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The Haunting of Manchester United

United continue to struggle for a viable identity...

Manchester United v Liverpool - Premier League Photo by Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

A haunting is often described as a poignant moment, an experience or a sequence of events that stick with you for a long amount of time. There’s often a significant pattern of events which come one after the other in horror movies. First, there’s a sign. Second, there’s another sign. Third, people suspect that there’s something wrong. Fourth, people try to reason and try to pick out alternate justifications for what is wrong. Fifth, they accept that something is terribly wrong. Six, Bang. It falls apart. It’s pandemonium.

If anything, Manchester United fans would identify with it perfectly. Because while something of that sort happened on Sunday at Old Trafford, it happens after every two or three years. And these have become familiar hauntings. And the fans dread it.

For a clearer picture of what I want to convey, I’d use another pop culture reference from the Netflix show ‘Dark’. United, the club, are a footballing version of the town of Winden. It is stuck in this endless loop that was created in just another world of 2013. Since then, the same patterns have followed. And they’ll probably follow for years to come. Amidst all of that chaos, people just scramble around to find the real root cause of the place, jumping from one approach to the next. But through that, they only create further chains and the patterns just continue to formulate.

In layman terms, Manchester United now probably stand at the same watershed moment as they did in December 2018 or in 2016. Or in April 2014. They stand at the cusp of going towards a new approach again - probably a completely fresh one, to navigate through the madness and only to probably arrive at the cusp again in 2024 or 2025.

Now, this isn’t a defence of what transpired on Sunday at Old Trafford in any way. Solskjaer deserves a fair amount of credit for making Man United a much more stable club again. But it isn’t new for a United manager to suffer as a result of his own tactical or managerial shortcomings, and as a result of the strange decisions of those upstairs. It has happened a fair amount of times and it has taught everyone that you can wrap a bandage around the scars of Man United for only a limited amount of time.

The scars get exposed in the same way as the hauntings that I wrote about above. After the 6-1 defeat to Tottenham last season, Solskjaer excelled in applying a bandage to the scars and showed that he’s pretty good at it. This is a man who has probably made a career out of it as a player too. This season, the demands changed. In the hunt for trying to stamp an authority on games and becoming a more expansive team, the bandages just slipped. Already reeling with the awkward signing of Cristiano Ronaldo, becoming a more expansive unit became an even tougher task. And in many ways, the bandage truly came off on Sunday.

And they stand at the cusp again, wondering where it really went wrong. Was it after the defeat to Cardiff City in 2019? Was it after the loss to Burnley at home? Was it after the 6-1 against Tottenham or was it in the Europa League final? The truth is that you will never get the answer. Because the club, much like Jose Mourinho and Winden itself, is a victim of itself.

What Sir Alex Ferguson did towards the end of his tenure was nothing short of a miracle, if anyone bats an eye at the Premier League’s standards today. The club failed to replace some of its best stars and signed lesser known players to shore it up on the cheap. And despite picking up random draws in lesser games, United would win leagues towards the end of Sir Alex’s tenure. It was barely stylish and arguably towards the end of his tenure, league wins became more nervous. But the man was an expert at handling transitions and making the most out of resources that weren’t always the best.

The resources after him weren’t limited at all, they’ve just not been used well at all. And that includes managers and the money for signings. Be it Mourinho, Louis van Gaal, David Moyes or Solskjaer himself, there have been questionable decisions made about their appointments, sackings or new contracts. They’ve never stopped.

The money has always been there (and it probably won’t be because of rising debt), but a striker has been signed when a centre-back was needed. A third choice goalkeeper has been signed when there was a need for a centre-back. A striker was signed when a defensive midfielder was needed for years. A Plan B forward was signed when a central midfielder was needed.

At a club where things like that happen, growth can never be sustainable. All managers have flaws - even Antonio Conte and Zinedine Zidane have gaping flaws in their approaches. But it isn’t about their approach or expectations. It is Man United’s expectations.

It is easy to forget that this isn’t 2012 anymore. To win the Premier League, teams literally have to be perfect. Teams have to pick up close to 100 points to have a chance of winning. That is the standard we are talking about here. It isn’t the 80-point standard anymore.

I read people saying that Conte can win the Premier League with the squad that Man United have. If that is the case, I want to know the last time a club won the Premier League without a top class defensive midfielder? And considering what United are, if they do sign a defensive midfielder, will it be the right one?

If it is the right one, can they match the perfection that Manchester City are? Will Conte throw his toys out of the bucket, change the spine of this team and put the club through further financial ruin unintentionally? Under the Italian (who I adore), United could well become another version of Barcelona from a financial perspective.

It brings you back to the same question as before. What is Manchester United, now that Sir Alex hasn’t been here for about eight years? For some, Sir Alex was Man United. For some, what he and Sir Matt Busby represented is Manchester United. But those are men that can’t be replaced.

It isn’t as if United have tried to understand and explore their identity over the years. They clearly have four managers that represent different things in isolation. But here they are, still struggling to come to terms with what they are now. If that isn’t Winden in a nutshell, then what is it?