After every loss it seems the chatter gets louder and louder. Manchester United are 10th in the Premier League and the fans need someone to blame. That’s natural, that’s the way the world works. Don’t like something, blame it on someone else.
For many fans, that blame falls on to the shoulders of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. He’s overmatched! He has no tactics! How can you play three at the back against Partizan? What a disgrace!
Those that believe in the long term plan are accused of just backing Solskjaer because he’s a club legend. That the club is selling an illusion of a “long term plan” when there’s no evidence to suggest that things are getting better.
When United lose, and this season it is predictably happening more often than anyone would like, Twitter becomes a dangerous place. I try to avoid it but even with the best intentions, I can get sucked in.
But now I’m here to set the record straight. It’s time to stop comparing Manchester United to the other teams around them. Whether that’s Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea, or Leicester City. You sound ridiculous when you do it.
The situations between United and all those teams are different. Things aren’t as simple as “Leicester just hired Rodgers and they’re in third! Why can’t we do the same.” It’s far more complicated than that.
For years the rallying cry has been that the board isn’t backing the manager. City spend hundreds of millions of pounds every year, while United don’t do anything.
From 2014 to 2018 United spent £554.65 million on new signings (plus two pretty big free signings of Zlatan Ibrahimović and Alexis Sánchez). That’s more than Real Madrid or any team in England except one, Manchester City.
Yes, City spent more than United but City have far more resources than United. They have the backing of an Arab petro-state, who don’t care how much money they sink into the team.
All that spending wasn’t exactly legal, and City are now being investigated for breaching UEFA’s FFP rules. One of the reasons United’s spending has tailed off in the last few years is because the club wasn’t bringing any money in via player sales (just £76.69 million between 2016/17-2018/19). Add in United’s astronomical wage bill (the highest in Europe) and your hands are a bit tied up in terms of what you can spend. Of course City didn’t have to worry about that if they were just ignoring FFP rules (verdict has yet to be announced).
There’s also the matter of the structure of the club. City have a Director of Football. They have a whole football operations department. Those people have worked with Pep Guardiola since his days at Barcelona, and they were in place at City before Guardiola even arrived.
That means that every transfer they made was for a player they knew would suit Guardiola’s style. When Guardiola arrived, he had the basis of his squad already there. Even then it took him three transfer windows to get rid of unwanted players (he had to wait until several of their contracts ran out as City couldn’t sell them) and build his team that would win 100 points.
Compare that with United. They famously do not have a Director of Football. They have Ed Woodward.
Brendan Rogers joined Leicester City, who were a mid-table club, and now has them third in the league while United are mid-table. Cleary that means Solskjaer is clueless.
Stop and understand the situations.
Rodgers was not hired to build a new team. He was hired to manage one. Like City, Leicester also have a Director of Football in place; a very good one in Jon Rudkin. Rudkin was influential in building Leicester’s title winning team in 2016.
Over the next three years, he completely rebuilt them again, bringing in and through young talented players like Ben Chilwell, Demarai Gray, and James Maddison. They also signed Youri Tielemans — who everyone agreed was a fantastic signing — last January. That all happened before Rodgers got there.
Rodgers is taking a talented Leicester side and doing brilliantly with them. Does that mean they’re in a better long term situation than United? I’m not so sure.
For starters, Leicester are over performing their metrics by a wide margin. They sit third in the table but their expected points has them in 7th. They’re second in the league in goals scored with 27 (thanks to that 9-0 win over Southampton), but their xG is only 14.29. That’s nearly double their projections! That kind of production just simply isn’t sustainable.
Does that mean that they’re going to come crashing back down to the middle of the table? Probably not. The early results has given them a nice cushion that even when they start regressing they’ll still have a very good chance of finishing in the top four. Remember, Leicester’s numbers so far are very similar to the numbers United put up between when Solskjaer was hired and the thrilling victory in Paris. Guess what happened next.
There’s no doubt a top four finish is a successful season but there are definitely long term doubts for Leicester. James Maddison is likely going to leave. Eventually someone is going to realize that Wilfred Ndidi is really good and snatch him up to. Jamie Vardy is only going to get older.
That’ll leave Leicester with just Rodgers, a man whose transfer record is spotty at best. Part of the reason Liverpool sacked Rodgers was disagreements over transfer targets. Rodgers is old school, and Liverpool handed the trust over to their people who used analytics. Those people built a Champions League winning squad.
United have old school scouts as well. They suggested the team pass on Matthijs de Ligt because his dad was fat.
The comparison here will always be to how Frank Lampard has Chelsea firing on all cylinders despite facing a transfer ban and not being allowed to sign any players. That’s all true but let’s not pretend Lampard inherited the same Chelsea as last season.
For starters, the team welcomed in Christian Pulisic, a 20-year-old who was bought in January for £57 million. Pulisic brings them talent, Champions League experience, and most importantly, youth.
Even without the arrival of Pulisic, Lampard inherited a far better team than Solskjaer did, mostly thanks to Chelsea’s “loan army.” Mason Mount, who is far better than Jesse Lingard or Andreas Pereira, spent last season playing at Derby County. Tammy Abraham spent last season at Aston Villa, scoring 25 goals in the Championship. The year before he was at Swansea gaining Premier League experience. Fikayo Tomori, who has been a complete revelation, spent the past two years at Derby County and Hull in the Championship.
All these players gained experience playing football against men. Transitioning to the Premier League is a step up in quality, but they’re already used to playing against people above their age. United have starlets Mason Greenwood, Tahith Chong, and Angel Gomes, but while they’re dominating the academy, they’re still just playing against boys.
That’s what happens when you devote resources to your academy. We’ve covered this before. United completely neglected their academy in the middle of this decade and are now paying for it. There’s no generation of players aged 21-24 coming through. The only notable player United had on loan last year was Axel Tuanzebe at Aston Villa, and if he weren’t hurt he’d probably be a starter.
If you want to compare United to anyone, it’s Liverpool. But not this Liverpool — the Liverpool from 2015/16.
That Liverpool is the model. They realized that even though Brendan Rodgers had gotten them a second place finish it wasn’t going to get any better. They needed to blow it up and start over.
They hired Jurgen Klopp and set out on a long term plan. They finished 8th in his first year. It took them five transfer windows to get the team that would make it to the Champions League final. It took them six windows to get the team that would finish 2nd and become Champions of Europe.
Like City and Leicester, Liverpool have a Director of Football and a good structure in place. They created a plan and stuck to it. Finishing 8th in 2016 didn’t doom them to relegation or a decade of mediocrity. Instead of abandoning their plan they stuck with it and three years later they were European Champions.
Every time United lose and fans try to compare them with these teams and assign blame somewhere. We know what the problem is. The problem is Ed Woodward. The problem is the Glazers not demanding that Woodward put a proper structure in place.
Without that proper structure, United wasted five years of building post Alex Ferguson. That’s all catching up to them now, and it can’t be fixed overnight.
At the very least, United finally have a plan. The problem with long term plans is, “long term” is longer than from September to November. If United lacked creative players in September it stands reason to believe they’ll still lack them in December because there’s nothing they can do to change that. That doesn’t mean they should make a change.
Mourinho was hired to win trophies right away. Solskjaer wasn’t. He was hired to rebuild Manchester United. That’s what he’s currently doing.