If Manchester United's tame defeat at Chelsea confirmed anything, it was that the club's problems go far beyond a mere midfield quandary. There was also the shocking defending any time the opposition got near the goal, not to mention the appalling service from the wingers when they managed to get up the other end. The squad is a mess, and needs heavy rebuilding. But United's troubles run even deeper, off the football pitch, out of the dugout, and into the heart of the club itself.
If you know your history, there's a precedent here. Ferguson's man-management methods have been studied and discussed for their relevance far outside football, like Barnet middle-management suits thumbing copies of The Art of War. His problems have clear historical precedents beyond football, not just the obvious one of Sir Matt Busby. It's an age-old problem, that goes right back to Tamerlane and Alexander the Great. How can you replace someone irreplacable? When power is concentrated in the hands of one man, then the more successful they are, the more impossible the succession becomes.
For good and for ill, it was impossible to imagine United without Ferguson. And that was down to more than familiarity - United was Ferguson. The scouting operation was run by his brother, and the recommendations were chosen on a whim. There was the fabled friendly that supposedly secured the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo well after other clubs had been alerted to him. There was also Bebe and David Bellion. Things had changed little from the 90s, when a chance phone call from Leeds could decide transfer policy and the future course of fate.
True, Ferguson delegated, and he was not the sort of manager to personally oversee every aspect of training, but his personality still dominated the club at every turn. Instead of a clear structure of responsibilities and power, the delegated merely filled in the gaps of Ferguson's management. From the scouting, to the tactics, to the training, it was the Ferguson way or nothing. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't, and it was all held together by his force of personality and will. It's not hard to see the problems that were always likely to develop when he left.
Ferguson is rightly praised for his ability to adapt to the times like no other has managed. The result of Kenny Dalglish being granted similar powers over Liverpool attest to how difficult that is, and the only other precedent is Arsene Wenger, who also ended up being given enough rope (a title win this season will not, contrary to popular belief, erase a decade of trophyless embarrassment.)
Yet aside from his reinventions, what was equally important was how he managed to keep other archaic ways of operating viable in an era that had long left them behind. Ferguson's empire was a personal one, kept going on his whim long after other powers had seen the necessity to delegate in order to preserve continuity, all-important in the days of Champions League money. There are only two ways to achieve that - to have one omnipotent leader in charge for decades, or to severely restrict the powers of the coach. The second is much easier to achieve.
Would José Mourinho have fared any better than David Moyes? It's difficult to say. We have nothing concrete to back up any assertions, but the job would certainly have not been any easier for his weight of personality. When a football club is organised around the idiosyncrasies of one man, the problem is that it is unique to him - replacing him with someone of an equivalent calibre does not ensure a secure transition, the only way is to literally replace him with an identical person. Moyes may have been seen as the continuity candidate, but his operation at Everton was run in a completely different manner. The present situation simply couldn't go on, no matter who was at the reins.
Of course, a football club cannot dissolve itself in a time of crisis. Roy Keane and Gary Neville will not go on to form their own versions of Manchester United and squabble over inheritance for years. Ferguson probably knows enough French to be able to utter Louis XIV's famous line, but United at the moment look less "L'État, c'est moi" and more "L'État, c'est quoi?" The comparison is looking pretty stark now, too: a vastly successful ruler that used his force of will not only to achieve the remarkable, but also to leave his successor with something inherently unmanageable and doomed to fail without heavy upheaval. Vive la revolution...