The roots of Manchester United’s current malaise weave their way back to the Glazer takeover of the club in 2005 and the astonishing sums of money which have been sucked out of the business to service the debt foisted upon it as a result. But the collapse of the last 12 months has been facilitated by a series of misguided short-term decisions at board level which demonstrate that the club has stopped focusing on the most important elements that make up a successful team and instead has become side-tracked by and obsessed with achieving certain goals that they erroneously perceive to be important. From the managerial succession to transfer targets, decisions have been made in a manner which is all about what the powers that be perceive that Manchester United is all about, blinded by the majesty of the club and a need, in their eyes, to send a message to the world about how morally and financially superior they are. A year later we stand at another crossroads and there are signs that the owners and board have learned some valuable lessons, but that others have totally passed them by.
By the time Sir Alex Ferguson retired last summer the club had become something of a void. The sale of Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009 was the death knell of the manager’s and the club’s footballing philosophy, the true Manchester United way under Fergie, of playing lightning counter-attacking football with pace, tempo and power. From that moment the club became about winning whichever way it could and the football became increasingly pedestrian and disordered. The last title win was achieved, remarkably, without the team having any discernible tactical approach other than get the ball to RVP any way you can. Much was expected of the full backs to provide genuine width and the entire goal-scoring load fell upon the strikers. It was a mishmash which Sir Alex dragged, kicking and screaming, to victory out of sheer bravery and force of will. But where once the team had a philosophy, what had become known as the United Way, the summer of 2013 saw a team and a club without an identity.
When the club decided, without short-listing or an interview process, to appoint David Moyes as Fergie’s successor, the decision was not a football one. Woodward and co had failed to identify that the club had no football vision and instead appointed a man purely on the basis of his personal qualities and the idea that he would provide continuity and long term stability. United, we were told, are above sacking managers and the short to medium term thinking epitomised by mere mortal clubs. Almost incredibly it seems that virtually no thought was given to an on-pitch philosophy going forward. Instead we heard about Moyes’ work ethic, his integrity and values. No-one, it appears, pondered for a moment about the way his football teams play the game, whether it would suit the players at the club and the club itself or how his methods and lack of top level experience would affect the dressing room. He was duly given a six-year contract, because United are so superior and special that they didn’t sack managers, ever. Nothing could go wrong, because he was Scottish and worked hard. It was a viewpoint held by even Sir Alex himself, a delusion that what he had built was based on personal characteristics rather than managerial genius.
And yet the same philosophical void that had existed at the time that Sir Alex hung up his hair dryer remained and the summer’s transfer business showed that United were very much flapping around without direction or long-term plan. Most worryingly the club repeatedly briefed the press that they were looking to sign a stellar name, not because they particularly needed one, but to show that they could. At the expense of team-building Woodward just wanted to prove to the rest of the world how rich and great they were. And because United aren’t quite as great as they thought or as wealthy and enticing as they imagined, they flailed about wildly and ended up with nothing but a vastly over-priced cart horse. Short-termism and vanity got its just rewards. Over the next 9 months the lack of vision and folly of the romantic notion of another managerial dynasty built on nothing but personal qualities and place of birth began to unravel and, it turns out, United do sack managers like everyone else. Despite the pomposity of the previous summer, the club discovered that modern football success is no longer almost exclusively achieved by continuity, empire building, loyalty and hard work. What is actually required at a genuine world giant is a respected coach, a winner with experience, a clear vision of how they want to play football in the modern era and a philosophy which fits with the club and players in question.
And so we approach another summer stuck in the same void that had developed in Sir Alex’s latter years. Look beyond the quite justifiable euphoria at the sight of Ryan Giggs, a modern day legend, strolling along the touchline dressed in a club suit, and you’ll see that United are still a listless ship and will remain so until a coach with the aforementioned qualities is appointed. Thankfully the suits appear to have learned their lesson and are intent on hiring a highly-respected and decorated manager. The favourite appears to be Louis Van Gaal, a genuine heavyweight who has won titles in three countries, an individual who has a very clear vision of how the game should be played, not just at first-team level but throughout the lower age groups. It was he who, during his time at Barcelona, planted some of the tactical and individual seeds which grew into the magnificent Barca side that we have seen in recent years. His expected appointment will be evidence of a welcome acceptance by the owners and directors that sometimes a medium-term appointment is the right thing to do, particularly when you find yourself rudderless and in need of steering back on course. Van Gaal would leave a framework for the next man and would have no second thoughts about shifting anyone at the club who doesn’t buy into his vision, regardless of how high profile they may be. Most importantly, in the light of the one positive priority on the list of reasons for appointing David Moyes, Van Gaal is willing and brave enough to promote and trust in youth, his Champions League winning side at Ajax the epitome of that. If a kid is good enough he will play and that, most definitely, is the United way.
Opponents of the appointment of a foreign manager lead the clamour for Ryan Giggs to get the job. Gary Neville, perhaps the man most wrapped up in the ludicrously superior attitude that United are a celestial light, argued hard against the sacking of David Moyes on the basis that time heals all wounds and that his Britishness somehow made him a better option than highly decorated foreign alternatives. Now that the Scot is gone he is full force behind the job going to Ryan Giggs, another appointment which would see common sense fly out of the window and far away. His argument centres on continuity (where have we heard that one before?), having played under the greatest manager who ever lived and because he is British and we should prioritise ‘home-grown’ managers. In fairness to Gary, he is totally compromised by a personal friendship with Giggs and the likely involvement of his brother, the latter undermining his opinions on Moyes. His whole argument appears to centre on the notion that ‘there are no guarantees’ with appointing any manager. This logic is absolutely absurd. There are no guarantees, but there are some managers who give you a far greater chance of success than others. There are pretty much no precedents for an elite club giving the job to a player with absolutely no managerial experience whatsoever. Knowing the methods which have made United successful is fine, but without learning the man management skills that only experience can bring, mistakes are almost inevitable. If there are no guarantees of success and merely having worked under a great is all that is required then why do Microsoft not give senior management jobs to the Chief Execs PAs? Coaching and managing are two very different skills, as many an assistant has found when plunged into the pool of sharks that is the top job. Coaching can be learned by study and observation. Management can only be learned by being a manager and you can only know if you are suited to it by giving it a try. The footballing and financial void in which United currently find themselves is not conducive to a rookie manager and the club is not a Prep School. It requires those who have already shown talent. Look at Conte at Juve, Simeone at Atletico, Guardiola when he was at Barca. All three have been hugely successful, but all three also learned in another job or jobs first: Pep with Barca B, Conte at Arezzo, Bari, Atalanta and Siena, Simeone at Racing, Estudiantes, River Plate, San Lorenzo, Catania and Racing again. Looking at more experienced coaches, Jose Mourinho spent time at Benfica and Leiria before succeeding at Porto, Carlo Ancelotti at Reggiana, Parma and Juventus prior to the Milan job, Juergen Klopp at Mainz before Dortmund. Almost every respected manager today, Guardiola aside, failed at at least one club before finally making their mark elsewhere. Management requires practice and Manchester United is not the right club and this is not the right time for Ryan Giggs to try his hand at the job. There has been much talk to him staying on the coaching staff under Van Gaal, but I’m not so sure that that is the best place for him. More beneficial would be for him to fly the nest, learn the game, make mistakes elsewhere and come back to the club as manager in 3-4 years’ time after the Dutchman has steadied the ship and built a stronger, more balanced squad. Guardiola benefited from a prodigiously talented group of players of a far higher standard than that left by Fergie and, latterly, Moyes. Thankfully the club seem to agree, and with the likes of Ancelotti, Klopp and Guardiola unavailable Van Gaal is the ideal man to pull them into line and reinstall a philosophy on which United can build.
Whilst lessons seem to have been learned at managerial level, it appears that the same could not be said when it comes to player acquisition. In the void, player recruitment decisions appear to be falling to Ed Woodward, who is happily telling any journalist who’ll listen that he is intent on signing a stellar player as a flexing of the club’s muscles. It was this penis measuring which totally undermined last summer’s transfer window and there must be real concern that this could happen again. The name being touted by the club is Edinson Cavani. As one wag on twitter opined, “Only United could try to sign a striker when we have loads and desperately need midfielders and defenders.” The squad, for all of its faults, contains a plethora of high-quality attacking talents and the signing of the Uruguayan for an exorbitant fee makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Once more a desperation to prove that United are the biggest club in Christendom appears to be being prioritised above squad building and long-term vision. Another benefit of Van Gaal getting the top job is that he is unlikely to stand for such frivolity. It will be his way or the highway, and with a novice Vice President flapping around like a headless chicken, some discipline and man management isn’t just needed for the players. The Dutchman has the personality, self-assurance, gravitas and cojones to bring the whole club into line, which is exactly what is required at this moment in time. He’ll take no prisoners and there will be some serious casualties along the way, but the players and directors can only benefit from being faced with an ego such as his as opposed to the startled rabbit that David Moyes appeared to be from day one.
Manchester United are currently a void, lacking a playing philosophy and directorial leadership and a place where some of the immediate priorities are still wrong. It is an institution blinded by 26 years of once-in-a-lifetime success, an almost unique empire that has left the decision makers unable to identify the requirements of running a 21st century club. All involved are too busy gorging on the wonder of the place to notice that the rest of the world doesn’t think that it’s as tasty as they imagine. A club without a direction will always fail, as Spurs repeatedly find to their cost. But those with a direction and philosophy will often succeed. Klopp, Simeone, Conte and Brendan Rodgers are all coaches who sold their vision to their current employers, visions which fitted perfectly with the history, players and playing requirements of their respective clubs. All four had made mistakes elsewhere, but found down-on-their-luck employers ready and willing to buy in to their dreams. Notably none of them required vast budgets, acquiring players to fit their system rather than trophy stellar signings. Louis Van Gaal, whilst much older, is of the same mind. Whilst he will spend to get the exact players he wants he has never been known to spend for the sake of spending. That is the sign of a coach with a vision. This, added to the qualities that I have previously outlined, makes him perfect for the Manchester United job at this moment in time. He will fill the void. He probably won’t be here in five years’ time, but who cares if he repairs the club and leaves it in a healthy state for, perhaps, a more experienced, skilled Ryan Giggs. United need to learn that being successful in the modern game isn’t about desperate demonstrations of wealth or size, or romantic notions of empires, time healing all wounds or ‘home-grown’ managers. Status and value are gained on the pitch and healthy clubs are built on stronger foundations. Currently we find ourselves perilously close to the edge of a rapidly growing sinkhole. Louis Van Gaal is the available option who gives us the best chance of making repairs, avoiding disaster and making sure it never happens again. We need our very own Red Adair. He can be that man.