Fun fact: Arsene Wenger has won a major trophy with Arsenal more recently than Manchester United. The legendary French manager left Arsenal in 2018, four years ago.
As the Manchester United players labored to score against Atletico Madrid on Tuesday evening, it was clear to everyone watching that they would not break down Atletico even if they played for another hour.
Three days on from their win against Tottenham, United players were bereft of ideas and back to their usual bad habits of spamming in crosses and hoping for Cristiano Ronaldo to rescue them.
Since an approach like that is exactly what Atletico enjoy defending against, Ronaldo was marshalled well, just 3 out of 23 crosses found a teammate and United bowed out of the Champions League with a whimper.
For a club like Manchester United where success used to be the norm rather than the exception, how did this happen?
Since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, it’s been painfully clear that Manchester United did not have any long-term plans in place for life after him. In the 9 years since he’s been gone, they’ve had 5 head coaches (not including the temporary coaches in between sackings) and with those coaches have come wildly differing philosophies.
Coaching has not been their only issue, they’ve also recruited poorly in that period. In the last ten years, Manchester United have spent £1.24 billion on transfers, behind only Manchester City and Chelsea. While the other two English giants have been successful in that period with over ten trophies each, Manchester United have just six and none in the last five years.
Lack of on and off-pitch Leadership
Another factor in their decline has been a loss of strong leaders all around the club. Former CEO, Ed Woodward has since left the club but during his time there is when United began to be known more for their off-pitch endeavors than for their on-pitch success.
Currently, they have a temporary Head Coach with no clarity yet as to who their long-term Manager will be. To compound these issues, the club is led on the pitch by Harry McGuire, a player neither the dressing room nor the stands have a high opinion of. To fix these issues, they need to appoint a permanent Head Coach/Manager soon and appoint a captain that has the respect of the dressing room and stands.
Before he signed for United, McGuire was a good player. Stripping him of the captaincy might actually help him just as it helped Granit Xhaka. Since the former Arsenal captain was stripped of the armband, his form has actually improved. Manchester United fans will hope for a similar reaction from McGuire as well.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s Input
The Legendary manager is one of the most important figures in the history of the club, and for good reason. However, his constant presence might actually have a negative effect on his beloved Manchester United now.
When Ole Gunnar Solksjaer was still Head Coach, he openly deferred to his former manager. Sir Alex was also instrumental in the deal that saw the Red Devils steal Ronaldo away from their rivals, Manchester City just as they were about to complete his signing.
In hindsight though, was that such a good deal? Even at 37, Ronaldo remains one of the best strikers in world football but the way Manchester United is set up does not make it easy for either him or the club to thrive.
Given the glaring deficiencies in midfield, there would have been a lot more sense in getting a quality midfielder to screen the defence and be a springboard to launch sustained attacks on.
Instead, they went for the sentimental choice and while there was some short-term gratification to be gained with the decision, the season will end with United going trophy-less for the fifth successive year and Ronaldo going without a trophy for the first time in 12 years.
What Next for Ronaldo?
This will not have been what the superstar envisaged when he agreed to return to his old club last August. When he signed, most people expected them to challenge for the title and the Champions League, they’ve done neither.
Instead, they’re currently racing against the odds to finish in fourth, about an Arsenal team that’s a point ahead and has two outstanding games to play still. If United fail to make the UEFA Champions League, it’s very difficult to see the Portugal Captain choose to stay and play in either of the other European tournaments.
Currently, Manchester City and Liverpool are the standout sides in the EPL and are the clubs Manchester United will try to emulate. While the Red Devils are still a very profitable club, trying to outspend Man City is unsustainable and will only land them in financial trouble. In our opinion, the best route back to the top is for them to emulate the Liverpool approach of signing smart, selling at the right time and keeping their best players under a strict salary cap.
Another issue they need to address is player development. Marcus Rashford was the latest player to be booed by the fans in the game against Atletico. Given his obvious promise when he broke through and the way he shone for the club in their more difficult years, his recent form has been worrying to see.
The Manchester United #10 is currently neither an elite centre forward nor an elite wide forward/winger. Given the way other promising young players have plateaued at the club, urgent questions need to be asked of the coaching and development teams.