Staff writer Set Brooks discusses the decline of Manchester United ever since the departure of legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson.
Manchester United are one of the biggest clubs in the world. They have won more trophies than any other club in English football, with a record twenty league titles, twelve FA Cups, five League Cups and twenty-one Community Shields. They also boast a proud record on the european and world stage, having won three Champions Leagues, one Europa League, one Cup Winners’ Cup, one Intercontinental Cup and one FIFA Club World Cup.
A large part of this success was down to Sir Alex Ferguson, who led the club for twenty-seven years between 1986 and 2013. During his reign, United were built into the global force that they are today. They were by far the most dominant team in the first two decades of the Premier League and ended up overtaking Liverpool in terms of titles won by the end of Fergie’s career, who were equally as dominant in the 1980s.
Yet, it has been widely documented that United have been on a downward spiral for a number of years now. Those who saw the success under Ferguson are now seeing inconsistent results and league finishes they weren’t previously accustomed to. In my view, the problems that Manchester United have been experiencing in recent years can predominantly be traced back to Ferguson retiring. Looking at the path the club has been on since that day, it is easy to see why. Sir Alex left the club as a Premier League champion, winning the title in 2012-2013 by eleven points and with a comfortable four games to spare. He had been determined to wrestle the trophy back from Manchester City, who famously won it with a last-gasp Sergio Aguero goal the previous season.
It was therefore an ideal time to leave, winning back the trophy that had been snatched away from United only one year before. However, many see Ferguson as partly responsible for the mess United are in now because of some of the decisions he made when he left. Indeed, the decision to appoint David Moyes as his successor turned out to be a big mistake in hindsight.
Yes, he had been successful at Everton but the step-up to United was always going to be tough to handle with the expectations high. Finishing in the top-half of the league around the European places at Everton was good, but nowhere near as difficult as challenging for the league title with what was an ageing squad. Ferguson had not left the team in the best of shape, despite a great concluding season. Look at the key players in that campaign: Evra, Ferdinand, Rooney, Giggs and Vidic ‒ all nearing thirty at the time that Ferguson left. This meant that Moyes walked into the job with some players past their prime, combined with the difficult step up from Everton, meant it was a tough task from day one. The Scot would only last nine months before being sacked and the club had gone from outright champions to finishing seventh almost immediately. This in turn initiated the fall of United: often stability is needed when a long-term manager departs but with Moyes gone so soon, this wasn’t possible.
Many have argued that the ownership of the club has also been responsible for the fall of United. The Glazer family have been the majority shareholders since 2005, and it is safe to say that they have never been well received among United fans. Even though the club was still winning trophies in this period until Sir Alex retired, it could well be argued that this was purely down to his genius. Indeed, having made it to the Champions League Final in 2009, United sold Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid for over €80 million and look at what he was replaced with: Antonio Valencia from Wigan, Michael Owen on a free and Gabriel Obertan from Bordeaux.
The Glazers had done nothing to support Ferguson in this respect, and were only able to finish one-point behind champions Chelsea the following season because of his tactics and managerial strengths. This means that the genius of Sir Alex was in a way “papering over the cracks” in his final few seasons at the club, and perhaps explains why when he left, United were always destined to fall. The Glazers have also made mistakes with signing players post-Ferguson. Cash has been spent all over the place, but how many of the signings have been a success? Take a look at some of the names: Fellaini, Mata, Di Maria, Depay, Schneiderlin, Ibrahimovic, Matic, Sanchez, Fred, Maguire. Some of these have cost exorbitant amounts, and have undoubtedly failed to live up to their respective transfer fees. Also, look at the most recent summer transfer window: Donny van de Beek was signed from Ajax but has not yet been rewarded with sufficient game time, same with Alex Telles, and Edinson Cavani came across as a panic buy on Deadline Day. This is another example of impulsive thinking from the Glazers, and because of this, some have said that United will not win again while they remain in charge.
The Glazers have also been working with Ed Woodward in recent years. Behind the scenes when Ferguson retired, chief executive David Gill also departed and since then, Woodward has taken his place. However, there have always been issues about whether he is an out-and-out “footballing” man. It is clear that he has helped United to grow commercially off the pitch, but critically, he has worked with the Glazers on transfers and has also been partly responsible for the bad buys. Added to this, the way in which he has dealt with managers has been flawed. Louis van Gaal was sacked on the day he won the FA Cup in 2016 and Woodward failed to back Jose Mourinho in the 2018 summer transfer window before firing him later that year.
The decision to hire Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on a permanent basis has also been questioned, admittedly with the benefit of hindsight. Many would have waited till the end of the 2018-2019 season before making a decision, but instead Woodward awarded him with a permanent contract after only a handful of games. Yes, United had played some great football in that period since Mourinho left, but watching a few more matches before appointing Solskjaer full-time could have proved crucial. This is because form slumped in the last few games, most notably losing 4-0 at Everton and falling to already-relegated Cardiff at home on the final day. The 2019-2020 season was also a slog, despite eventually finishing third with January signing Bruno Fernandes carrying the team in the second half of the season.
Solskjaer has looked out of his depth on a number of occasions. In terms of results, his first full season could be viewed as a success, but they were incredibly inconsistent overall, and that to a great extent has carried over to this season. They have beaten RB Leipzig 5-0 in the Champions League for example, but lost 6-1 to Tottenham in the Premier League. Many therefore think that it was a mistake for the Glazers and Woodward to back him in the first place, arguing that a more experienced hand should have been appointed instead, and they do have a case in my view.
Perhaps, however, the fall of United can be explained in an easier way. Aside from Ferguson, the Glazers and Woodward, there could be a basic reason for all of this: football is cyclical. Periods of dominance are finite in this game, and nothing lasts forever. Liverpool, the second most-successful club in England, had to wait thirty years before winning the title again this year. My club Arsenal likewise last won the league sixteen-and-a-half-years ago, and look no closer to winning it again any time soon. United fans are getting to know what this is like, now seven-and-a-half-years on from their last league triumph.
You think at the time that it is impossible to go so long without winning the title, but things can change rapidly: Arsenal especially were the “invincibles” and look where they are now. Yet, with that said, this current cycle will soon end. Both Liverpool and Manchester City are now top dogs, but when Klopp and Guardiola leave it might be different. Who knows, maybe then Manchester United and Arsenal will go back to competing for the title year in, year out. In any case, as many have said, United will win again.
They are ranked in the top five clubs worldwide for global fanbase, they have the biggest capacity club stadium in England, and they are the highest-earning club in the world. They will win the Premier League title again, and it is likely that they will win the Champions League again too. Although this may not happen in the near future, they’re simply too big a club to fail.