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Manchester United - a puzzle

Posted: Jun 4, 2022
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Okay, back to Manchester United then! The undeniable blockbuster club of world football. A place where every day is a dramatic tale. So much so that their home ground is itself called a Theatre. There is a genuine sense of big game attached to Manchester United. An air of inevitability as one crosses the train line running across the outer perimeter of the stadium complex. As one moves closer to the United trinity statue, one can quite literally smell history. George Best, Dennis Law, Sir Bobby Charlton and the undeniable romance of an institution.

By all means, this is a special club. However, for nearly a decade now, this same Manchester United has not been a great football team. There seems to be something fundamentally flawed at Old Trafford. Some may think the answer is obvious. And perhaps they would be right. However, football clubs of such scale involve a wide spectrum of complexity. The solution to the collective of which has no specific science behind it. That is exactly why, not for lack of effort, Manchester United have been unable to crack the code in the last few years.

However, on first glance at current times, there seems to be movement. A sort of concerted parallel path change. Tilts from all directions as though they decided to give the whole structure a rejig. A kind of reset. Management, manager, coaching staff and even players. Not the owners though. And the Manchester-Salford locals have a strong opinion on that status quo. But, one at a time.

So, what exactly is altering at Old Trafford?

The fall from top at Manchester United


Any person having seen the Premier League era from its inception will find it hard to believe that Manchester United are struggling just this bad. They are nine years without a Premier League trophy. This team won 13 of the first 20 and none in the nine years hence. Of course, the inflection point was the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson. And that, in a way, exposed all that was wrong. All the wrong that his genius was covering. People would have guessed a dip post Fergie's retirement. It was bound to happen. One cannot simply replace a primary candidate for the Greatest Of All Time with an immediate fix.

However, even the most pessimistic would have not imagined the current state. And yet, somehow, they still attract the top talents in the world. It almost seems strange. Which is precisely why the title drought is so baffling. By this time, Arsenal were no more a destination for those with the loftiest ambitions. United, though, have still attracted top talents. Perhaps that is a part of the undoing.


Hasty commercial signings 


Manchester United Alexis SanchezThe reliance on commerce to drive on field decisions. The United Board have been heavily criticised for following this path. They focused on box-office signings than the functional ones. They kept purchasing fancy cars without strong engines. And sometimes at the cost of both, good sense and money. Alexis Sanchez being a prime example.

It is widely reported that his signing and the wages thereof followed by the level of his performance created an uneasy dressing room environment. Prior to that, Champions League winner Angel Di Maria was brought in only to later note that he wanted to be somewhere else.

Not just incomings but those within where seemingly handed out hasty contracts. And of such amount that few clubs would begin to negotiate. This created a bunch of extra resources on the company payroll. At non-negligible amounts. And players is not where it stopped. Managers too. Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer departed not too son after singing contract extensions.

There seemed to be haste over the potential commercial benefit. And at the cost of long-term vision. There seemed to be no particular direction the club was headed. In fact, it was like frantic movements in a circular motion bringing them back where they started.

Thus, in more ways than one, the fall was from the top at Manchester United.


Manchester United change


Erik Ten Hag AjaxThe change, thus, was needed from the apex. It started with the departure of Ed Woodward. There came in Richard Arnold and accompanying him were other changes in the hierarchy. John Murtough as football director and Darren Fletcher as technical director. Manchester United then recruited for their scouting department. In fact, two of the top scouts previously at the club left recently to create vacancies for change. The two departing were around since David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal's time. A mark of the old making way for the new. Of times the club wants to forget all too quickly.

Manchester United have also made two appointments at the youth level. One of them will be Head of Athletic Development for the Youth Development Phase. Meanwhile, the other will lead Athletic Department for the Professional Development Phase.

Then, of course, the complete revamp in the coaching positions. Ralf Rangnick, the stop gap, making way for Erik Ten Hag. The former Ajax manager, a top name in the European circuit, with multiple titles at the Dutch capital. And with breath taking football to boot. The 2018/19 Champions League run being a prime example. The likes of Frenkie de Jong, Donny Van de Beek, Hakim Ziyech and Dusan Tadic ran threepeat winners Real Madrid ragged. In fact, the Dutch duo turned Santiago Bernabeu into their personal discotheque. Smooth balling around the great Real Madrid.

The Ajax manager, to implement his style, has brought forth some trusted lieutenants. Mitchell van der Gaag has made the journey from Amsterdam. And Steve McClaren was previously at the club between 1999 and 2001.


Manchester United changing transfers policy?


Paul PogbaThe top brass and coaching staff aside, players have been a problem too. Far too often Manchester United have been carrying players whose values have decreased since arrival. That, in itself, is a quite damning reflection on both, transfer policy and the players in question. Any football club harboring ambitions of competing with the elite should recruit players whose values are peaking. Perhaps with the exception of Bruno Fernandes, not one player in the United squad are worth more in the transfer market now vis-à-vis when they came in.

After years of frustrating transfer activity, things seem to be finally moving in the right direction. Manchester United have begun a mini clear out. Paul Pogba, Edinson Cavani, Juan Mata, Lee Grant, Jesse Lingard. These players have already left. All clearing a decent collective chunk from the wage bill. Some reports suggest the amount reaches as much as 52 million pounds per year.

Thus, in many ways, this seems like a restart at Manchester United. Of course, there still needs to be a fair bit done to get things right. Functional and players suiting the manager's style and vision need to be brought in. And perhaps even the dressing room needs an injection of inspiration.

Far too many reports have emerged lately of friction within the camp. Manchester United seems like a broken place. And that will be among the biggest challenges for Ten Hag. It almost seems as though they are beginning from where they started all those years back. Manchester United cannot afford to get it wrong anymore. Not even their global brand can sustain further dent.

Seven managers in various capacities have taken seat since Sir Alex left it vacant. Noone yet has been able to crack the code. Some day, someone will. And that will be his/her life's defining work. Maybe it is Erik Ten Hag!