They say a fish rots from the head down, and though that’s not an exact fit when looking for a correlative description of Manchester United’s current predicament and trajectory, it’s very much indicative of where their problems begin.
Of course there are variables to be taken into account. Professional football is a big business, full of opportunities, pitfalls and gambles; but suffice to say, if the leadership of any organisation is strong but supportive, proactive rather than reactive and approachable rather than (appearing) blasé and somewhat tone deaf – it stands a far better chance of consistent, long-term success and the necessary evolution to maintain it. Is this the case at Old Trafford currently? It certainly doesn’t appear so. Not under the Glazers’ tenure of ownership.
Putting it at its most primitive – example, ethos, initiative and culture comes from the top before trickling down; and the current lack of this is, in my opinion, why one of the world’s biggest football clubs’ is stuck in a misguided no-man’s land. Left in a mismatched, disjointed balancing act between off-field revenue drives in order to pay off the eye-watering multi-million pound loan(s) – and subsequent interest payments – the Glazers saddled the previously financially prudent club with upon purchase, and the structured requirements needed for consistent success on the pitch; where it really should matter.
We’re constantly reminded that football is now a business; and it is, but most importantly, it’s a results business. Of course in an ideal world the commercial and the footballing sectors of the organisation should work in harmony; interlinked in providing a modern-day, successful, interactive club for their fanbase – and The Red Devils global following is colossal. An absolute juggernaut in terms of its reach, yet gradually and systematically regressing as a competitive force on the pitch in both English and European football. Things need to change if the club is to return to where its supporters want and expect it to be, and it is to efficiently keep pace in the sports’ ever changing landscape for future generations. Things need to change – in attitude from the top and in-turn, implementation throughout.
The Glazer family, also owners of NFL franchise Tampa Bay Buccaneers, took hold of their first stake in Manchester United Football Club in 2003, during the autumn period of the hugely successful Sir Alex Ferguson managerial reign. By the summer of 2005 the Glazers’ ownership stood at 98% (swiftly becoming 100%) at a cost of circa £800M; the majority of which was serviced through loans secured against club assets – a huge bone of contention for long-standing ‘Reds’ fans, as was the subsequent £60M per annum interest payments this created. For a previously proud, largely self-sufficient, debt-free institution, this was both concerning and frustrating for supporters keen to maintain their clubs’ heritage and sceptical of the direction in which it is being taken by its current board.
Since the Glazers takeover (and certainly more so following Ferguson’s departure), things have slowly but surely unravelled at Old Trafford. Trophies and winners’ medals have gone from plentiful, to sporadic, to non-existent for a club that was so used to being victorious. United haven’t won a major trophy for nearly five seasons now, and appear further away than ever from doing so; for so many reasons and because of a somewhat distinct lack of decisive leadership.
Of course football, like many things in life, is very cyclical in how things transpire. Managers, players, clubs and their success levels go through these cycles. Teams go through varying phases of growth and decline; era’s change – but for a spell of underachievement to be broken, for a fresh, vibrant, more successful era to emerge there has to be an acceptance of the current issues and failures and the necessary alterations implemented. This is where Manchester United find themselves, in a rut of poor and reactive (rather than proactive) decisions across the board both leading to and stemming from mediocrity on the pitch. The club, to a point, has lost its identity, and to me that is the root of their problems; it’s led to them falling way short of the standards expected at one of English, and indeed global football’s most prominent clubs. When you move away from an identity, you lose sight of your starting point, your objectives and values – and in effect, your aspirations become misguided.
The Red Devils have become a haven for short-termism; in every way. Open-ended stop-gaps aplenty on the managerial side, CEO’s and recruitment staff out of their depth within their job roles and, in-turn, big name, though questionably suitable players signed – at great cost – to placate a regularly unhappy fanbase. The owners and those in charge of running the club have spent the best part of a decade now hoping that one of the temporary plasters they slap over the puncture will somehow, in some way, lead to the fixing of the problem(s). Desperate for some sort of quick solution to change their fortunes rather than accepting the route back to the top is a long one starting with planning, ethos and identity throughout – with each and every area of the club aligning towards a common, predetermined goal.
So, putting aside the loans and debt issues for now, let’s look at how they’ve arrived at this point on the field of play. In recent times, following on from David Moyes – Sir Alex Ferguson’s personal, though ultimately unsuccessful choice of successor upon retiring in 2013 (and the very brief caretaker spell of Ryan Giggs), Manchester United have hired Louis Van Gaal, a manager that thrives on being given time to build, and subsequently – rightly or wrongly – gave him little time to do just that. They then turned to José Mourinho, an impact manager who, though having success in the short-term at previous clubs, has never stayed too long in one place. The Portuguese has rarely built anything lasting over his career, never worked particularly well with a clubs’ recruitment and academy (a key part of the Old Trafford clubs’ identity for a large part of their history) staff to integrate the right players for the longer-term – instead relying on bringing in expensive, experienced players to get results as immediately as possible.
Though Mourinho is the last manager to bring any sort of silverware to the Red Devils trophy room back in 2017, his methods are often divisive and certainly weren’t conducive to the patience and structure needed to return the Old Trafford club to its previous levels over a prolonged spell; but the Glazer’s went with the big name, again to try and keep the increasingly restless fanbase happy; supporters whom let’s remember, a section of which at least, have gone to the great lengths of setting up a new club, FC United of Manchester, (who currently reside in the third step of English non-league – the Northern Premier League), such was – and still is – the level of disdain towards the Glazers and how they operate (along with the supporters desire to hang onto the club’s history and traditions some felt are being lost by the current custodians). Many question what their (Glazers) motives are, and it has to be said many of their decisions while in charge – and from the off – have been questionable to say the least. A recent example of this was their decision to join the short-lived concept of a European Super League, much to the derision and angst of the club’s supporters. In the wake of instant pressure to rethink, the Glazers (along with owners of five other Premier League clubs) were forced to backtrack almost immediately as the idea fell through; for now at least. But the trust between owners and fans was further damaged by the fiasco.
But back to the stuttering, scrambling timeline of the Americans’ ownership. Legendary former striker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was next in the hot-seat, initially arriving as an interim boss and ‘borrowed’ from permanent employers Molde. Thought of as somebody who knew the clubs’ DNA and able to build bridges with the players previous boss Mourinho had disgruntled, the Norwegian was perhaps a little green in the managerial stakes having only previously managed his hometown club in the Eliteserien (Norwegian football’s top division) and overseeing Cardiff City’s Premier League relegation in 2014. However, Solskjaer did what he was brought in to do, he steadied the ship while the Red Devils hierarchy searched for a suitable, long-term, permanent chief of recruitment and operations and Manager/Head Coach to work in tandem and get on with the job of gradually restoring the Old Trafford side to football’s top table once more.
It seemed the Glazers finally understood what was required to get back on track; to align and connect everyone, every facet, every department within the club to head in a direction that would restore their past successes. Joined up thinking; it’s how all top, successful footballing institutions’ operate in the modern game – but not United, who again caved into media pressure following Solskjaer’s instant success (of sorts) and scrapped their search for a longer-term vision – agreeing a deal with Molde and appointing the Norwegian as permanent boss on a three-year-contract in the spring of 2019. Short-termism again winning out over a structured, well-thought out method, identity and ethos, without any sense of alignment; without thinking longer-term, again without any genuine contingencies and without considering what comes next; once again heading down the reactive route. As such Manchester United have continued to tread water, with inconsistencies throughout and finding themselves stumbling from one dilemma to the next.
A by-product of all these varying types of managers passing through the Red Devils’ dugout is a number of very good, but often very differing types of players joining the club. Therefore they’ve assembled a mish-mash of styles across their squad. Some more suited to counter attacking football, while others perform better when controlling possession and/or playing a high press. That’s the problem with having no clear recruitment or managerial identity, no overall idea when identifying and sourcing players, no link between those tasked with scouting, signing and coaching the players in a definitive style. No clear thought process in what they’re looking for or aiming to achieve. No discernible playing style. Instead, signings are made as quick fixes, once more mainly to temporarily appease fans or for corporate benefit (shirt sales/advertising revenue etc); and that’s the crux of the matter, if Manchester United would take the hit, realise there’s no quick solution in their pursuit of consistent improvement, put an infrastructure in place to build towards future success – and stick to it – then, in time, the corporate, money-making side of things would take care of itself. Sometimes to move forward quicker, you have to work slower; more diligently, with an actual purpose and a flexible but defined end destination.
Success breeds success – yet those who make the big decisions seem to have a hopeful, scatter-gun approach to things in the hope something will come off. It won’t, certainly not in terms of achieving regularly anyway.
We’re told that supporters demand instant success now, and to a point that’s very true, but when your competitors are so far ahead of you it’s time to take stock, be brave, talk to and hire the right people, identify the problem(s), put in place a short, medium and long-term structure and don’t waiver from it. Stick to your guns. Your plan, your identity, your ethos – where you want to get to. How you’re going to return Manchester United to their previous glories. While it may not seem like it to some, sustained success will undoubtedly be achieved far quicker this way than the stab in the dark, hope for the best approach currently in play at Old Trafford; only if that’s what the owners truly want however – but it should be, as winning on the pitch is interlinked with corporate growth off it (success breeding success); and with the large loans to service, that will surely be very high on the owners list of priorities; though it has to be done in the right manner.
As with most sporting dynasties, when the key figure, the person who had complete control of matters, the one who built a formidable unit and mentality that brought continued, consistent results leaves, there is a huge void. In recent times we’ve seen the struggles of both Manchester United and Arsenal in particular following the long, trophy-laden tenures of Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger respectively to differing degrees. The same happened when Sir Kenny Dalglish left Liverpool in the early ’90s (though from a shorter six-year, but hugely successful reign); stagnation, regression and – for many years – a lack of forethought as to how that was going to be challenged and addressed; how they were going to implement a fresh take on their famous ‘bootroom’ approach that saw in-house continuation on the managerial front for a prolonged spell. There are some differences, but I think there’s an awful lot of similarities to where Manchester United find themselves now in that regard – the aforementioned loss of identity. Everything that was running smoothly is suddenly more difficult, it falls on the shoulders of others to make the big calls – but I think the decision-makers at Old Trafford could learn a little from how their Anfield and, to a degree North London counterparts, have eventually acted in getting things going in the right direction once more. It’s not been down to fortune, it’s been down to planning, patience and understanding. Structure and alignment.
Liverpool’s return to prominence began under Brendan Rodgers, who alongside a well-drilled scouting unit, identified and acquired players to fit a distinct style of play. It wasn’t always the biggest names, but it was, in the main, the right players to fit a certain and developed style of play. Of course Jürgen Klopp and his staff have taken things to a completely different level since, but again their success is built on a clear style; a method – with players able to fit in to that identified and brought in. Everything is planned. They have a clear identity.
To a (currently) far lesser, but of late noticeable degree, Arsenal have done likewise. Under the stewardship of young manager and former Gunners player Mikel Arteta, the green shoots of recovery and growth are just starting to show. Through a fairly recently refined scouting and recruitment set-up starting to pay dividends and belief shown and opportunities given to academy graduates, Arteta has been able to turn Arsenal’s fortunes around. He came into the club having worked on the coaching staff of Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. He joined with definite ideas, a thorough long-term plan and non-negotiables. The board at the Emirates, as they do by and large, kept faith with their Spanish manager during some initial rocky patches – and their patience is now being rewarded as Arteta has put together an exciting, vibrant unit – again with a distinct identity, a way of playing that everyone buys in to – and if they don’t, they’re moved on. There’s a strong, trusted working relationship between Arteta, his coaching staff, Per Mertesacker (Academy Manager), Edu Gaspar (Technical Director and current CEO Vinai Venkatesham; and it’s now bearing fruit.
There’s a common theme here though – planning, structure, patience and that key ingredient – identity; and Manchester United have lacked all of those for some time now.
Following on from Solskjaer’s up and down, though ultimately trophyless spell in charge, The Red Devils again went down the stop-gap route with former Schalke, VfB Stuttgart and RB Leipzig (amongst others) boss and Lokomotiv Moscow Manager of development Ralf Rangnick somewhat bizarrely appointed as interim (yes, another interim) boss until the end of the season. A likeable football man, the German will then, apparently, move into a consultancy role in the summer once current Football director John Murtough’s search for a long-term successor is complete. However, United fans have heard all this before – false promises of a new dawn and a reinvigorating infrastructure put in place with a long-term manager and vision to boot. Indeed, though Murtough, working alongside recently appointed Technical director and former midfielder Darren Fletcher, is saying all the right things, United fans will be dismayed at media murmurings of another “short-term manager” being linked in the shape of Carlo Ancelotti. The Italian is likely to leave Real Madrid in the summer, but it’s doubtful that the Old Trafford faithful will want to see yet another temporary boss in the dugout; one that’s arguably well past his prime and who is unlikely to add or change anything meaningful to combat United’s slide.
I’m sure the arrival of another name linked, Ajax’s Erik ten Hag would be seen as a much more exciting, proactive appointment – and one which given the right support and conditions could well be that long-term fortune changer Manchester United fans crave. It will require the infrastructure afforded to the aforementioned managers of progressive clubs. It will require a clear understanding and link up between the board, scouts, coaches and academy to work as one. Most of all, it will require patience and understanding; from all sides. It seems, according to media reports, ten Haag is currently the strong favourite for the role, but you could forgive supporters from toning down the expectations, as – should the move fall through – it wouldn’t be the first occasion in recent times that their club has failed to get a potentially meaningful arrival over the line. They’ve been short-changed before; many times.
After recently replacing the much maligned Ed Woodward, new Old Trafford CEO Richard Arnold, alongside Murtough, Fletcher, Director of football negotiations Matt Judge, the lead on football operations Alan Dawson and Academy & Development chiefs Nick Cox and Justin Cochrane will need form a constructive interlinking alliance, one based on trust (something else not in evidence at Manchester United for many years) and similar in dynamics to that now at Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester City (and many others) if they are to suitably assist the new man in taking the club forward gradually, over a number of years – which is what it will take.
That’s the crossroads Manchester United and their owners find themselves at. Will they continue to look to stop-gaps and hit and miss recruitment or will they be brave and play the long game. There’s only one option, from a footballing point of view, that the Glazers should go for – but having shown their hand many times previously as being more interested in shirt sales, corporate link-ups, shareholder dividends and revenue streams than winning trophies – is it the choice they’ll ultimately make? Will the Red Devils continue to rot from the head down, biding their time with quick fixes until the European Super League rears its ugly head once more and obscene riches are delivered on a plate (against supporter wishes and sporting integrity) – or will those in charge sow the necessary seeds to allow the club to flourish from the bottom up – the way any proper, successful sporting organisation should be run?