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Revolution or Reform?: Balancing vision with reality at Manchester United once again

We’ve been here before, haven’t we...

2022-04-23 NEC Nijmegen v Ajax - Dutch Eredivisie Photo by Broer van den Boom/BSR Agency/Getty Images

There is no unified theory on football but recruitment is key is a football maxim that no fan of the sport will argue against since the day club football became competitive.

Erik ten Hag has been announced as the new Manchester United manager. He’ll be the 5th permanent manager to take the United job since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013. There’s excitement around this appointment, some of which is warranted but also perplexing.

Almost as important as this appointment is going to be the Dutchman’s first transfer window at the club. United’s recruitment has come under excessive scrutiny since Jose Mourinho’s final season at the club and remains a source of concern.

Interim manager, Ralf Rangnick, has struggled to have the desired impact since his appointment but has stated on multiple occasions that there’s an easy way around this rigmarole but the club is currently at one of its lowest ebbs. It’s hard to see the light.

Let’s look back at what worked when things worked at the club, what’s changed since the great elder left and what might need to change going forward.

We Was Wolves!!!

It wasn’t always like this. Gary Neville neatly summed up United’s transfer policy under the hugely successful period under Sir Alex into three categories for Sky Sports’ Off Script series:

This is how former assistant coach Rene Meulensteen summed up Sir Alex’s vision on the pitch:

Once the ball got rolling with that first FA Cup in 1990, there was no looking back for the Scotsman. United were arguably the best run club in Europe for the two decades that followed by sticking to this vision.

Those that followed Sir Alex shared some of these policies and differed on others. Let’s now take a look at them all and see if it maybe helps explain what’s got us to this point.

Quiet Carrington

United’s famed academy hasn’t been home to a Trent Alexander-Arnold or Phil Foden for some time, which is fine because they don’t crop up often but it hasn’t been churning out the Mason Mounts of this world either.

Some might argue Paul Pogba (he’s more relevant when we get into the third transfer policy) and the disgraced Mason Greenwood are the only academy graduates from the last 10-15 years who sit on this table but we know how that’s turned out. Marcus Rashford just misses the mark. Ravel Morrison and Adnan Januzaj looked special but never really took off.

Earlier in the season, Gary Neville in his duties as a pundit for Sky Sports mentioned how the likes of himself and Nicky Butt would have looked ordinary without their superstar teammates. Neville often undersells his talent and that of his peers but the suggestion was that you could have a few water carriers.

John O’Shea and Darren Fletcher probably are a better fit for that water carrier role and United have had more of those in recent years. Players like Jesse Lingard, Scott McTominay and a few others have done admirably for the club at times but have probably played more minutes than they should have for various reasons.

The top teams in the Premier League are as strong as they’ve ever been, almost always fielding 11 players who are excellent in at least one important phase of possession and give nothing away out of it. Luxury players and water carriers are becoming increasingly rare at the highest level and so are these trade-offs.

Every manager post-Ferguson has found time for at least one graduate but Carrington’s not been a hotbed of talent.

However, there’s great optimism around the current U18s side, which has made its first FA youth cup final in over a decade. There are a few there with some pace, power, penetration and unpredictability like Sir Alex’s last signing for the club, who can maybe help explain why United have struggled with the second transfer policy.

The Zaha Zone

Here’s a little explainer:

There’s always been a premium price on emerging English talent. Add the United premium along with the revenue generated from broadcasting deals by Premier League clubs and we’re talking a lot of money for any Premier League player today.

Moyes and Solskjaer were possibly a bit higher on emerging British talent. Moyes was a different operator to Ferguson, participating in every department of the football operations but has stated in multiple press conferences at United and in his interviews since the sack that he didn’t want to change United’s style under Sir Alex.

United were ready to break the transfer record for Gareth Bale in Moyes’ first season, which would have aligned with United’s tradition of getting exciting wingers since the days of Billy Meredith. Moyes also revealed that they had prepared a helicopter ride for his arrival but the Welsh wizard had already got his sights on Madrid. United were also looking at a left-back with Leighton Baines and Luke Shaw targeted. Everton rejected United’s offer for Baines and Luke Shaw would join a year later to break the transfer record for left-backs.

By the time Solskjaer came into the office, much had changed since the days of Ferguson. He was on a restitution job. The plan to go for emerging British talent made even more sense now as many consider the latest batch of talent the greatest since ‘66.

For the reasons mentioned earlier, the likes of Jack Grealish, Jadon Sancho, Declan Rice, Harry Kane, Sean Longstaff and Kieran Trippier were deemed too expensive at different periods during Solskjaer’s reign. Jude Bellingham felt the move to Dortmund would be more beneficial for his development. Sancho would eventually join the Reds a year later than expected. Sancho will be thanking his lucky stars that United didn’t pay Dortmund’s asking price in the summer of 2020/21.

There were a few of course that Solskjaer was successful in bringing in. Harry Maguire and Aaron-Wan Bissaka were bought for big money with Maguire breaking the transfer record for a centre-back. Daniel James was also bought in for a low price.

There are a few things to note here besides the exorbitant prices. British players are now more open to playing outside England. Bellingham and Bale had all the characteristics outlined by Meulensteen but didn’t join United. Daniel James is the one signing here who didn’t cost a lot of money and was then sold for a profit.

Many of these British players have had a mixed bag at the club. They joined the club with a good reputation but the transfer fee seems to have weighed them down. The issue here doesn’t seem to be spending big money. British talent or otherwise, paying big money – and we’re talking record transfers here – at the start of a rebuild doesn’t seem like a smart move.

Liverpool paid big sums for Virgil van Dijk and Alisson because they were the final pieces of the puzzle, giving them a transformative outlook. The record transfers might even do well for large parts but even a little dip in performance will not be tolerated by the media and most fans. This is especially the case if they aren’t on the younger side.

United in recent weeks have been linked with Harry Kane and Declan Rice. They are fantastic players but it would be advisable to not exert so much energy in the summer window on such targets. Shopping at the Championship seems a far better bet, as was the case with a potential superstar like Jude Bellingham or a workhorse like Daniel James.

The other option would be to go for players with great potential who ply their trade for sides that have just been relegated. Liverpool did this with the likes of Andy Robertson and Gini Wijnaldum. They’re likely to get Fulham’s Fabio Carvalho on the cheap this summer as well.

A British core can never be a problem as much as it’s maligned by certain sections. Liverpool had a core of Jordan Henderson, James Milner, Adam Lallana, Nathaniel Clyne, and Daniel Sturridge before Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson joined the party.

Manchester City, the most successful English team in the last couple of years, have broken the bank for the likes of Kyle Walker, John Stones, Jack Grealish and Raheem Sterling but it wasn’t a rebuild in those years. City had a little revolution on September 1, 2008, and haven’t needed a rebuild since.

The sort of money that United paid for Jadon Sancho this season is evidence that fans and the media are more tolerant when players are bought for big fees that don’t equate to record fees and not bought in the initial stages of a rebuild. Why United are going through a rebuild again can best be explained by how they’ve mucked up the third transfer policy since Sir Alex left the building.

I thought Manchester United could buy every player

Those were the words of Louis van Gaal in an interview for The Guardian. It might seem like that to most outsiders because Manchester United are among a coterie of football clubs to whom every player in the market is a potential signing but potential is doing a lot of heavy lifting here.

Let’s take the example of Kylian Mbappe. He’s only 23 years old; can play across the forward line; creates and scores goals; can play for a side that dominates possession or one that relies heavily on quick transitions and has got his best years ahead of him.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to state that he’s the most wanted footballer on the planet. He’s also out of contract in a few months but only a few clubs can afford his wages. Manchester United are among the clubs that can but he won’t join Manchester United next season, which is why potential did a lot of heavy lifting earlier.

United have never bought a Kylian Mbappe. That’s always been the domain of the big two in Spain since the days of Alfredo Di Stefano.

Also noticeable is that United haven’t had too many great players from the great football nations. Eric Cantona, Patrice Evra and Carlos Tevez are among a handful but it’s not a long list and nor did these players have a famous World Cup campaign that captured the imagination of young fans across the globe. You then look at the two other big nations that haven’t won a World Cup in Netherlands and Portugal. United’s record is a bit better there.

It’s clear why the very best players in the world – those who might win a Ballon d'Or or come from some of the big footballing nations – might not gravitate towards Manchester United because of the name and history alone. There are other clubs that these players can look to. More recently, Paris Saint-Germain have entered the fray.

All of this despite being home to talents whose fame has transcended the sport, being the most famous club in England and arguably the world. It seems like United have tried to fill this vacuum in their history by signing players who have played for the other great clubs in recent years. Almost done to prove that they can still attract players of great reputation despite the troubles.

Ed Woodward had this to say in 2013:

This little ego trip has backfired.

Emerging talent is also too broad a category. Even Paul Pogba, who graduated from United’s academy and was later bought back for a world-record fee at the age of 23 doesn’t quite fit the bill for what Neville outlines in his policies. Pogba had already achieved a lot in between the two United stints. He’d won league titles with Juventus, was one of the best players in the 2014 World Cup and made the finals of the Euros and Champions League.

He’d also been highly successful as a youth prodigy for both France and United. United were not a winning force when he joined the club. Ideally, you want players who haven’t achieved a lot yet but have the potential to and are plying their trade in one of the non-super league clubs.

This could also be applied to managers. Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho had managed clubs of similar stature to United. United wasn’t necessarily a step-up and they might’ve even seen it as a step-down. Their unvarnished honesty would have been more welcome by fans had they bought into the fabric of the club and not hinted at various intervals that they’d rather be elsewhere.

They even had players who best summed up this feeling. Van Gaal had Angel di Maria and Jose Mourinho had Alexis Sanchez; two good players with a great work ethic who were never fully behind their moves to Old Trafford.

Much time is also wasted chasing these players. David Moyes wanted Cesc Fabregas at Manchester United but the move never materialized and United ended up spending over the odds for Marouane Fellaini a few weeks later; emblematic of the errors made in the post-Ferguson era.

United should be the step forward in their careers and United should pitch their project to the players accordingly. Manchester City and Liverpool haven’t got so many players from around the globe cause of their glorious history. It’s cause their managers and the structure above them reflect the ambition of their football operation.

Even players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the homecoming version of Cristiano Ronaldo, who have done their primary job, should be avoided. It can only be a good thing to have a working relationship with the biggest agents in the game but they shouldn’t dictate the transfer strategy and only be a bonus at best.

There also isn’t much room to mould older pros as they’re long past their development stage. These superstars might not require a big transfer fee but are on extremely high wages, which also brings with it a level of expectation that players rarely deliver on.

Soooo...what next? Reform or Revolution?

For all the faults in this period, United’s sluggish machinery has highlighted a few bits that all the managers were possibly right on. Aspects of United’s character have been scattered in each manager’s reign and there’s something to learn from each of them.

David Moyes wasn’t there for long enough and didn’t get too many players through the door for an assessment. The bigger lesson from Moyes’ time at the club is to perhaps not wait till July 1st to get to work. This was also an issue for Louis van Gaal, who was coming off a World Cup campaign.

Van Gaal wanted a smaller squad, which could allow impressionable academy graduates to get some vital minutes in case of an injury to a senior player. It’s easier to get the ideas across with a smaller group but the quality deficit was just far too big and his first window at the club was at odds with how he usually operated, which delayed his vision.

In his autobiography, he mentions wanting to get the likes of N’golo Kante, Riyad Mahrez and Sadio Mane into the side but it’s hard to make anything of this mythical future now.

Jose Mourinho eyed players that had the physical requirements suited to the Premier League but his demand for players that were ready to kick on immediately meant that they were getting on a bit and overpaying for them would come with great risks.

We’ve already looked at why Solskjaer found it difficult to get so many of his targets when going through the second policy before repeating the errors of those who preceded him last summer in an attempt to fast-forward United’s progress.

Van Gaal and Mourinho (as much as he denies it) had a philosophy but United’s higher-ups hired them because of all the silverware they’d won over the years and assumed they could achieve the same here by any means. The elastic framework at the club did them more harm than good and Solskjaer stretched that framework to a point where it ripped itself apart after last season’s window.

All of this has led to players under different managers dawdling at the club till their contracts run out. Some of them haven’t even been allowed to leave by being rewarded with contracts in a bizarre effort to protect their value and obtain a fee for a later date.

If the football operators at the club put a stop to this going forward, they’ll have already taken a big leap toward solving the issues that have plagued the club since Sir Alex’s retirement.

So who are the current football operators?

This was United’s transfer committee until recently:

With three of the names mentioned no longer at the club and one of them likely to leave, it seems like Mick Court will be the only remaining member. John Murtough, Darren Fletcher and Erik ten Hag are almost certainly going to find themselves in the committee now with decision making powers. Rangnick will work as a consultant. Steve Brown was named head of recruitment last season and is someone who followed Murtough and Moyes from Everton.

Brown comes with a great reputation.

Here are some excerpts from Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s Soccernomics:

There’s more in Soccernomics on how the team used video to compile their own set of stats using key performance indicators to pick up Marouane Fellaini from the Belgian League as a replacement for Lee Carsley.

If Brown and his team can do the same for Ten Hag, United might end up with a Kostas Tsimikas instead of an Alex Telles. One also wonders if Brown was able to get through to the managers all these years and why it’s taken him so long to take up a senior position at the club. There have also been rumours of a deputy director coming in.

Even if United identify players that are perfect fits this summer, they might not join the club. They could have other good offers. The wider perception is that Old Trafford’s become a graveyard for talent. Changing that perception will be crucial going into next season.

One might be clutching at straws here but there seems to be some homogeneity in the structure from the outside looking in now. Interviews that were once conducted by a former banker are being done by people with a background in football for a start.

Erik ten Hag will have his own vision but there’s merit in applying some of the broad transfer policies from Ferguson’s days to this side. It’s not that dissimilar to what City and Liverpool are doing now. The more one looks at the policies that have historically worked for United, the more it seems like a lot of filtering is required. Every player on the market is a potential signing but should not be one.

Fans want a revolution but that’s unlikely without a change in ownership. For now, reform will do.