Something is wrong at Manchester United. That may be the most obvious statement ever made on this blog but it is true. Something is wrong at Manchester United and I don’t just mean on the pitch or even in the boardroom but everywhere.
Is it possible that Sir Alex Ferguson, in addition to the incredible feats that he achieved on the pitch, was doing something even more impressive across the club as a whole?
We are all aware that the commercial side of football has changed markedly since the inception of the Premier League. We only have to see the crazed reaction of fans across the world when United land at their airports and the clamour to own the latest shirts with their favourite player’s name across the back. This is the realm of marketing and in many respects those fans don’t really care about how and what United achieve on the pitch away at Stoke. They care more about wearing the latest shirt and feeling that they belong to something exciting, particularly if it contrasts with their own cultural base. They have fallen in love with the club, perhaps not with the team.
When the Glazers appeared on the scene we all jumped up and down predicting doom and gloom but instead the team continued to achieve greatness under Sir Alex on the pitch. Admittedly in the background the club itself was put at significant risk through the debt liabilities that were hung around its neck but on the pitch the magic continued to shine through. Enough has been written about the impact of the Glazers on United and I do not intend to go into it again. The best thing that we can say about them is that they appear to have little interest in the affairs of the team, unlike Abramovich at Chelsea who has stuck his oar in over and over again to the detriment of the club and the team.
If I am to give them credit for anything, the Glazers have shown impressive leadership by entrusting the affairs of the club and more importantly the team to professionals with much greater ability and experience than they themselves possess. They did not do what Vincent Tan, Mike Ashley and Roman Abramovich have done… purchase a club to use as their own plaything. They purchased a club to make money, recognising the potential of the commercial side of football, and they hired professionals to drive this forward.
Under Sir Alex, the team itself were largely insulated from the commercial side of the business; perhaps through a strong working relationship with David Gill. As soon as both of them left and David Moyes was appointed we started to see decisions that made a lot of commercial sense but little footballing sense creeping into Manchester United.
The first was the retention of Wayne Rooney following his bust-up with Sir Alex. From a footballing perspective Wayne was not and had not been performing on the pitch. He was alleged to be drinking, smoking and eating unhealthily in the close season. On the pitch he bustled and thugged his way around conning many people, including some well-respected journalists, to conclude that he was somehow the only thing holding United together. From a commercial perspective, his stature on the world stage meant that it made sense to keep him at the club.
Then came the absolute disaster in the transfer market. United went from conducting deals quietly and with dignity to washing all their linen in public and openly leaking targets to the press. That would be fine if they then managed to secure those targets but this was followed by a series of embarrassingly clumsy attempts at getting those players. The highlight of which was the infamous “three unidentified men” farce at Athletic Bilbao on the final day of the transfer window. The signing of Fellaini at the 11th hour was nothing more than a desperation move by Moyes to show that he was dealing with the dearth of quality in midfield.
Fast-forward to the sacking of Moyes and the appointment of Louis van Gaal and we can still see the leaching of commercial interests into the affairs of the team. Within days of being appointed, LvG was recorded complaining about the commercial demands of the club on the team. I’m not going to recount every single instance of what I believe is a lack of isolation of the team from the club’s commercial affairs but think about the signings that we made: Herrera, Shaw, Di Maria, Rojo, Blind and Falcao. Two of these are “nice to have” but did not directly fix the biggest problems at the club; one of which was created by the loss of Vidic, Ferdinand and Evra all in one go. It’s always nice to have big name players at the club and just think how many shirts the names Falcao and Di Maria allow us to sell. How much more does it allow us to charge TV companies in the middle east for the rights to broadcast our midweek friendlies? I would have preferred us to have fought City to the signature of Mangala but then no-one wants a shirt with Mangala on the back.
As fans we are easily appeased by someone waving a shiny new signing in front of us whilst being directed away from the functional difficulties of accommodating them into the team. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about us signing Di Maria as I think that we needed something new on the wing but he absolutely doesn’t fit into the wingback system that LvG had spent all summer drilling into the players. Yes I know he has played in other positions but how many attacking midfielders do we actually need? These decisions are not “bad” but they are absolutely incongruent with what the team needs in order to be maximally successful on the pitch.
Then came the final turd on top of the mound of growing incongruence: the anointing of Rooney as undroppable captain. In my opinion, not only is Rooney not in our top two strikers at the club he is not in the top three number tens either. So how is he on the pitch every week running around demonstrating a complete lack of understanding of the qualities required for leadership whilst simultaneously weakening the team? Was he anointed by LvG or by the marketing department because they like the image of his snarling pugface wearing the captain’s armband? There are not a lot of leaders on that pitch but if RvP is good enough to lead Holland to a third place in the World Cup then he is good enough to lead by example for United vying for 4th place in the Premier League.
As long as the club continue to allow the commercial interests to poison the interests of the team on the pitch then I think we will see United struggle to reconcile the conflicting demands of each side and ultimately fail on both counts in the longterm.
We have a lot to thank Sir Alex Ferguson for. He may not have been a tactical mastermind and at times his stubbornness impacted upon the team but he protected them from the growing commercial monster rushing into the market created by the Premier League for so many years. I can only hope that van Gaal is willing and able to win that fight for us in the future. If he is not then I suspect that he will become frustrated under which circumstances we shouldn’t expect the team to perform to their best potential.