The United Way. What exactly comes to your mind when you hear these three words? For most football fans, especially Manchester United fans, this means playing a style of football that is fast, fluid and entertaining to watch. They say that a Manchester United team should always look to play beautiful, breathtaking football as these are present in the DNA of the club.
But this view of how Manchester United should play their football has caused a lot of debate in recent years. While United have won a few trophies since 2013, it is safe to say that the club has been in decline ever since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. United did achieve their highest ever finish last season when Jose Mourinho’s men finished 2nd in the league with 81 points, a point tally enough to win the league in a lot of the previous Premier League seasons. Mourinho also guided United to the League Cup and the Europa League in 2017 while his predecessor Louis Van Gaal won the FA Cup in 2016.
Despite these successes in recent years, there was a sense of disgruntlement amongst United fans which stemmed mainly from the style of football the team played. The fans felt that the style of football under Van Gaal and Mourinho didn’t exactly match with the traditions of this great club.
The board seemingly agreed as both these managers, who have stellar CV and are multiple league and Champions League winners, were sacked. United have had three permanent managers since the summer of 2013 but none of them completed their contracts. David Moyes was a poor appointment in the first place but the failure of serial winners like Van Gaal and Mourinho has certainly raised question marks over Ed Woodward, the CEO of the club and the board members.
In 2014, when Van Gaal arrived in Manchester, the club was in a horrid state. The Red Devils had just finished 7th in the league, their lowest ever finish in the Premier League history. To make amends, a large transfer kitty was handed to the Dutchman. A lot of big names came through the door, the most notable ones being Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao as United got back into the top four.
The club also spent relatively heavily the next summer but midway through the season the wheels started to come off for Van Gaal’s United. The club finished 5th but the FA Cup victory, United’s first trophy in 3 seasons, was a good achievement.
Despite this, Van Gaal was gone within 24 hours of that Wembley final and in came the Special One. It looked like a match made in heaven. United went big again that summer with Paul Pogba leading the transfer line as United made him the world’s costliest player. He was joined by the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Eric Bailly as Mourinho looked to strengthen the spine of the team. Good results followed as the Special One delivered the Europa League and the League Cup in his first season. Everything looked to be set for typical Mourinho second season when he generally wins the league with his clubs.
But this is where the problem started for United, or should I say, has been with United in the past decade or so. The summer of 2017 was a critical time for the football in Manchester as both City and United had fared poorly in the league in the previous season but United still had two trophies to show for during that period.
Pep Guardiola, a serial winner himself, had enough of mediocrity in his squad. He had already shown the two-time Premier League winner Joe Hart the door when he arrived in 2016 and in 2017, he took his transfer policy to another level. The club got rid of Bacary Sagna, Aleksandr Kolarov, Pablo Zabaleta, and Gael Clichy and replaced them with Danilo, Kyle Walker, and Benjamin Mendy for a combined sum of 130 million pounds.
It was not only the defenders who got the axe that summer. Big names like Samir Nasri, Fernando, Wilfried Bony, Kelechi Iheanacho, Nolito, Jesus Navas and many more were shown the door. Pep ruthlessly overhauled his side in one summer and did so with the complete backing of his board. Despite a poor first season, they kept faith in him and believed in his project and most importantly believed that he would deliver the title to the Citizens if he had all the tools he needed.
Can the same thing be said about the board members on the red side of Manchester? Well, they did invest in the second season when Romelu Lukaku, Nemanja Matic and Victor Lindelof were signed. But there was one weakness in this United side that had been their Achilles heel for almost a decade: the right-wing.
Ever since Cristiano Ronaldo left in the summer of 2009, United haven’t really fixed their right-wing problem. For the 2016-17 season, Mourinho, like his predecessors before, was forced to play the likes of Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard on the right flank but this was never going to be a title-winning combination. To fix this problem, Mourinho earmarked Ivan Perisic but the Croatian never arrived. Ed Woodward was ready to pay up to 40 million pounds for the winger but that evaluation fell short of Inter Milan’s asking price by 8 million pounds.
United went on to have a good season where they finished 2nd in the league with 81 points which was their highest ever point tally and highest finish since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Despite this, they lost the title to a sensational City side who were on a different level altogether for the entirety of the season. Perhaps Perisic’s arrival would have had a positive impact on the club or maybe not. What was infuriating for United fans was that their noisy neighbours were ready to splash the cash to get the players they wanted while Woodward was fighting over petty change.
What transpired in the summer of 2018 is well documented. Mourinho clearly wanted a senior center back but Woodward and the board members, most of whom come from non-footballing backgrounds, vetoed the move citing United’s great defensive record in the previous season. Mourinho’s response was negative and this had a big impact on the rest of his squad.
Is it fair to say that both Mourinho and Van Gaal were given sufficient funds to bolster their squads for a serious title challenge? Or was Mourinho correct to feel that Woodward didn’t support him in the transfer market? To get this answer, we must go back to 2005 when the Glazers took over.
What people tend to forget is that in the glory years of 2006-2013, the Glazers had overseen probably one of the worst transfer periods in the club’s history.
Let us start with the 2005-06 season. Mourinho had just won Chelsea their first title in 50 years and Roman Abramovich had shown the power of money in English football. Chelsea did it again in the 05-06 season with record points as United were in their transition period. The club did buy a few players for smaller fees, most notably Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, and Edwin Van der Saar. Sir Alex Ferguson, being a genius that he is, stormed back and snatched the league title away from Chelsea after spending only 19 million in the transfer window.
The summer of 2007 was probably one of the most successful summers of Sir Alex’s reign at United. He had just won the league but he knew that in order to defend the title he would need a lot of quality additions to the squad because his rivals were strengthening too. That summer, the Glazers loosened the purse strings and invested heavily in the squad. The club spent 61 million on the likes of Nani, Carlos Tevez, Owen Hargreaves, the Da Silva brothers and Anderson with all of them having a role in United winning the double that season.
The Glazers also allowed Sir Alex to sign Dimitar Berbatov for 30 million despite having the best front three in Europe in the form of Roney, Ronaldo, and Tevez. The result? United won a hat-trick of league titles and were only denied back to back European Cups by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.
After this, the Glazers had had enough. They knew what a global brand United had become and it was the perfect opportunity for them to use the club to pay off their debts. In hindsight, the summer of 2009 was where everything started to go wrong for the club as the Glazers started to leave their legacy.
Cristiano Ronaldo left for a world record transfer fee of 80 million pounds. Generally, what happens when a team’s best player leaves? The club signs worthy replacements who can carry out similar duties for the team. But the Glazers did the exact opposite of that. In a shameful transfer window, United replaced Ronaldo, the Ballon D’or winner, with the likes of Gabriel Obertan and Antonio Valencia and, when the window closed on August 31st, the club had failed to reinvest the world record fee they got for Ronaldo.
A negative spend in transfers looks bad for any team but for a team like United it was just deplorable. United lost their title to Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea but even that didn’t force the owners to spend money on a depleted squad. The likes of Chris Smalling and Javier Hernandez were bought for pennies and the structure of the team had started to weaken. It felt like Sir Alex’s great mind was keeping this team together but the question remained as to how long he could keep doing that.
2011 was yet another historic year for English football when Manchester City went full throttle in the transfer market. Big names signings like Sergio Aguero, David Silva, and Yaya Toure, who were heavily linked to United, joined the blue side of Manchester. The fact that Sir Alex was forced to say that the market is too crazy to do dealings infuriated the fans even more and it was apparent that the Scotsman was instructed to make such statements in order to protect the club’s hierarchy.
In 2012, deeply hurt by City’s Premier League win, Sir Alex was given the money he desperately needed and in came Robin Van Persie. What the Dutchman did that year will go down forever in the United folklore.
After Ferguson’s departure, David Moyes was installed as manager although he never fitted the bill. However, it is also difficult to say that Moyes was given sufficient support in the transfer market. He was given the toughest job in England and instead of investing heavily and revitalizing an exhausted squad, United were only able to sign Marouane Fellaini on transfer deadline day.
So, do we see a pattern here from the last decade and a half at Manchester United? There are two things to note from here.
Firstly, whenever the club has underinvested in a season, the team has more often than not has struggled on the pitch.
Secondly, whenever the club has had faith in a manager’s project and ideas and invested in the players that he wanted to bring in at all costs, irrespective of price or the success United had in the previous season, the club’s performance on the pitch has considerably improved.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, a legend of the club, has had an unbelievable start to his managerial career at Old Trafford. When the Norwegian arrived, United were 11 points off the top 4. United have now left the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal behind and have their sights set on Spurs in 3rd place. The football is free-flowing and attractive and many are rejoicing that Ole’s team are playing “The United Way”.
But off the pitch and behind closed doors, have the things really changed? It doesn’t feel like that. The recent contract extensions of Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, and Ashley Young proves that the club has started to reward mediocrity. From the point of the Glazers, this is the perfect way to be cost effective as they know a top-class center half and a right back would cost at least 100 million pounds but the cost of keeping the trio at the club would hardly cost 40 million pounds.
While it is true that Jones and Smalling are good back up options, they have frequently been relied upon as starting centre backs for years now. In the same period, the club has signed only Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly who still need to fulfill their promise. This underinvestment has forced the hands of Van Gaal and Mourinho to play Jones and Smalling a lot more than they really deserve to. As Manchester City have shown, clubs need to dispose of their average players and replace them with world-class talents if they are to become a title-winning machine.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer might take United to a top 4 finish and maybe even a cup which would be a fantastic achievement considering where the club was in December but his biggest challenge will come in the summer. He has to learn from his idol Sir Alex to be ruthless and kick out the deadwood from the team. If he is not able to remove average players and replace them with quality ones, it will not be long before he is labeled as a Yes man for the Glazers. Manchester United are finally playing “The United Way” on the pitch under Solskjaer. Now, the fans pray and hope that the club plays “The United Way” off the pitch as well.