Last week, ESPN’s Baxter Holmes pulled back the curtains on the slow-motion car wreck that is the Los Angeles Lakers. The storied NBA franchise, winners of sixteen league titles, has slowly deteriorated into an international punchline over the last decade. Subpar talent, baffling trades and signings, and dysfunction in the upper echelons of the organization. The trifecta of a losing team.
And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to draw parallels between the smoldering mess in L.A. and Manchester United’s current malaise.
Ever since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, United have missed the Champions League three times, cycled through managers with no overarching strategy, and now seem further from the Premier League summit than ever. The Reds need only glance across the Atlantic to see that no team is immune from failure.
Some good news: United haven’t sunk nearly as far as the Lakers. They’re only one season removed from a second place finish and a narrow defeat in the FA Cup final. Los Angeles can only dream of that kind of slump. Even the signing of LeBron James — akin to United stealing Lionel Messi away from Barcelona — couldn’t arrest their slide. All it got them was another year out of the playoffs, a farcical trade attempt for Anthony Davis, and the shock resignation of head honcho Magic Johnson. The 2018/19 Lakers almost make the current drama surrounding Paul Pogba, David De Gea, and Alexis Sánchez seem quaint by comparison.
What can Manchester United learn from the Lakers’ fall from grace? A lot.
Don’t let the past — no matter how glorious — compromise the present
Everyone knows that a “proper” United side should attack, attack, attack. And that’s fine ... to a point. An attacking philosophy and continual promotion of youth talent served the club well for decades and definitely still has a place in their future. But United cannot allow the blueprint for the last dynasty to dictate how the next one will be built.
Should the club just write off world-class managers like Diego Simeone, Antonio Conte, and Massimiliano Allegri because they don’t set their teams up the right way? All three — and plenty of other “defensive” managers — have achieved a whole lot more recent success than United.
This club is known for something bigger than attacking football and youth players: winning. Ruthless winning. Relentless winning to the point that others grumble about how unfair it all is. That’s the heart of Manchester United, not a style of play or youth policy. Great teams adapt and the Reds are in no position to close off avenues of improvement just because they don’t mesh with how the club’s been run in the past.
That’s exactly what’s befallen the Lakers. For being one of the largest sports organizations in the world, the Lakers pride themselves on operating as a family-run business. Nothing wrong with that. But whether it’s the late Dr. Jerry Buss turning the team over to his kids, them filling the organization with friends and other confidantes, or sentimental moves like Kobe Bryant’s final (and outrageous) contract, the verdict is in. It’s not working.
While the rest of the sports world moves towards cold and calculating performance analysts straight out of Billions, the Lakers insist on thumbing their nose at rival orgs and going their own way. That’s a path that Manchester United should not follow.
Empowering ex-players isn’t always the answer
First things first: this is no attack on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Ole more than proved himself ready for a bigger job during his time at Molde and then quickly turned heads with a blistering start to managerial life at Old Trafford. Sure, the season ended on a sour note, but Solskjaer remains the least of United’s problems.
But with persistent rumors that Ed Woodward hopes to name an ex-Red as Director of Football — or a group of former players as a transfer committee — the downside of this approach deserves consideration. For a club of Manchester United’s size and clout, the only objective for any hire should be: “Is this the best person for the job?” Not how well they know the club or what past glories they experienced in a red shirt, but whether they’re capable of leading United back to the promised land.
Do you think Manchester City fans are wringing their hands because Pep Guardiola and the club’s Barca-bred execs are in charge? Or Liverpool with Jurgen Klopp? Does Sir Alex Ferguson’s time in Manchester mean any less because he had no ties with the club when hired? Of course not. It’s all about winning.
The Lakers, on the other hand, brought in ex-player Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant’s former agent, Rob Pelinka, to run the whole show. Both members in good standing of the Lakers family. Neither the slightest bit qualified, though. And predictable results followed.
Hiring ex-players can work. Bayern Munich and Ajax (and others) prove that on a yearly basis. But only when those players are the best candidates for the job, regardless of any past affiliations. Both Manchester United and the L.A. Lakers possess the money and cache to employ the very best in the world. They just haven’t been doing a very good job of it.
Trust the experts
Everything really started heading south at United when Ed Woodward reportedly overruled José Mourinho’s transfer wishes last summer. No matter what anyone thinks of Mourinho, Woodward shouldn’t be making any football decisions beyond managing the budget and sorting out the financial details with other clubs.
Even if you’re of the opinion that Mourinho needed reining in, the whole situation looks likely to repeat this summer. After Anthony Martial fell out of favor with Solskjaer near the end of the season, there was talk that Ole was ready to cash in on the mercurial Frenchman. Unfortunately, according to reports, Martial happens to be one of Joel Glazer’s favorite players. No dice on shipping him out. Another manager’s opinion binned by the money men. This is not how a healthy club is run.
No surprise, but the same thing’s happening in Los Angeles. ESPN’s expose revealed that, last year, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka overrode the organization’s scouts and front office during the NBA Draft. Even worse, Pelinka later claimed that the u-turn from selecting Omari Spellman came via some inside (and negative) information from Spellman’s former teammate — and current Laker — Josh Hart. Once that facet of the story broke, Hart rushed to social media to deny everything. And these are the guys in charge of making the big decisions in L.A.?
Neither Johnson, Pelinka, nor Woodward have proven themselves evaluative savants to be usurping their self-appointed experts. Here’s a crazy idea: Hire the best scouts and decision-makers and then get out of their way.
Both teams need to remember that their core mission isn’t to prove everyone else wrong. It’s to win. That’s it. Some teams, no matter how big, need a reminder to get over themselves. The Lakers are learning this the hard way. There’s still time for Manchester United, but improvement must start now.