. Young Blackett and McNair were being asked to replace Ferdinand and Vidic who had both been allowed to depart in the same summer, and with United’s spending more focused on other areas, there was a huge hole in the heart of their defence. Though when the defence was easily bypassed, there was a Spanish goalkeeper whose four limbs meant finding the net remained a challenge. 

The unbeaten streak ended with Southampton’s first win at Old Trafford in 27 years. After winning 3 of the next 4 yet another defeat was suffered to Swansea, but then United put together another six-game winning streak in the league, playing their best and most assured looking football since Ferguson. The run featured a 3-0 win over Spurs, a 2-1 win at Anfield with a Mata brace, and a 4-2 win at home to City, ending a run of four straight derby defeats. 

The unusual thing about these good performances though was the absence from the starting lineup of Angel Di Maria, who was being kept out of the side by Ashley Young, the Argentine enduring a torrid start to life in Manchester and failing to win over LVG. Also noticeable was the prominence to the team of Fellaini, who had struggled to find acceptance from the United faithful, due to being a Moyes signing and his game rather lacking the sophistication they wanted their team associated with. But it’s effectiveness couldn’t be doubted in this period as Fellaini put his chest and elbows to good use, cushioning everything down in the penalty box and forcing chances. 

The one sour spot in this spell was an FA Cup exit at home to Arsenal, made sourer by the winning goal coming courtesy of Danny Welbeck, a United player from the age of eight until 23. Van Gaal was happy to let Welbeck leave citing his goal record against United’s other strikers, which was a fair enough remark but he had no problem finding the Old Trafford goal on this night as Arsenal progressed on the path to securing back to back FA Cups and United were confirmed to finish another season trophyless.  

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After the derby win, United failed to find the net in their next 3 games, losing them all including a heavy 3-0 defeat at Goodison and a second successive home loss to West Brom. This undid some of their prior work, but a 1-1 draw at home to Arsenal in the penultimate game of the season ensured a top 4 finish and a return to Champions League football, but it would be as a 4th place team. A 0-0 draw away to Hull in the final game, rather summed up United’s season. It had been steadier and more respectable than under Moyes, though for the talent in the squad, they weren’t exactly pulling up trees. But the main thing was they were back where the club needed to be, in Europe’s premier competition. 

In the Summer of 2015, United brought in another Dutchman in 21-year old Memphis Depay, right back Matteo Darmian, vastly experienced quality in Bastian Schweinsteiger who LVG had previously worked with at Bayern and Southampton defensive midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin. With Van Persie, Chicharito and Falcao all allowed to leave, Chicharito seemingly for missing a penalty in an already won Champions League play-off tie with Club Brugge and Falcao after his £6M year long loan deal brought just 4 goals from 29 games, with the player clearly nowhere near yet recovered from a serious knee injury. Another player departing after just 4 goals for the club was Angel Di Maria, United losing £15m on the player. How a player who was a Real Madrid regular before United and a PSG regular immediately afterwards found himself continually benched for Ashley Young is a bit of a head-scratcher. 

Looking like leaving the club all summer was David De Gea, who looked likely to join Real Madrid back in his native Spain. Noone would have been surprised, nor able to really blame DDG. As one of the best goalkeepers in the world, it made sense to play at one of the world’s best teams, which United certainly weren’t. In the end though, De Gea remained at Old Trafford, reportedly down to a faulty fax machine, not getting the paperwork complete on time. Different variations of the story exist depending on who’s telling it United or Madrid, but in the end the outcome was the same with De Gea and Navas both staying at their respective clubs. Navas and Madrid went on to win 3 of the next 4 Champions Leagues.

United had managed just 4 goals in their opening 4 league games of 15/16, winning 2, drawing 1 and losing the other, their 4th 2-1 loss to Swansea in their last 5 meetings with them. The man or rather boy decided on to help with the goal problem was Monaco’s Anthony Martial, who replaced Luke Shaw as the world’s most expensive teenager. Costing United atleast 36M, with the potential to rise to 58M, he went some way to paying that back with a fine goal on his debut against Liverpool. Barring one horrorshow at the Emirates where United were blitzed away in the first 19 minutes, United were moving through the season in respectable fashion, going up to 2nd place with a last minute winner at Watford. This was to be their last win for six games however, the sides worst winless run since 1990. During this run, United lost 3 straight league games to Bournemouth, Norwich and Stoke, marking one of the bleakest and sobering moments in the clubs modern history. A 0-0 draw at home to Chelsea ended the losing streak, but was marked with chants from the home crowd for Jose Mourinho, the recently sacked Chelsea manager, as the crowds patience began to wear thin with Van Gaal. 

As alongside this awful league run, they had also crashed out of the Champions League group phase and into the Europa League following a 3-2 loss to Wolfsburg in the final game. With United chasing the game LVG introduced defender Borthwick Jackson, defensive midfielder Michael Carrick and Nick Powell, who was making his first United appearance since losing at MK Dons the previous year. Left on the bench as United watched Champions League football slip away was Fellaini and new signings Depay and Martial. 

United were drawn against Denmark’s FC Midtjylland in the Europa League and an injury crisis saw them go into the game with 13 players ruled out. This included Martial, whose injury in the warm-up meant a start and first team debut for 18-year old Marcus Rashford who scored twice as United overturned a 2-1 first leg deficit to win 5-1 at Old Trafford. A few days later the same depleted side met title chasing Arsenal and again came out victorious with Rashford netting a second brace.

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After exiting the Europa League against Liverpool, the FA Cup emerged as United’s sole route to a first major honour post-Ferguson and a kind draw which saw no Premier League opposition until the Quarter-Finals helped the likelihood. But it still didn’t look all that likely. Moyes had struggled to establish a clear playing style in his time at Old Trafford, Van Gaal’s style was well established, the problem was it was like watching paint dry. No matter the opposition United played every match the same way, with sideways and backwards passing played at a pedestrian pace. An abiding memory of this time is tuning into BT Sport to watch United and seeing Paul Scholes on punditry with a look on his face as though he was being forced to watch someone else suck his daughters toes, such was the pain he felt being made to watch and discuss Van Gaal’s United. 

 All the same United progressed to their first FA Cup final since 2007 with a credible win at West Ham in the Quarter-Final replay and then by beating Everton with a last minute winner in the semis. They continued to battle with City for a top 4 place and it remained in their hands until the penultimate game of the season, a 3-2 defeat at West Ham meaning they let it slip from their grasp. The final league game at home to Bournemouth had to be delayed meaning by the time it was played 4th was already gone. The match had been postponed after the stadium had to be evacuated for a suspect package had been found, this was subsequently found to have been a hoax. The fiasco meant United were unable to apply last day pressure on City and they missed out on Champions League football by virtue of goal difference. United had found the net 49 times, which was 1 more than 17th placed Sunderland, but 22 fewer than City. Just 32 goals were seen at Old Trafford in 19 Premier League games, making it the most goal-shy ground in the division. 

All that was left to salvage that season was the FA Cup, which United came from behind to win in extra-time against Crystal Palace, thanks to Jesse Lingard’s strike. Two days later, Van Gaal and his coaching staff were sacked by the club. The world’s oldest cup competition not enough to compensate the failure to provide the fortune Champions League qualification secures. Van Gaal’s second season brought some of the most boring football seen anywhere in the world, which makes me think United fans must surely have been joking with their song from the time “Woke up this morning feeling fine, got Man United on my mind, we play football the way, the way we should, oh yeah, something tells me I’m into something good.” 

Where Van Gaal did start to bring huge entertainment was off the pitch through some of the most bizarre utterances ever heard in English press rooms. Whether it was referring to Chris Smalling as “Mike” Smalling, talking about wanting his players to be horny on the pitch, throwing himself to the ground on the sidelines against Arsenal, shouting about Louis Van Gaal’s Army, wearing sunglasses in the dugout, or his extremely drunk end of season toast, Louis Van Gaal was an endless source of content. Though maybe not the kind of content United fans wanted, as Van Gaal did little to erode the damage to the club’s image that had been done under Moyesey. 

Special, Once

If Jose Mourinho’s behaviour in Madrid had given off too many red flags for him to become Ferguson’s immediate successor, by the time he had been shown the door for a second time at Chelsea, United would have had enough red flags to place on each of their stadium seats. Just four months after signing a new four year deal and Mourinho was leaving Stamford Bridge with the defending Champions in 16th place after losing 9 of 16 games. 

But United were desperate now. And though things had gotten very ugly, not least with Mourinho dismissing the Chelsea doctor after being seen on camera calling her a “daughter of a whore” for having the gall to treat an injured player, before that there had been success. There had been trophies. As there always was with Mourinho. He had won the league title everywhere he’d been and with this appointment United seemed to say, if he can win it for us, we will just have to accept what comes later. 

The Special One first appeared on United’s radar as he sprinted down their touchline to celebrate an FC Porto goal on the route to winning the 2004 Champions League. They would see much more of him over the following years as Ferguson had to produce his very best to catch and then overtake Chelsea to re-establish United as England’s dominant force. A second Champions League title followed in Italy for Jose, as his Inter Milan side achieved the treble. Real Madrid would prove the most challenging job of his thus magnificent career as just 1 league title was won in 3 years. His second stint at Chelsea saw him continue his record of winning the league title at his last 5 jobs across 4 countries.

Mourinho set about assembling the squad to continue his league winning record and began with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a player he had a great relationship with at Inter who was brought in on a free transfer from PSG, where he had netted 156 goals in 180 games. Also brought in was Eric Bailly, a young centre back from Villarreal for 30M and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, a midfielder who’d notched 32 assists for Borussia Dortmund the previous season, also for £30M. 

But bigger than all of that was the return of Paul Pogba. #Pogback as it was to be known. The world’s first and really only ever Vine footballer was brought back to United for the world record fee of £89M, surpassing the £85M Real Madrid had paid for Bale. Big money for a guy who’d been at the club as a 16-year old but had left just four years prior on a free transfer, with Ferguson unhappy with the way the Frenchman and his agent Mino Raiola had conducted themselves in dealings with the club. 

But all that would be forgotten if Pogba could replicate the performances for Juventus and his national side that had convinced United to make him the most expensive footballer in the World. Pogba made his 2nd debut in Zlatan’s home debut, a 2-0 win over Southampton which featured a brace from the Swede. Following a goal on his debut in the 2-1 community shield win over champions Leicester and another on his Premier League debut away at Bournemouth, it had been a successful start for Zlatan and Mourinho. All seemed well until they ran into his fellow new arrival in Manchester, Pep Guardiola. The two men had shared a fierce rivalry in La Liga, as Spain’s two biggest clubs battled it out. The battle was expected to re-commence now in the Premier League, with it widely expected to be one or the other, lifting the title at the end of the coming seasons. 

United were well outplayed, and by the time they had lost away at Feyenoord in the opening game of their Europa League campaign and then lost away at Watford by 3 goals to 1, the start of season gloss had well and truly been worn off. In mid-October, a ‘Park the Bus’ performance at Anfield in which United secured the 0-0 draw the manager had gone for, confirmed some fans worst fears about the kind of approach they would now be seeing their club take whilst Mourinho was in charge. Worse followed however on Jose’s Stamford Bridge return with the team trailing for all bar the first 29 seconds of the match, as United were smashed 4-0. Mourinho’s ego was further dented by chants of “You’re not Special Anymore!” from the home fans who had once adored him. 

Manchester United then went a club record 25 league games without defeat, although they only took maximum points in 13 of these games. One of said 12 draws in this period came at home to Liverpool in January, where before the game a special “Pogba emoji” was released *insert angry Graeme Souness*. This emoji was displayed on the advertising boards around the pitch, which resulted in being quite the marketing gaffe as they couldn’t have picked a worse game. Pogba, already under pressure after a less than electrifying start to life back at OT, hit a new low in this vital game. Beginning by scuffing a glorious one-on-one opportunity well wide, he then conceded a needless penalty by jumping for the ball with his hands infront of his face, created zero chances and completed just 71% of his passes. His blushes were somewhat saved by a Zlatan equaliser, but it had been a hall of shame performance on a day when United had made such a huge fuss of him.

Also that month, Morgan Schneiderlin was sold to Everton, United being more than a little fortunate to recoup most of the money they had laid out for him, given he had been one of the worst flops in the club’s history. He followed out the door another LVG signing in Memphis Depay who had been allowed to leave that summer after scoring just 7 times in 53 appearances. At the end of January Wayne Rooney became United’s all time leading goalscorer by keeping the unbeaten run going with a last minute free-kick at Stoke and Mourinho’s United made their first final available to them by squeezing past Hull City despite losing the 2nd leg. Before another match against Hull City in the Premier League, a video was shared of Pogba and Lingard doing a long dance routine in the dressing room following a training session. With United in 6th place and already out of the title race, and Pogba failing to live up to expectations with his individual displays, this video was taken as a lack of care or concern over the current predicament, with the current mentality and culture in the United dressing room a difficult one to understand or accept for many fans who had been used to the Roy Keane mentality of anything less than 1st is no good. Now they saw players happily messing around whilst the team toiled outside the Champions League spot. The unbeaten ‘streak’ carried on with a 0-0 draw with The Tigers at Old Trafford. 

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Mourinho won a 4th League Cup as United were able to deny Southampton their first trophy since 1976, though they made hard work of it. Squandering a 2-0 lead, Southampton were a post away from completing the comeback, but it was United who scored the 5th and decisive goal, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic scoring the first and final goal of the day. Another Stamford Bridge defeat meant the FA Cup wouldn’t be joining the League Cup on United’s honours list that season, but United were still competing on the European front. Mourinho bemoaned the “many enemies” his side has after having to face Chelsea on Monday night, FC Rostov at home on Thursday night and Middlesbrough away in an early kick off on the Sunday, a fixture Jose declared United would probably lose due to fatigue (they won 3-1). A big deal was made of a banana being passed around to reach a United player who needed it, in a clear show of just how much the players were feeling their workload in the difficult task of edging through 2-1 on aggregate over a side who finished that season 6th in Russia. 

One man who was by now tired of Mourinho’s complaints was Manchester United legend Roy Keane, who said after the game: “I’ve never heard so much rubbish in my life. Why do we have to listen to that garbage? It’s just utter nonsense he’s talking about. He’s managing Manchester United, one of the biggest clubs on the planet and he keeps moaning about fixtures, fatigue. They’ve had an easy ride in the Cups, some good draws. The guys talking absolute nonsense, never heard so much rubbish in my life. Maybe the club’s too big for him, he can’t deal with all these demands. Man United reserves could’ve won that game tonight. I’m sick to death of him. He’s talking about players collapsing, that was easier than a training session.”

The unbeaten run was ended at Arsenal in a 2-0 loss as United surrendered any hope of qualifying for the Champions League via their domestic league and therefore pinned their hopes on doing it by winning the Europa League. They had been outside the top 4 since September and finished in 6th place, lower than both of Van Gaal’s finishes. In the Europa, they stumbled unconvincingly through the rounds, only winning 1 out of 2 legs against Rostov, Anderlecht and Celta Vigo, who were in the tie until the last, squandering a chance to advance to the final on away goals right at the death. In the end it was United who took the place to face Ajax in Stockholm. The final was without drama, as United comfortably beat their inexperienced opponents by two goals to nil. Mourinho wanted to make clear to everyone just how many trophies his side had won that season by instructing them to lift 3 fingers whilst they attempted to celebrate the trophy, but it didn’t really catch on outside of his coaching staff. The idea of trying to pass the community shield, league cup and Europa League off as some kind of treble was rarely less likely to catch on than at United where a proper one had once been done what now felt like a lifetime ago.

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In the summer of 2017, Wayne Rooney left the club after 13 years. His time at the club which at its peak had been so good, rather fizzled out in low-key fashion. Joining the club upfront was Romelu Lukaku, secured for 75M pounds from Everton. Also incoming was Victor Lindelof for 30M from Benfica and Nemanja Matic from Chelsea for 40M pounds. 

After losing in the UEFA Super Cup final 2-1 against another former Mourinho club Real Madrid, United made a strong start in the Premier League winning 6 of their first 7 before another 0-0 stalemate at Anfield. A shock loss at Huddersfield Town quickly followed by another defeat to Chelsea though and the title already looked out of sight, such was the staggering pace Manchester City were setting. By the time City had won at Old Trafford in mid-December, it already looked near certain, United would have to content themselves with second place. More difficult to accept was a loss against another City, this time Bristol in the Quarter-Finals of the League cup, as United’s defence ended against the Championship side.  

3 successive draws to end 2017 meant that City had the title as good as gift wrapped, in the shortest ‘title race’ ever, but United were able to get the better of them in a different race in January, for the signature of Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez. Going the other way in the deal was Mkhitaryan who had been another high profile flop.  After winning a Champions League group featuring Basel, Benfica and CSKA Moscow, United were drew against Sevilla in the Champions League round of 16. In an uneventful first leg, Mourinho appeared satisfied with a 0-0 draw despite the lack of an away goal. This proved a mistake as Sevilla took a 2-0 lead at Old Trafford. United were outplayed comprehensively by the visitors and crashed out at the last 16 stage against a very beatable opponent.

Mourinho launched an extraordinary response to this exit in his press conference before the next game saying: “there is something that I used to call, Football Heritage. The last time Manchester United won the Champions League, which was not a lot of times, was 2011.” *he is corrected, that it was actually 2008, 2011 was the last time they reached the final.* “Since 2011: 2012 out in the group phase. OUT in the group phase. In 2013, out at Old Trafford in the Last 16, I was in the other bench. In 2014, out in the Quarter-Final. In 2015 NO European football. In 2016, out in the group phase, goes to Europa League and in the second knockout, out of Europa League. In 2017, play Europa League, WIN Europa League, with me, and go back to Champions League. In 2018, win the group phase with 15 points in a possible 18, and loses at home in the last 16. In 7 years, the best is the Quarter-Final. This is Football ‘Eritage.”  Jose then goes through United’s league finishes in the same fashion, calling United’s highest league finish of 4th in recent years “Football ‘Eritage, is ‘Eritage.” Mourinho using his press conference to downplay the Champions League exit as something to be expected for the club, whilst highlighting his own victories, including ones that came at the expense of his current club, was seen as a bizarre but not uncharacteristic response. 

In early April Manchester City had the opportunity to secure the league title against their hated rivals at the Etihad. Going into the game Pep Guardiola revealed Pogba had been offered to United in January by Mino Raiola. On the back of this Pogba’s recently dyed blue hair struck people as decidedly odd ahead of the derby match. As City led 2-0 at the break, it seemed it would be all United could do to just keep the scoreline respectable, but out of nowhere Pogba scored a brace and Smalling notched the winner to ensure City’s crowning moment would not come against their local rivals. Instead it came a week later with United losing at home to West Brom. United ended the season where they had been for almost every week of the campaign, in 2nd place finishing 19 points behind the 100 point total of Manchester City. United’s 81 points was by far the most they had accumulated post-Ferguson but next to Pep’s Manchester City, it was not looked on particularly favourably. Especially given that a considerable part of the reason they had finished as high as second was down to their goalkeeper who was voted United’s player of the season for the fourth time. For context, Schmeichel and Van Der Sar have never won the award, whereas DDG has won it more than any player in United’s history. This in part shows how good De Gea was at his peak, but aswell how much worse the players in front of him have performed, compared to those Schemichel and Van Der Sar played with. 

There was still a chance to end the season with some silverware however, as United reached the FA Cup final against Chelsea. Mourinho opted against starting first team regular Eric Bailly, instead going with Phil Jones and it was his mistake that led to conceding the penalty for the game’s only goal. United dominated the ball but never looked truly threatening, as Jose suffered defeat yet again to Chelsea. So Mourinho’s second season at United, the second notoriously being his most trophy laden at other clubs, had passed without a trophy. 

If Mourinho’s second season with a club had a reputation for being his best, the exact opposite was true of his third, which is known as Mourinho’s third season syndrome. And the signs were there very early with this one. As United were thrashed 4-1 off Liverpool in a pre-season game in the States, Mourinho used the opportunity to make his dissatisfaction with the board perfectly clear. Just 3 players were brought in, right back Dalot from FC Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk midfielder Fred for £47M and Stoke City goalkeeper Lee Grant. The United board which had been willing to back Mourinho with big signings in prior windows, were clearly unwilling to anymore. It was clear they were only willing to spend big if they faced being outside of the Champions League. With Mourinho securing 2nd the previous season, they were of the opinion he didn’t need much in the way of reinforcements to ensure United remained in the top 4. 

But they should have known Mourinho better than that. Noone keeps his chequebook and gets away with it. He lashed out at Woodward, who had already irked him by attending a Rugby match in New Zealand during what should have been a busy time for chief executives, and tales began to emerge that Woodward had vetoed some of Mourinho’s transfer targets. It was apparent that if United did not get off to a good start, things were going to unravel very quickly. 

United lost 2 of their first 3 games including a 3-0 home loss to Tottenham which was the catalyst of yet another extraordinary Mourinho rant after the game. “Just to finish, do you know what was the result? 3-0. 3-0. Do you know what this mean? Three. Nil. But also means, 3 Premierships. And I won more Premierships *aloone* than the other 19 managers together. 3 for me, and 2 for them. Respect, respect, respect man, respect, respect, respect.” 

In the Champions League, United pulled off a shock win away in Turin, with 2 goals in the last 5 minutes to come from behind to beat Juventus. It looked as though that fine result had been undone with what looked a stalemate at home to Young Boys in the next CL tie, but a last gasp Fellaini winner caused Mourinho to send bottles flying in a truly weird celebration/ cathartic release of pent up frustration. 

It was to be the last time Jose had anything of note to celebrate. On the 16th December, a 3-1 loss at Anfield made certain of his fate which had already looked sealed for some time. An all too familiar breakdown in the relationship between him and key figures in the dressing room as training ground footage indicated a complete lack of respect and common courtesy in his interactions with Paul Pogba. Comments made about Luke Shaw after a match against Everton in 2017 showed friction in the dressing room wasn’t something new to this season but it had reached a point of no return and to the surprise of precisely noone Mourinho did not see out his third season with the club. 

Ole’s At The Wheel

Jose’s seat in the dugout was to be occupied by United fan favourite Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, with the Norwegian taking the job on a temporary basis as caretaker manager. OGS had spent 11 years at United as a player, scoring 126 goals including the most vital in the club’s history, the injury time winner against Bayern Munich to secure United’s treble. He had begun his managerial career at United with the reserve side, before returning to his native country to coach Molde. 2 league titles and a domestic cup there was enough to convince Premier League side Cardiff City to take a gamble on him, but the move did not work out and he was sacked following relegation and a poor start to life in the Championship saw him win just 9 of 30 matches during his short tenure. He returned to Molde, which is where he was when United appointed him. 

Ironically, it was a trip back to Cardiff for Ole’s first game and United ran out 5-1 winners. They were also victorious in their next 5 league games, as Ole became the first United manager to win his first 6 league matches. Including all competitions, the winning run stretched to 8 games, until a 2-2 home draw with Burnley, a game they trailed 2-0 until the 87th minute. The shackles looked as though they’d been let off for United as they now attacked with abandon, scoring and winning with regularity. The so-called “United way” of doing things was being witnessed again, and noone was benefiting more from this new-look, Mourinho-free United, than Paul Pogba who was finally consistently looking more like a 89M footballer, than a 9M pound one. 

In the Champions League United were beaten 2-0 at home to PSG in the first leg, but an early Lukaku goal in Paris had them dreaming of a miracle. That dream appeared to end when PSG equalised, but Lukaku scored again as United retook the lead on the night. As the full time whistle approached, it looked as though United were set to achieve “glorious failure” i.e a win in Paris, but an exit from the competition. However, that changed when United won a penalty when a handball was ruled in the box. Rashford slotted it away, and United became the first team in 107 attempts to reach the next round of the Champions League after losing the first leg at home by 2 or more goals. After the game, OGS declared “It’s what we do. That’s Man United. We can go all the way.” 

Doing punditry on the game from the BT Sport studio, club great Rio Ferdinand uttered the now immortal dialogue: “Man United might not thank me, but get the contract out, put it on the table, let him sign it, let him write whatever numbers he wants to put on there given what he’s done since he’s come in, and let him sign the contract. Ole’s at the wheel man, he’s doing it, he’s doing his thing, Man United are back.” 

And 12 days later, Ole did put pen to paper to become United’s permanent manager, after winning 14 of his first 19 matches. Following this, United won just 2 of their remaining 10 games, losing both legs to Barcelona in a 4-0 aggregate defeat. Though there was some enthusiasm over Ole’s contract signing, there was significantly less over the contract extensions of Ashley Young, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones which took place during the feel-good times of late 2018, early 2019. Jones has long been a figure of great fun for anyone who isn’t a Man United fan, due to his propensity to look like a Sunday league player, whenever he’s not on the treatment table that is. And the message these extensions sent, that United were willing to reward mediocrity was quite an alarming one for fans, who fretted that Solksjaer, so happy to be managing his beloved club, would not wish to rock the boat by demanding the board find him upgrades on such players. And the need for upgrades became perfectly apparent as Lionel Messi tortured Phil Jones at the Nou Camp, in a mismatch on the level of Muhammad Ali facing off against Audley Harrison. 

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United finished the league season by going winless in their last 5, which included a 4-0 spanking at Goodison park, a 2-0 home loss in the derby, a draw away to already relegated Huddersfield, and a last day of the season home defeat to relegated Cardiff. United finished the season in 6th place, which is exactly where they were when Mourinho was sacked just before Christmas. 

In the summer of 2019, United made Harry Maguire the most expensive defender in football history by paying Leicester £80M for his services. This has proved a rather expensive acquisition, for a player who has looked like a larger-headed, only slightly more talented Phil Jones. Also purchased to strengthen up the defence was Crystal Palace right-back Aaron Wan Bissaka, who set the reds back 50M. This has also been shown to be a hefty sum, with the player excelling at slide-tackles, and little else, which given the role of the modern full-back in today’s game, is less than ideal. 

Only Swansea winger Daniel James was signed in attack, whilst United gave up on Lukaku, selling him to Inter Milan after he’d netted just 12 league goals the previous season. Also joining Inter was Alexis Sanchez, initially on loan, though he would never play for United again. Signed whilst one of the Premier League’s best players, Alexis scored just 5 goals in 45 games for the club. Earning just shy of £33M in wages, he had proven the most expensive “free” transfer in history, given his woeful performances in return. 

It would later emerge to little surprise that Alexis’ heart had not been in it at United from the start. He revealed: “There are things that you don’t realise until you get there, and I remember the first training session I had, I realised a lot of things. After the session I got home and I told my family and my agent ‘can you not rip up the contract to go back to Arsenal?’. They laughed, I told them there’s something that doesn’t sit right, it doesn’t seem good. But I already signed, I was already there. After the first few months I carried on having the same feeling, we weren’t united as a team in that moment.” This move marked the end of the original ‘Ole’s at the Wheel’ song, which went: “Ole’s at the wheel, Tell me how, how does it feel, We’ve got Sanchez, Paul Pogba and Fred, Marcus Rashford is Manc born and bred”. Having Sanchez and Fred seemed like something you wouldn’t really want publicising anyway. Given their performances, you’d want that hushed up.    

United began the season in inconsistent fashion, losing 4 of their first 11 and dropping as low as 14th in late October. United veered from very good to very poor, one week winning away at the Etihad and a couple of weeks later, losing at Watford. After a 2-0 home loss to Burnley, a group of angry Manchester United fans turned up at the gated home of Ed Woodward to make their displeasure clear. Coincidentally, United did not lose again for the remainder of the league season. The turn around was demonstrated by United completing the league double over City, in what would be their last league game for over 3 months owing to the Coronavirus pandemic. 

When football returned, there was a comforting familiarity for fans now forced to watch matches from home, as Roy Keane launched into a furious tirade at half time in United’s trip to Tottenham: “I am flabbergasted. If I was Ole, make some changes. Get some lads off the pitch. Maguire?! and De Gea?!? I wouldn’t even let them on the bus after the match. Get a taxi back to Manchester. Shocking. I am disgusted with it. Maguire, De Gea, you should hang your heads in shame. I’m fuming here watching this game of football. I am sick to death of this goalkeeper, I would be fighting him at half time, there’s no getting away from that. I would be swinging punches at that guy. De Gea, the most overrated goalkeeper I’ve seen in a long, long time.” 

The arrival and immediate impact of January signing Bruno Fernandes from Sporting Lisbon, and a Premier League record 14 penalties helped see United continue to close the gap on Leicester City in the race for top 4, until they eventually caught and overtook them on the penultimate weekend. Finally, a big money United signing had worked out as Bruno made a clear improvement to the team, making them for 1 for about 27, when it came to successful signings. United secured a return to the Champions League by beating Leicester away from home, as they finished 3rd, above Chelsea on goal difference. Despite improving 3 places on last season, United had actually won the exact same amount of points, 66, but had been able to capitalise on a complete Leicester collapse, as they won just 6 of their last 19. 

United fell at the semi-final stage in all 3 competitions they entered, first exiting the League Cup to City. Then in a game where every United player barely merited a 3/10 rating, they lost 3-1 to Chelsea at the same stage in the FA Cup. Noticeably worse than the rest was De Gea, his ability seemingly drained ever since a confidence shattering World Cup, he looked on this day as though he would be beaten by anything and everything. And with his once world-class shot stopping having deserted him, this also shone a light  on other areas of the keepers game that has always been lacking, such as his ability to deal with crosses and command his penalty area, aswell as his limited kicking ability.

In Europe, United met Sevilla in a one-legged Europa League semi-final held in Germany and got off to the perfect start as Bruno Fernandes scored with their 22nd penalty of the season. The Spaniards came back however to win 2-1 and knock United out of Europe, just as they had done at Old Trafford a couple of years earlier. 

With Champions League football secure, the ownership saw no need to go big in the 20/21 summer window, purchasing just two players, one on a free. Van De Beek was signed with clearly little if any thought beyond “he’s an attacking midfielder, and the last attacking midfielder we signed seems to be working out so let’s sign another one.” Cavani was then added on a free, in what looked like little other than an attempt to appease a fanbase which was growing more frustrated by the day as the lack of clear transfer strategy became patently clear. 

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After a 3-1 opening day loss at home to Crystal Palace, United plunged to new depths on matchday 3 as they were destroyed 6-1 at home to Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham. But they recovered, and rose from 16th position all the way up to 1st on the 20th January with a 2-1 victory at Fulham, inspired by a Pogba playing by far the best football of his United career. Just as it looked like United were in a position to challenge for the league title for the first time since Ferguson, they lost at home to Sheffield United. They would never again retake top spot, having to settle for a distant 2nd, 12 points behind Champions City. 

United managed to avoid defeat on the road for the entire season, but their inability to start games well, conceding the opening goal in 16 from 38, meant sustaining a title bid was always going to be a big ask. Making this impossible, was only picking up maximum points in 9 of 19 home games. One of the 10 such home games they were unable to win, was a 4-2 defeat in a rescheduled game against Liverpool. The fixture was originally postponed due to pitch invasion and angry protests outside, due to United’s acceptance of a proposal to join a newly forming European Super League, without ever consulting fans. This action was taken as a clear indication of the ownership’s contempt towards the fanbase, which responded by making its feelings known. 

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United finally got over the semi-final hurdle by reaching the Europa League final by beating AS Roma 8-5 on aggregate. They had lost 4 semi-finals in a row by the time they thumped Roma 6-2 in the first leg, to put one foot in the final and they saw the job out in Rome. Beginning the season in the Champions League they had been forced to make do with the Europa League as they finished the group stage in 3rd place. This was despite winning 3 of their first 4 games, including the trickiest on paper, away to PSG and being in the top 2 at the end of every matchday from 2 to 5. But it looked likely that some consolation was to be found in the Europa League, as England’s 2nd best side would be facing Spain’s 7th. 

And on the night Villarreal looked like a 7th best side, the only problem was so did United. After they finally got on top of a game neither side had deserved to win, Villarreal’s Unai Emery responded by making all 5 of his subs before extra-time had begun. Ole didn’t make his first sub until the 100th minute. By then, United were no longer on top and Villarreal were looking the fresher side, because they were. United appeared to simply surrender the chance of winning the game in extra-time and instead settled for the lottery of trying to win on penalties. Ole’s substitutions were made with penalties in mind, if they had been made in order to attempt to win the game during the two hour football match, then an abysmal Rashford would surely have been hooked. 

One substitution Ole opted not to make with penalties in mind was David De Gea, who had an awful record when facing penalties. That record got even worse as every Villarreal player including the goalkeeper slotted past him, before he himself stepped up to take United’s 11th penalty and missed to extend United’s trophy drought to 4 seasons, their longest run since the mid-80s. It was the first major trophy won in Villarreal’s history. 

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Despite this outcome clearly seeming to show that Ole had hit his ceiling and could never be the man to lift major honours as manager, the club offered him a new 3-year deal that summer. United were able to bolster his squad with players who would bring that winning mentality back to Old Trafford. Those being Cristiano Ronaldo, back at the club after 12 years away, and former Real Madrid colleague Raphael Varane, or “Champions League” Varane (y’know because he’s won it 4 times, I guess). The return of Ronaldo was made sweeter by him being heavily linked with local neighbours Manchester City, before opting to return ‘home’. Also joining that summer was another assist king from Borussia Dortmund, former Man City youth graduate Jadon Sancho for £73M.

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United made a decent start results wise, with Ronaldo quickly getting himself among the goals. But by the time United had been dismissed 4-2 by Leicester, there was a real fear about the outcome of the upcoming Liverpool home game. But there had been such concerns before, and United had always risen to the occasion or else Liverpool would have an inexplicable off-day. Neither happened this time, as the worst fears of every United fan was realised as Liverpool scored 5 in 50 minutes. Pogba was sent on at half time with United 4 down, and 15 minutes later he was back off, the blue-haired player shown red for a two-footed lunge. 

Although clear to anyone who understands football that there was no hope of Ole ever being able to turn it around after such a result, he was not fired immediately after the game. Perhaps because the people who make such decisions at United don’t understand football. And therefore, Solskjaer’s suffering dragged out for a little longer, and took in a derby defeat where United as good as hung on for a 2-0 home loss and then endured a 4-1 humiliation at Watford. Finally enough was enough, and OGS was sacked just a few months after signing his extention. The return of Man United’s spirit had carried Ole along for a while, but that could only ever take them so far and for so long, for the absence of any tactics or in-game decision making was bound to be felt. By the time of the firing, fans of other clubs had long since taken the “Ole’s at the Wheel” chant and belted it out with the same enthusiasm they’d once sang “David Moyes is a football genius.”

Rangnick’s Reds

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For many years now, the need for a director of Football at Manchester United has been spoken about and finally in November of 2021, they appointed one. As manager. Rangnick signed a deal to coach the team on an interim basis for 6 months, before stepping into a consultancy role. Though the option of staying as manager beyond the end of the 21-22 season, did seem to possibly be on the table with Rangnick saying: “Maybe if they ask my opinion and everything goes well and we develop the team I might even make the same recommendation to the board that I did at Leipzig twice when I recommended it might be a good idea to keep working with me for one year.” Well, it’s not a bad position to be in, a manager able to recommend himself for a longer contract.

Rangnick’s managerial career began way back in 1983, as he worked his way up from the lowest rungs of German football all the way to the Bundesliga. His best results came with 1899 Hoffenheim, where he achieved two promotions for the club that had never previously played higher than the third tier, and stablised them as a mid-table Bundesliga side. Shortly after leaving and taking a job with Schalke, Rangnick left management for a director of football role at both Red Bull Leipzig & Salzburg. In those 6 years, Leipzig rose from the 4th tier of the German pyramid to a second place finish in the Bundesliga. 

Upon taking charge of the United team however, Rangnick had managed just over 100 games in the last 10 years, so whether he would be up to such a high profile and challenging job seemed questionable. Though he did come into the club whilst being acknowledged as the father of modern German coaching methods, which had produced the likes of Jurgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel, Julian Nagelsmann and Ralph Hassenhuttl. The Gegenpressing model he is thought to have developed atleast was known to have a place in the modern game as a successful tactic implemented by many of the world’s best sides and coaches, so it seemed as though United were finally atleast trying to mould themselves into a club that could be successful in the modern game. United’s Gegenpressing lasted for all of one game, Rangnick’s 1st, a 1-0 home win to Crystal Palace. Since then, United appear to have given up on it, and Rangnick has won just 8 of his first 18 games. 

Having chosen to stick with a struggling Solskjaer over replacing him with Mauricio Pochettino before he was offered the PSG job, United had now ignored the available Antonio Conte, current Serie A champion and Premier League winner as recently as 2017, to go with a man more known recently for his work as a director of Football rather than in management. It’s been said that Rangnick having these 6 months to work with the players will help him to know where the squad needs strengthening and who needs selling, but this would be true of any manager who’d come in. Now when Rangnick moves to his director of Football role, he will indeed have a better idea about the squad, but it’s likely the new manager will wish to judge for himself anyway, rather than letting the director of Football make all the decisions about his playing squad. If United wanted Rangnick as their director of Football, it would have made alot more sense to make him DoF immediately, with a new managerial appointment at the same time. With almost 6 months of the season remaining at the time of the appointment, it’s quite alot of football to give up on, but it’s been the latest in any number of bad decisions the club has made for almost the entirety of this near-decade long post-Ferguson era.

A Decade of Disaster and Disappointment

Since Ferguson’s retirement, United have spent over £1 Billion in initial fees on 33 players (31 permanent, 2 loans) to look at them wrote down is to look at a near total list of flops, players who didn’t work out despite being very good before and immediately after, and players who have remained at United only to stagnate and quite often decline. 

Here the signings are listed with a rating out of 10 for their performances for United in relation to their cost and their ability based on performances elsewhere.

Fellaini, 27M- 5/10. Often given a bit-part role in the side regardless of manager, on the big Old Trafford pitch he could never physically dominate opposing teams as he had at Goodison park in the blue of Everton, looking like nothing more than a clumsy bully alot of the time.

Mata, 34M- 5/10. Made a decent contribution for the first couple of years, since then has been kept around seemingly for being a nice guy and writing good blogs. Never looked the player he had been at his peak with Chelsea. 

Di Maria, 63M- 2/10. Since leaving the club after being benched by Ashley Young, he’s gone onto be the top assister in PSG’s history. He registered 24 the season after leaving United. It’s not me, it’s you. 

Shaw, 30M- 6/10. For years he fell way short of delivering what he had promised to as a teenager at Southampton, then eventually he did become a decent full-back for a little while, even winning United’s player of the season award (the competition that year was admittedly dreadful). And everyone got very excited. And now he’s gone back to playing crap again. 

Herrera, 29M- 7/10. Was actually fairly good for United. So ofcourse he was allowed to leave on a free to PSG after 4 years. 

Rojo, 16M- 2/10. Yeah, not a good defender. Somehow allowed to rack up 122 games for the club across the SEVEN years he was allowed to remain there.

Blind, 13.8M- 4/10. He’s been good for Ajax before and since United, and remains on course to win 100 Netherlands caps, so he can’t be as average as he often looked for United. 

Falcao, 6M (loan)- 2/10. Was clearly nowhere near recovered from a career-threatening injury, he’d suffered the previous year. United maybe should have known that if you’re getting one of the best strikers in the world for just £6M, it’s probably too good to be true. 

Martial, 36M- 4/10. Started off looking like a great talent, but didn’t improve as he went from teenager to mid-20′s. Never kicked on as laziness became synonymous with his game. 

Schneiderlin, 25M- 1/10. To be fair, he looked alright at Southampton. Turns out he was crap. Unless giving slow 5-yard passes backwards and sideways, he was great for that, anything else however..

Depay, 25M- 2/10. United were abit too quick to give up on him. Some players they’ve given loads of time too, Depay was only given a season, his first outside of his native Netherlands as a 21-year old. Has gone on to have a pretty good career.

Darmian, 12.7M- 3/10. Looks fine in the Serie A, winning the title with Inter after leaving United. Never looked up to much at United, but unlikely to be the player’s fault given how many players have failed to work out there.

Schweinsteiger, 6.5M- 3/10. Seemed a smart signing at the time, and at a bargain price. But obviously this is United, so it turned out he moved about the pitch like a 55-year old. 

Pogba, 89M- 4/10. Ocasionally he’s brilliant, just as often he’s pretty crap, but most often he’s fairly average. He’s had two good half-seasons in 6 years. Overall, United would have been better off leaving him and his agent where they were.

Mkhitaryan, 30M- 3/10. Joined United after a 54 g&a season for Borussia Dortmund. Scored just 13 in 63.

Bailly, 30M- 3/10. Plays, does alright, gets injured. 

Lukaku, 75M- 5/10. Decent first season, poor second. Went to Italy and hit two 30-goal seasons. 

Matic, 40M-5/10. A guy who’s just kinda there, but isn’t usually noticeably too bad. And for a United player who cost £40M, you can’t expect much more than that..

Lindelof, 30M- 3/10. Has never looked good enough. 

Fred, 47M- 4/10. At his best, on a very good day he’s a decent water carrier for the rest. But too often, he hasn’t been at his best and on those days he looks truly out of his depth.

Dalot, 19M- 3/10. Hasn’t done much yet, but has only been there 4 years. It’s early days..

Grant, 1.5M- N/A. 3rd choice keeper, only played twice.

Maguire, 80M- 3/10. Eighty. Million. Pounds. Sterling. Are you Jonesy in a *not very good disguise*? Has done the legacy of Phil Jones proud, honouring the great man with a whole host of calamitous mistakes this season. 

Bruno Fernandes, 47M- 8/10. By far United’s best post-Ferguson signing. Made an unbelievable start, numbers and performances have dropped significantly this season but still a decent footballer.

Wan Bissaka, 50M- 3/10. For 50M, you’d hope a player would develop into atleast one of the best 3 players from his country in that position. But the wait goes on for AWB to win a first England cap, and it will be a very long wait. Hasn’t developed atall since joining the club.

Daniel James, 15M- 3/10. He’d be alright if football was just about running fast. Ask him to do a bit of crossing and shooting and there’s a problem. 

Ighalo, 10.5M- 4/10. United paying over 10M just to loan Odion Ighalo off Shanghai Shenhua for a bit was one of the most bizarre transfer moves in recent times. However, he didn’t look as out of his depth as he might have, and it made a guy’s dream come true, I suppose.

Van De Beek, 35M- 2/10. 2 goals in 50 games for 35M, not a great return for an attacking midfielder, no.

Diallo, 19.1M- N/A. Cost United just shy of 20M, after just 5 games as a professional for Atalanta. Hasn’t appeared in many more since joining United, so too early to tell.

Telles, 15.4M- 4/10. Another guy who’s just there. Rarely spoken about for good or bad reasons.

Sancho, 73M- 3/10. A top talent who has struggled badly at the beginning of his United career. 1 goal and 0 assists in his first 18 Premier League games is a shocking return for a player who was near the top of both charts in the Bundesliga. Has made improvements recently though.

Jadon Sancho registered 20 assists in each of his 3 full seasons in the Borussia Dortmund senior squad, if he had moved to any other club in the world and registered an assist in just 1 of his first 31 games, I would have been amazed. But given it’s happening at United, it can’t really register as a shock. This is just what happens now at this football club. A great player arrives and in a matter of weeks he looks unrecognisable. If it can go wrong, it does go wrong. Sancho could have signed for any other football team in the world, and he would not have struggled as much as this.  

For years now a pattern has developed of the only player who seems to be able to thrive at United being the latest youth product to emerge in attack. This goes all the way back to Adnan Januzaj under David Moyes, next it was Anthony Martial, then Rashford followed by Mason Greenwood and now Anthony Elanga. They instantly become pretty much the best outfield player, until they too become infected with the same mediocrity which runs through the rest of the side. A combination of player apathy, coaching incompetence, and a lack of willingness to take drastic action across all departments has left United in a deep rot.

And United don’t have a clue how to get themselves out of this mess, they sign players who *should* work, and yet they never do. Players brought into the club never improve, the only option seems to be stagnation or decline, the coaches at the club just cannot make any player better. Take for example Wan Bissaka who made a good start to his career at Crystal Palace. He is now 24 and in his third season at United, and the club have not been able to work with him to improve in any aspect of his game. Over 100 games for a club as big as Man United, and he looks every bit a Crystal Palace level player.

United have undoubtedly spent big at times, but always when they’ve had to overspend due to under-spending the previous summer. They’ve never spent big when in a position to kick on, the two clear examples are the summer of 2018, when after finishing 2nd and amassing over 80 points, only Fred and Dalot were signed in a window before the beginning of Jose’s 3rd season, meaning it was always near certain that it would be vital to get Mourinho some players that he actually wanted. Instead the board told him no. The other time United neglected to spend was in the summer of 2020, when just Van De Beek, Telles and Cavani on a free came in. It was clear that the manager had no say on any of these signings and certainly never wanted VDB. United had the opportunity to kick on by backing Solksjaer as he got the club back in the Champions League in his first full season, but the board are not interested in kicking on. 

Their interest is solely qualification for the Champions League, and whilst the club is in it, they will look to spend as little as possible. The chequebook only comes out when United are in danger of missing out on Champions League football for two straight years, which induces panic. By this time United are in a position where they need to overpay for players as they are not buying from a position of strength.

Ed Woodward, in charge of transfers in the post-Ferguson era never even seemingly tried to work alongside the current manager when looking to acquire players, the manager has often been treated by the club as though his input when it comes to signings doesn’t matter much, United will sign players who sell shirts and get good social media interaction, and if you can then just fit them into the group as best you can, that’d be great.

Woodward’s top priority always seemed to lay elsewhere, in securing sponsorship’s and official ‘club partners.’ Woodward has won praise and appreciation from the Glazers for acquiring such things as ‘official noodle partners’ for the club. Yeah, getting a company to want to partner with the biggest club in the biggest league in the world’s biggest sport must have been *so* difficult.

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United’s sole hope of finding a way back lies in finding another great manager. They need to find someone to do for them what Klopp’s done for Liverpool, drag them out of mediocrity kicking and screaming back to the top table of Europe’s elite. Anyone who isn’t amongst one of the top few coaches in the world, won’t be nearly good enough. This season is the 9th in which United have failed to add to their 20 league titles, and a drought of a similar length to the one Ferguson ended currently looks a lot more likely than the title returning to Old Trafford anytime soon.

They have immediately fell from the best performing club in the world for the 2 decades between 1993 and 2013, to the worst performing in the decade since, unless something truly remarkable and wholly unexpected happens in the year remaining to make up 10 post-Fergie years. Given the clubs resources, the money paid out in transfers and wages, winning just 3 major honours in 9 years and finishing in the top 4 on just four occasions in that time, is failure just incomprehensible in scale. Since Ferguson left United haven’t once finished in the top 4 and won a trophy in the same season, that includes the community shield, no other club anywhere has fell so far below what should be expected of them.

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