Where did it all go wrong for Manchester United after Sir Alex Ferguson retired?
It was early December and another European outing for the glamourous stars of Manchester United, in the UEFA Champions League. This time, their opponents were Wolfsburg.
When Anthony Martial scored in the first ten minutes, it seemed as though three points were there for the taking. However, it just wasn’t meant to be. A brace from Brazilian defender Naldo and a goal from Vieirinha sent Louis Van Gaal’s Red Army tumbling out of the group stages.
Of all the images from the game, that of Juan Mata going off for Nick Powell in the latter part of the second half stands out. It was a decision that did not go down well with the millions of fans around the globe who had been hoping that their team would make it through to the knockout stages.
On another day, this could have been a substitution that actually helped the team. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.
Just like Powell, there were others who had come through the youth ranks under Sir Alex Ferguson. Those who had hopes and expectations of breaking into the first-team and flourishing not unlike those who had come before them. Sometimes, things just don’t work out the way the way they are supposed to.
Succession plan under Sir Alex and beyond
Great football teams and clubs have been made by decisions that have followed a coherent philosophy. A core idea that the organization has stood by over the years of its existence. One that has helped them achieve great success and fame and has also seen them garner the respect of their rivals.
We’ve seen it with Bayern Munich in recent years, AC Milan in the early 90s, Barcelona in the mid 2010s and for Manchester United, the importance of planning ahead and having a succession plan was crucial.
Sir Alex’s ability to build title-winning sides and identify when a squad has reached it’s limits was one of the hallmarks of his illustrious managerial career as Manchester United boss.
Considering the vastness of his success with the players that he had at his disposal, the period following Sir Alex’s retirement from management was underwhelming to say the least. What went wrong?
“The very simple answer is David Moyes. The much longer answer has to do with the succession plan.” says Carl.
A lot of the success achieved between 2005-2009 was down to Sir Alex centering the team around Cristiano Ronaldo’s strengths. This also meant that Wayne Rooney, who was by far one of the most exciting young talents at the time had to sacrifice his preferred role in the team.
Ronaldo then departed in 2009 and Carlos Tevez left for Manchester City in the same year as well. This irked Rooney to a great degree. To the extent where he was prepared to leave the club for pastures new. However, history now tells us a different story.
Building from the back
Great Ferguson sides have always had dominant center-backs in their ranks. Especially with a recognizable pair establishing themselves. Jaap Stam, Ronny Johnsen, Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister are prime examples .
Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic was another. And it was his hope that Phil Jones and Chris Smalling would go on to replicate the defensive solidity of those stalwarts.
“Ferguson’s always been a very smart manager. He’s always had a very good sense of when this team isn’t doing very well and he needs to reassemble a new one. And I think a really good sign of him beginning to build a new one was during the signings of Smalling and Jones.” , recalls Carl.
Ferguson placed great faith in the duo’s abilities and in Jones even more so.
Jones, arguably the way he is looking, could be our best ever player. I think he can play anywhere on the pitch.– Sir Alex on Jones, after winning the Premier League in 2013
In June 2021, Jones will have completed ten years at the club. Not many will argue that he’s come close to fulfilling what Sir Alex said he would bring. As for Smalling , he now enjoys a different life in the city of Rome.
Carl suggests that Ferguson’s intentions behind signing the duo was to make them the bedrock of Manchester United’s defence for several years. Unfortunately, that did not come to pass.
Sir Alex also had this one ability that few modern-day managers can claim to possess.
“Ferguson was really, really good in a way that still defies description, at getting 6 or 7 out of 10 players to drop 8 or 9 out of 10 performances when they’ve been called upon.” , says Carl.
John O’Shea, Federico Macheda, Wes Brown and Danny Welbeck are but a few examples of such players who enjoyed success at the club under Sir Alex.
David Moyes at Manchester United
When David Moyes was announced as Sir Alex’s replacement. The announcement was met with appreciation. In many ways, it was described as a recognition of the highest order of the excellent work that Moyes had done at Everton.
He was dubbed, ‘The Chosen One’.
“Moyes was unfortunately out of his depth. And rather than paying attention to what might have been a succession plan and the academy, he was basically fighting for his life. He was relying heavily on the last title-winning team.” explains Carl.
Moyes’ reign was short-lived. Initially offered a bumper six-year-deal with a view to the long-term by the United hierarchy, he lasted just ten months.
“One thing that is regarded as one of the big mistakes David Moyes made was, Moyes essentially replaced a lot of Ferguson’s staff with his own.” recalls Carl.
“So loads of players are now getting lost in the shuffle. Players who have had assurances and discussions with Ferguson about certain things no longer have that kind of succession plan, because they’re talking to new people. “
Louis Van Gaal enters
Louis Van Gaal’s appointment in the summer of 2014 followed the end of his tenure as the manager of the Dutch national side. He had taken them to third place at the 2014 FIFA World Cup. An achievement that few expected them to reach.
The Dutchman brought a wealth of experience at the top-level along with him to the Theatre of Dreams. Having successfully won trophies at Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, it felt as though he was the right person to pick up the pieces after Moyes’ departure.
Whether he was the right person or not is a debate for another day. Nonetheless, it is clear that what Van Gaal was trying to do at United was unique, and not in a most positive way.
” You will never see a big club in Europe being managed in the same way that Van Gaal managed Manchester United. If you have that much money and that much access to resources, you should not want to coach a team that way. They were doing something that was, I don’t want to call it good or bad, I want to call it esoteric. It was niche. It was unorthodox.” recalls Carl.
Although he experienced success initially deploying a midfield diamond with the likes of Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao and van Persie up top, it was not going to last for long.
A 5-3 defeat to Leicester City and Jamie Vardy meant that Van Gaal bins his earlier plans and then decides to look to the youth in the academy to step up. Fortunately for him, there were a few around at the time who did the job when called upon.
Although his approach to youth has been lauded, Carl underlined Van Gaal’s unnatural approach to promoting players.
” Van Gaal may have taken more of a shotgun approach to youth. So rather than having a clear plan of how they come in, I think he very much went – ‘ I can’t trust these players in the first team. I want to go to the academy and go, who do you have? Because at least this way I will teach them to do what I want, rather than trust these older boys to do it.”
The Manchester United youth lost in the shuffle
It is not uncommon now to see feeder clubs across the spectrum of football. In fact, a lot of successful clubs are doing it. The Red Bull football empire is one good example, another is Manchester City’s worldwide network of football clubs.
However, whilst this is not something very well-known, Manchester United had an unofficial gentleman’s agreement with Royal Antwerp between 1997-2013. During this time, a reported 29 players went on loan to the Belgian outfit. Since then, the club hasn’t had such a relationship with any other club.
” I think the problems arise where these are players going out on loan to get first team minutes and when they come back, the people they’re talking to, might be completely different.”, explains Carl.
” It could be very much be a case of you just keep getting loaned out and keeping getting the shuffle. When you’re in that sort of mess, you either need to have a breakout season or you need to be lucky”
Lingard and Januzaj
Two players who did have breakout seasons in a major way, were Adnan Januzaj and Jesse Lingard.
The former broke through the ranks under David Moyes and was the only bright light in an otherwise underwhelming Moyes side.
” I think Moyes was the best manager for his breakout season. When Moyes panics and over-relies on Ferdinand and Vidic, all that Januzaj had to worry about was attacking. And then Van Gaal turns up.”, explains Carl.
” It could not be more different. It is light and day from what you require from a wide player. Van Gaal was telling you four or five things all the time. And Januzaj, in my opinion could not handle that sort of tactical information.”
As for Lingard, his breakthrough happened courtesy of Van Gaal’s approach and he enjoyed a decent few years as one of the first few names on the United team sheet for subsequent managers in Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as well.
” You had a lot of players who had their two or three year plans at United disappear because managers are changing all the time, the approach is changing all the time.”, claims Carl.
Youth policy changes and Brexit
Youth players and the academy was something that had deteriorated in the years following Ferguson’s departure. Rival clubs had increased their investment and United were lagging behind in the race to bring in talents.
Fortunately though, things are better now than they have ever been at academy level.
” I think the academy is in the best place its been in, for years now. The level of investment has gone up. I think what’s also interesting is, whether or not by accidental design, Manchester United have a really good batch of talent from Europe.”, says Carl.
The new Brexit rules that have just come through for Premier League clubs mean that academies now different kind of challenges when it comes to their recruitment. On the other hand, it seems as though Manchester United have gained significant advantage by completing some deals proactively.
” I think a player like Hannibal, is a really good example of a player that United went out and got early. He’s the crown jewel of the United U-23 side. When I watched the Youth Cup Semi-final, Chelsea went at him and doubled up on him.”, recalls Carl.
Amongst others who have broken through are Ethan Laird and Teden Mengi, who look quite promising. The recently arrived Facundo Pellistri is generating a positive buzz as well and there’s plenty of hype surrounding the transfer of Amad Diallo.
So all in all, things have certainly taken a turn for the better under Solskjaer. However his tenure at the club finishes, he will certainly leave the club and it’s structure in a far better state than all of his recent predecessors have done.