Manchester United’s 2015-16 season will go down as one of the most frustrating in the club’s history. Whether or not that’s really justified – they’re probably going to finish fifth in the top flight, and they’ve finished lower than that on many occasions in the past – it’s a fact. In twenty years, no-one is going to look back on Louis Van Gaal’s second year in charge and think anything other than "Jesus Christ, that was awful."
As Paul Scholes and company have been very keen to remind us, Man Utd have spent £250m and made no visible improvement. Almost every signing has been a good player in his own right, but perhaps not what we’d usually consider ‘A United Player’. Some, like Anthony Martial, Luke Shaw, Daley Blind and Morgan Schneiderlin, look the part, but need time and strong leadership to reach their full potential and become players who win titles. Others, like Marcos Rojo, Marouane Fellaini and Memphis, have frustrated.
A common refrain from Van Gaal’s critics is that there doesn’t seem to be any grand plan they’re working towards - no overarching idea which explains why certain players (like Fellaini) are favoured over others (like Ander Herrera), why the manager continually rotates the starting line-up and why he does things like put Ashley Young up front and Anthony Martial on the wing when all common sense says it should be the other way around.
The word ‘philosophy’ has been the noose around Van Gaal’s neck for the last year or so. He was the man whose genius coaching made Ajax’s load of raw and untested kids from various backgrounds European champions. He was the man who supposedly did the work behind the scenes to make Barcelona and Bayern Munich the unstoppable juggernauts they are now. He was the man who was supposed to do the same for United. It hasn’t happened, and it isn’t going to. Rather than careful, coherent and revolutionary reorganisation, Van Gaal’s United have become a byword for wanton spending, thoughtless recruitment and a total lack of long-term planning.
But is that really so new at Old Trafford? When was the last time people saw United as the apex of footballing artistry? Regardless of the unprecedented trophy haul and relentless brand expansion in the 1990s and 2000s, the quality of the football was always secondary to simply winning. It was exciting, sure, but it wasn’t especially innovative or inspirational from a technical or a tactical perspective.
Youth development has always been a part of Man Utd’s DNA and the Busby Babes and Fergie’s Fledglings rightly became world famous, but honestly and truly, has the world ever looked at Man Utd as the model club, as opposed to simply the most successful? Probably not.
From the 1970s to the present day, with a few minor and even some major blips, Ajax have run like a Swiss watch. To this day coaches travel from all over the world to study their methods. Johan Cruyff, who of course played a key role in Ajax’s development, went on to revolutionise Barcelona and set in motion a chain of events which would culminate in arguably the most thorough and coherent organisation of any sporting organisation ever. Even more aspiring trainers travel to Catalonia to see how they do things.
In the early 1990s at United, Alex Ferguson started something similar. Perhaps one could argue that the closed-mindedness of British football in tactical terms takes something away from his achievement, but really, that would be churlish. In any case, from the early nineties until the mid-to-late 2000s, there was a recognisable Man Utd way of playing. It was a fast, aggressive, gung-ho 4-4-2 (or 4-4-1-1, depending on how sympathetic to Fergie’s claims you want to be), with rapid wingers, brilliant crossers, overlapping full-backs, all-action central midfielders and strikers who could play just as well outside the box as in it.
Fergie’s Fledglings were the backbone of those sides. They had been taught everything they knew about football by Ferguson and Eric Harrison, and their integration into the first team was seamless. They knew the system they were expected to play, they knew their roles and how they related to those of their colleagues, and they knew the professional standards they were expected to uphold. As time passed, their experience and understanding trickled down to new recruits and to other academy products. Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville stayed at United for this entire cycle and made a combined 2,283 appearances for the club.
There was always heavy spending, of course, and inevitably there were a number of duds during this time. Most, however, were of the inexpensive variety. Juan Sebastián Verón stands alone as the only big money buy that didn’t work out, and even he didn’t fail quite as badly as it’s now thought. Nonetheless, Verón clearly didn’t fit in at United and was unceremoniously shipped out at a significant loss.
The other expensive buys – Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, Dwight Yorke, Jaap Stam, Andy Cole, Michael Carrick, Cristiano Ronaldo – were all spectacular successes. It was easy for Ferguson and his scouts to identify them as United players not just because of their quality, but because of their style: each had characteristics which obviously fit in with the way United played, and each slotted neatly into a specific space in the existing system, or a slightly more nuanced future version of that system. There was never any truly radical tactical reshuffle to accommodate one player, and rarely any prolonged adjustment period required for a new signing, nor for their teammates.
On top of that, the youth system kept churning out useful first-team additions. Wes Brown, John O’Shea and Darren Fletcher were never going to be Ballon d’Or contenders, but they were United through-and-through, and were as familiar with the way United played and the standards United players needed to reach as was humanly possible.
At some point in the mid-2000s, however, the wheels started to come off. First of all Arsène Wenger made Arsenal Invincible with football that was more sophisticated than anything United could produce, and then José Mourinho came to the Premier League and won consecutive titles by setting Chelsea up as the only side that seemed to play with any awareness of the importance of transitions from defence-to-attack and attack-to-defence. Suddenly United's gung-ho style looked old-hat, and their transfer dealings consequently became less successful. Results were poor, the football was worse, Roy Keane left in a blaze of righteous fury and Fergie came under previously unthinkable levels of pressure.
Around the same time, the Glazers "bought" United, placing a huge financial burden on the club and limiting future spending. Suddenly their ability to replace key players was compromised and United were in new territory. When Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez left in 2009, there was no money to replace them, and Ferguson can't be blamed for that. As we all know, the current owners have sucked mind-boggling sums of cash out of the club since their arrival in 2005. This is undeniably the single key factor in United’s decline, but it’s too easy to simply point the finger at Johnny Foreigner and say it’s entirely his fault.
In the years that followed, Ferguson oversaw a remarkable rebirth of United and a return to the pinnacle of domestic and European football, and this is considered by many to have been his greatest achievement of all. In reality, however, it was simply his final flourish, one last burst of concentrated short-term success, rather than any Cruyff-like construction of a superpower, built to endure in the long-term and dominate way into the future. Fergie got results on the pitch and in the moment, but off of it and looking to the future, United were falling behind.
It seems to be the accepted wisdom now that Alex Ferguson’s greatest powers lay in man-management and motivation. There is barely a player to have worked with him who hasn’t gone on record to say that Ferguson inspired them on a daily basis. Plenty have said he became a father figure to them. By all accounts, Ferguson stands alone in that regard.
However, it also seems to be equally accepted that Ferguson wasn’t the greatest tactician ever to have walked the Earth. He led United to unprecedented domestic domination in the 1990s mostly because he had better players than everyone else and because he inspired them to play at 100% every single week. He identified and incorporated great players and threw caution to the wind. Tactically, he wasn’t doing anything that different to most other coaches in the Premier League – he was just doing the same but doing it better, with better players, who were better motivated.
Obviously, there was a notable tactical evolution over the next decade, particularly in Europe. The arrival of Carlos Queiroz directly influenced United’s style of play in the Champions League, and Mourinho's impact saw the gung-ho attacking which characterised United's domestic displays reined in more and more. The impact of Queiroz, though, was key: for all his brilliance as a manager, Ferguson could never have organised the absolutely immaculate backs-to-the-wall defensive displays Queiroz orchestrated in the Champions League semi-finals against Barcelona en route to lifting the European Cup in 2007-08.
But this tactical evolution came at a significant cost, and when Queiroz left in 2008, things started to get very muddled. Slowly but surely, the definition of ‘a Man Utd player’ became harder and harder to pin down. United began to sign specialists to play in certain types of games against certain types of opposition, rather than trusting in the recruitment policies of old. The youth team, still seemingly trained to play one certain way, couldn’t produce the sorts of players Ferguson was looking to stock his squad with.
While it’s conceivable that certain latter-day Ferguson signings like Nani, Phil Jones and Robin Van Persie would’ve made the cut in the old days, others like Park Ji-Sung, Anderson and Javier Hernández wouldn’t have got a look in. While undeniably useful in certain contexts, they were specialists for playing specific types of opponents, rather than dazzling talents capable of bullying their way through entire seasons.
This showed in United’s games: the latter-day Ferguson teams generally ground the opposition down rather than blowing them away, stole results rather than romping to them and, occasionally and pretty unforgivably, bored their opposition into submission. The results may have stayed the same on paper, but the excitement of the play and the coherence of the system on the pitch as well as of the club off it was, if not gone, then very obviously going.
This move away from progressive, proactive football was obviously a conscious decision of Ferguson’s, and in the long-term it has had extremely detrimental effects. These have been exacerbated by Barcelona, Spain and Bayern Munich showing that the best way to win at top-level football is essentially the way Ferguson first began having success himself: choose a Plan A, and stick to it; if Plan A isn’t working, don’t change to Plan B - simply do Plan A better. United, by contrast, became a team that had very strong Plans B, C, D and E, but this made Plan A weaker in the process.
As well as filling his squad with specialists and gradually and entirely losing the essence of his own footballing philosophy, Ferguson allowed his squad to age in such a way that now appears grossly negligent. Just as AC Milan did with their seemingly unstoppable team of the late 2000s, United seemed to assume that certain players would simply keep going forever, and never bothered to move them on before it was too late, nor sign replacements to eventually take their places. This is inexcusable.
Much as Ferguson and his defenders continue to deny it, the squad that David Moyes inherited in the summer of 2013 was nowhere near good enough. They were champions by miles in the previous season, sure, but against a weak field of competitors, and a field that was only going to improve in the next season. The appearance of domestic domination was an illusion.
To put it bluntly, the squad had way too many key players that were past their prime, way too many specialists Ferguson had bought for the sort of situations that would never arise with a manager as limited as Moyes in charge, and way too many who were simply not good enough.
If all of that wasn’t bad enough, Ferguson’s hand-picked replacement was David bloody Moyes. The reasons (or excuses) for Moyes’ appointment have since been listed at length by Ferguson, but that doesn’t change the fact that he erred horrendously, choosing the wrong man for the wrong job, and setting United back years in the process.
Ferguson left a huge mess, and then appointed someone whose lack of experience and ability meant that he was only ever going to make things worse. Moyes screwed everything up from day one, and while he obviously carries the responsibility for his own decisions, it’s entirely Ferguson’s fault that such an underqualified, ill-prepared replacement was selected to manage Manchester United in the first place.
In a comparatively short period of time, Alex Ferguson, ably assisted by the Glazers, dismantled the brilliant Manchester United machine he himself had created and set in motion a decline which is still continuing, and may well continue for a few years yet.
Moyes and Van Gaal have been absolutely pilloried for the quality of football produced under them, but the truth is United’s instantly recognisable style of play disappeared long before either took charge. The memorable squads of brilliant players that shared common styles and complemented each other so well had become a mish-mash of increasing mediocrity long before Fergie threw in the towel. The succession plans which continually keep clubs like Barcelona and Bayern Munich at the top of the European tree, and which had continually kept Ferguson at the top of the domestic pile in England, stopped being written what feels like forever ago.
None of this is to say that Alex Ferguson was a bad manager. Just so we’re clear, his record speaks for itself, and in terms of winners he’s up there with the greatest of all time, if not the single greatest of all time.
Nonetheless, the idea that Manchester United’s decline has been swift and unforeseeable, and that the blame lies with David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal and Ed Woodward, is simplistic at best. They’re all responsible to certain degrees, of course, and the Glazers are even more culpable, but Alex Ferguson, still paid £3m p/a by Manchester United, seems to have avoided his share of the flak up to now. The greatest manager in the club’s history, without any shadow of a doubt, but also very much responsible for the current mess.