Manchester United feels like a different club these days and certainly not in a good way. For the last 15 minutes of Manchester United’s defeat at Swansea, those watching could tell that Manchester United would be unable to bounce back from a losing position and perhaps even win the game.
How times have changed from the days of Sir Alex Ferguson, where every player and fan knew with Manchester United that it wasn’t over until the final whistle. How many times had we see United come from behind to win games and how can we forget some of the last minute winners United have been famous for? There has always been that famous notion of “Fergie Time”, reflecting the horror of the opposition of how many added minutes there would be. Ferguson himself would stand on the touchline and point at his watch, to play on this psychology. In the meantime, the team would be taking risks, charging at the opposition with speed, bravery and creative spark.
Instead, the last 15 minutes of the Swansea defeat reflected a different United: Desperation. Nobody was taking the ball and charging at the Swansea defence. In fact, there seemed a great reluctance to even take a risk, before United resorted to the ever so predictable “long ball” in attempting to pick out the towering Marouane Fellaini in the opposition box. It was quite frankly, painful to watch. In a sense, the United players looked like they had given up. This was something that would certainly not have happened under Ferguson, even if they were not playing well.
Ferguson will be publishing a new book, ‘Leading’, in which he will talk about the art of management and, to an extent, how the skills he demonstrated at Aberdeen and Manchester United might be applied in other fields. One wonders whether, in his latest book, Ferguson will touch upon the issue of legacy.
It is perhaps the break from the legacy left by Alex Ferguson that has hindered United’s development. This is certainly what the former assistant manager under Ferguson, Carlos Queiroz, believes has happened. The Mozambique born manager is perhaps someone we should take notice of, considering the major success he had in winning 2 Premier League titles and the Champions League in 2008. Ferguson himself said: “Carlos Queiroz was brilliant. Just brilliant. Outstanding. An intelligent, meticulous man. He was good for me. He was a Rottweiler. He was the closest you could be to being the Manchester United manager without actually holding the title.”
Speaking to The Guardian, he believes that the foundation of Manchester United’s success was based always on trust, confidence and continuity. “I think there have been too many changes that disrupted the continuity and tradition of the club. There was nothing wrong within building the future based on the principles that were already inside Manchester United created by Alex Ferguson, that was the right direction.”
Queiroz acknowledges that transition is by all means no easy task and spoke of his admiration and respect for Van Gaal and Moyes, but “they made some critical and crucial mistakes in the transition from Alex.” This could particularly be seen in the recent deadline day signing of Anthony Martial, a 19-year-old forward from Monaco for a deal that could potentially rise up to £57.6 million. There have been mixed reports from France, acknowledging the outstanding talent Martial had, but is yet to prove himself. The French media give the impression that Monaco were unable to believe their luck and had exploited United’s desperation. It was sheer panic buying. Although for me, the amount of money spent is not such a surprise to me. With the Barclays Premier League television rights deals, European clubs will always be looking to get more money from these teams as they know they are funded well. Moreover, Adidas are paying Manchester United £75 million a year for the next ten years. It is perhaps gratifying to see United actually spending the money they generate, but, as Oliver Kay of The Times quite rightfully remarks, “it is unnerving when a club with such vast resources, built on such formidable foundations, become synonymous with pre-deadline madness, whether that means running out of time to complete deals or overpaying—really, really overpaying—to get the man they suddenly want.”
For Queiroz, United have always been about creating players. Now, he argues, it is the opposite: “We see some of the best players going down and even some of the players that arrived in the team like [Radamel] Falcao and [Ángel] Di María were on the bench. I saw Di María and some games, he looked like he has never played football. There is panic buying. You have to prepare and then make the decisions together. You can still make wrong decisions but we never made panic decisions when buying players”
Such sentiments speak true in regards to loaning out Adnan Januzaj to Borussia Dortmund for the season. Januzaj was the best thing to have come out of the David Moyes regime yet last season, he was barely given a chance due to the signing of Di María. However, he never complained. In fact, he paid for a fitness instructor to accompany him and Luke Shaw during the holidays and really bulked up. Shaw and Januzaj already look like completely different players from last season, yet that hard work is not always rewarded. Januzaj was perhaps the one player who was playing well up to this point of the season, with Memphis Depay and Rooney so inconsistent in the last few games.
The departure of Januzaj in itself speaks volumes on the strategy of Louis Van Gaal and the Chief Exectutive, Ed Woodward. It is, in essence, a short term plan to get Manchester United back to the top as quickly as possible. The very fact that Van Gaal is on a three-year contract suggests that this is a very much the case.
Ferguson, coming to the end of his reign, imagined his legacy to United to be measured not just in the silverware he won, but in the young players he left. He ran through them all in one of his final press conferences: David De Gea, the Da Silva twins, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Tom Cleverley, Shinji Kagawa, Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernández. Fast forward two years and the Da Silvas, Cleverley, Kagawa, Welbeck and Hernández have all gone. De Gea remains alongside Smalling and Jones only because United and Real Madrid, through brinkmanship on both sides, failed to process the goalkeepers transfer before the deadline.
After Louis Van Gaal had taken over from David Moyes, he and Ed Woodward agreed that it was time for revolution, not evolution. Ferguson himself accepted that it was probably right that Van Gaal would clear the decks and build his own team. But in my eyes, however, one of Ferguson’s greatest strengths as a manager was to be able to build a ‘dynastic cycle’ towards his teams. He was able to plan teams years down the lines by examining the talent development process and some of the older players in the squad. This could quite possibly mean even cutting players, including loyal veterans to whom Ferguson had a personal attachment. Ryan Giggs in speaking to the Harvard Buisness Review remarked: “He’s never really looking at this moment, he’s always looking into the future. Knowing what needs strengthening and what needs refreshing—he’s got that knack.”
Van Gaal simply hasn’t got that amount of time to build a dynasty if he only has two years left on his contract. Short-term planning can work, although Manchester United have never been a club to adopt this strategy. If we look at clubs like Chelsea and Real Madrid who are renowned for sacking managers in a relatively short space of time, they have been successful in the last few years. However, there has to be some serious questions raised on the transfer policy so far. The word from within Old Trafford is that Van Gaal and Woodward are content with their summer transfer business. United have still failed to sign a top-class central defender and in terms of their attacking options, Wayne Rooney and at a push, James Wilson and Martial, are the only ones who can play through the middle. A potential front four of Mata, Depay, Martial and Rooney does not spread terror to the Premier League, never mind Europe. How can they be content? Despite having three international goalkeepers, United have only one specialist right back, one specialist left back and a variety of injury-prone central defenders. Daley Blind is not a centre back, despite Van Gaal’s insistence that he can play there. It is only a matter of time until he will be found out. If this squad are to compete on four fronts this season, they are going to need a lot of players to play many more games, to a much higher standard than they have done before.
Panic buying certainly reflects a degree of desperation, especially from Ed Woodward who has continued to struggle with the transfer market and dealing with other clubs. David Gill, like Ferguson, was certainly a big loss to United as he appeared to be respected by the top European clubs and got the job done. The full scale of Manchester United’s frustration in the transfer market has begun to emerge. The Real Madrid president, Florentino Pérez, revealed that the club had expressed a desire to sign Gareth Bale, Raphael Varane and Karim Benzema, as well as Sergio Ramos. That was swiftly followed by a suggestion from Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, the Bayern Munich president, that United had made a “very high” offer- believed to be about £60 million for Thomas Muller, the Germany forward.
Such transfer targets reassert Queiroz’s view that the club have stopped creating players. Moreover, especially what can be seen with the signing of Di María and Falcao, there seems to be a lack of joined up thinking. How do these transfer targets reflect to Van Gaal’s famous notion of his “philosophy”? There is no certainty to what this philosophy really is and what it reflects, especially if you take into account that United played with three different systems last season. Speaking after the defeat at Swansea, Van Gaal argued that United had “controlled the game for 85 minutes” but had lost it in five. In terms of keeping the ball, this may be true, but it doesn’t reflect the fact that Manchester United were not creating any chances at all. There was also no pace and tempo yet Van Gaal still had this to say: “I have enjoyed our football but you need the result and we lost again.”
However, this hasn’t been the first time we have seen United been so pedestrian and joyless. The spark and the spontaneity have gone from the Ferguson years as under Van Gaal, there has been far greater sense of structure and tactical discipline. Woodward said on the appointment of Van Gaal that he had hired him on the strength of the “incredible attacking football” his teams play, “the kind of football Manchester United fans love,” but there have been little signs of that.
This is certainly not the Manchester United as we know it. Only time will tell if Martial will live up to the price tag and if Manchester United will click into gear and challenge for the Premier League title. But after the wretched spell under Moyes, any United supporter would have expecting some kind of philosophy to emerge. Rather, this has been conspicuous consumption and more questions are being asked than answered.