“We can do things other clubs only dream about,” Ed Woodward boasted in the summer following Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement – and instead we’ve all become witnesses to a modern retelling of the Sir Matt Busby succession, with Manchester United becoming a club doomed to repeat its own history.
There have been some key differences in the modern era compared to the late 60s and the 70s. Probably the most major was the club’s decision to embrace social media in a complete way, allowing players to have their profiles and making the club visible on all platforms in the endless pursuit of brand awareness and monetisation.
Cynical supporters might contend that this has taken preference over on-pitch success, and while that might be a tad too far, it is most certainly fair to say a player’s social media presence now is implicated in their entire profile and is factored in to their marketability as a facet of who they are as an athlete, just like their actual performance on the pitch.
One thing that is as old as time is players having their favourite journalists. Back in the day, these avenues would be used to make a matter public after private attempts to resolve an issue had failed. These days, journalists are connected to relatives of players and this bond is sometimes strong enough to encourage information to be spread like wildfire, be it team news fifty minutes before kick-off or discontent over being asked to train at 5pm or, as we’ve seen in the last twenty-four hours, a more co-ordinated push among contacts to try and make a bigger statement.
Following Luke Shaw’s finger-pointing interview where the full-back said he didn’t feel ‘we were all there together’, more stories have come out, first via ESPN and then via the Mirror, with the latter claiming as many as eleven players now want to leave.
It’s been quite the fallout to Ralf Rangnick’s first defeat as Manchester United interim manager (the interim is there as the club seem to love to remind us of it). And even if some of it we can dismiss as mischievous by the press, unfortunately with United these days, since they became leakier than a sieve in 2013, there is never smoke without fire.
Mark Ogden of ESPN wrote that one player ‘had to Google Rangnick’ when he was named manager and that he had to ‘convince the squad of his credentials’.
This is the same Manchester United squad who haven’t come close to winning a league title since they last won it in 2013 – a United squad who have been coached by Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, all with differing levels of experience and approaches to personal relationships.
Van Gaal’s autocratic way cared not for friendships. Mourinho’s approach relied heavily on getting players to run through brick walls for him but he was so abrasive many would have preferred to throw him into one; Solskjaer, on the other hand, appeared to trade discipline for indulgence, hoping to compensate for his lack of experience by building players up, with some positive results and other not-so-positive with players seemingly happy to avoid accountability altogether, so much so that when it came to the crunch they would always feel the next game would be the opportunity to put a result right. It was always talk.
Ultimately the club have been left with a squad that contains a very small handful – less than a handful – of players who can be deemed clean of the toxicity that has built over the last five years, and that many of us were hoping had been eradicated by the Solskjaer friends-first approach. Cristiano Ronaldo has personal standards higher than any existing United player and still has a strong enough memory of what the club’s own standards are supposed to be. David De Gea has saved the club often enough to be absolved. And then there’s Raphael Varane, multiple Champions League winner and taster of serial success with France, who cannot fairly be accused of lowering his own standards.
Who, aside from those three, could look in the mirror and say their contribution – for whatever reason – is worthy of a team challenging for the league title? Bruno Fernandes? He’s the possible exception, as even in his drop in form he has maintained his status as the team’s most creative force, which indicates the problem is elsewhere. And with some players you can’t be too critical. Some are young, learning their way. Some are not good enough, and it’s no crime or no shame to not be good enough at the highest level.
Others, though, are pointing the finger. Showing no personal accountability. Aiming to deflect the idea of tension onto others to project that there is an issue elsewhere. Some have even taken that to be a slight at Ronaldo, suggesting there is a tension since his arrival – and this would be fine, if there was not a history of this sort of nonsense that preceded Ronaldo’s arrival going back four or five years. And for those of us long enough and wary enough to spot the signs of this nonsense, enough is enough.
You can only bury your head in the sand for so long and avoid major problems without them confronting you in the worst possible way. At the start of his second season, Van Gaal was confronted by press reports of senior players disliking training. He discussed them with a frank honesty, admitting he’d had conversations with Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick – but he was unable to turn the situation around and was dismissed at the end of the season instead of being given the power to say you either like it or lump it.
It was a similar story with Jose Mourinho. He was given a three year contract in January 2018 and by July his major transfer decisions were being blocked. By then he had already moved Mkhitaryan on, was hardly playing Alexis Sánchez, wanted to sell Paul Pogba and was desperate for at least one defender as Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelöf were not good enough – you might say that Ed Woodward felt Mourinho was swiftly trying to eradicate his own mistakes in the past, so didn’t trust him with more money, or the decision to move on Anthony Martial. But if so, why give him £50m for Fred? Why give him a new contract at all? Why make a public song and dance to undermine Mourinho’s control of the dressing room, which was really that manager’s major strength when things were good?
Solskjaer seemed to have some of that control Mourinho wasn’t given. He moved on Fellaini, Sanchez, Lukaku. But he couldn’t do the same with Pogba and Martial, and to be fair, he even indulged both of those players for a significant period of time, until he began to suffer the same problems as the man before him. When he appeared to be losing control of the dressing room, he wasn’t given the opportunity to showcase some discipline and make statements by letting the pair go – but, whether he would anyway, is debatable considering his decision to keep playing Jesse Lingard after his social media controversies.
The timing, in fact, was perfect for the owners, as they could hire a coach just before the transfer window. At other clubs this would be an indication that it’s time to spend money. At United it’s quite the opposite. These players can do better! All they need is a good coach!
And, wouldn’t you know it, a new manager comes in, giving all the players a chance to show what they can do (except of course for Van De Beek). A fresh slate for them all. We saw it under Mourinho and under Solskjaer – new contracts inexplicably given to players when it was clearly time to freshen things up.
The consequence of all of the above is a culture where players do not take accountability for their own performances and they also feel bigger than the manager. Enough to know that he will ultimately pay the price for poor performances and they’ll be given another stay of execution. Let’s be brutally honest – for all parties, wouldn’t it have been better if Martial and Pogba had moved on in the summer of 2018? And wouldn’t Mourinho’s control over the squad have benefitted for it?
It’s not just about the French pair. It’s about the other players – we know Mourinho tried to fix his past transfer mistakes but wasn’t allowed. We know Solskjaer wanted to sign Kieran Trippier, perhaps holding his hands up to knowing Wan-Bissaka couldn’t make the step up after all. That wasn’t backed.
We also know that the board have had some level of interference in transfers. “Manchester United did not have the qualities to become champions and had an outdated selection with 10 players over 30, five over 35,” Van Gaal told Voetbal International last year. “So I told them I was going to rejuvenate and which players should come. I didn’t get one of those. A turnover of £600m and can’t buy the players you need. You should buy number one (on the list) and not number seven.”
We know there was a public dispute with Mourinho and transfers in the summer of 2018 (following the 2017 episode of failing to sign Ivan Perisic). And, we know because it happened in front of our eyes, the club also made a song and dance about stability and consistency in the midst of a pandemic in 2020, only to react to a disastrous start to the season with a last minute transfer dash which contradicted any public sentiment of forward planning. Van De Beek seems as much the manager’s signing as Fred was, and if we are to believe Van Gaal, then it stretches back even further.
The issue for the managers above is that they’d all had a fair amount of time before the questions started to be asked. And when results and performances dropped off a cliff – as they did for all three – then the situation was said to be untenable. The owners never considered the approach of allowing the manager to clear out the deadwood fully. The players, by and large, have escaped with their reputations unblemished, because by the end of those reigns nobody could put up a fair argument for the manager staying other than the potential to rule with an iron fist, but that is not a strong enough argument in isolation.
It’s different this time around. There are concerns over the decision to hire Rangnick – as I wrote at the time, hiring a 62-year-old to install a modern system seems worryingly like the Van Gaal approach – but we are too young into his era to blame him for poor performances when all of these players are responsible for the performances we have seen for the last couple of years.
No reasonable supporter is falling for it. That’s why there is something of a revolt against the players among those fans who believe in the accuracy of today’s reports.
Theoretically, it should do Rangnick a favour. These things being cyclical, let’s journey back to the 70s. Wilf McGuinness and Frank O’Farrell found they had placed themselves on borrowed time the moment they decided to drop big players like Denis Law, George Best and Bobby Charlton.
By the time Docherty came in, enough water had passed under the bridge that you could almost feel as though he’d been brought in specifically to handle their exits and seize that control.
There are no Bobby Charltons in this dressing room. Cristiano Ronaldo is the obvious comparison, but despite the issues about his age and possible incompatibility with the systems, the problems at the club pre-date his arrival, and his contribution has been sound enough to render any concern that he is ‘undroppable’ almost laughable when you consider the respective performances throughout the squad.
If these players are honest enough to tell Rangnick of their concerns as easily as they are their favourite hacks, then the manager’s job is easy. Because none of those players have shown the capability to be in a Manchester United team challenging for a title – the last six years have proven that. They’re not in a position to be underwhelmed or to doubt a new manager’s credentials.
You might even say they don’t even have a responsibility to prove themselves anymore because we know the reality of the situation. If they’re serious about their intention to leave, then they’ll find it a hard reality when the profile of their suitors is revealed.
The swiftest way United can instil a culture of togetherness is to get a group of players who believe in the manager’s message. If that means an en masse departure then so be it – the club made a decision to enter in to a transition with a new manager, so they have to be prepared for the unpredictable consequences that come with it, and the owners cannot realistically afford (in a sporting sense) to not support the manager one month into his reign, especially against a group of players who are becoming more unpopular by the week to the support.
This was the consequence of sacrificing the stability – such that it was – that Solskjaer had built, and the consequence for the players of allowing it to erode as quickly as it did. Those latter day barbs fired at Solskjaer’s alleged tactical cluelessness now do not reflect favourably on the players who have not showed a dramatic improvement.
The timing should be in Rangnick’s favour. It’s really the last big avenue United haven’t tried – giving a new manager the power to wield the axe – and wouldn’t you know it, the opportunity to do so comes right at the time they hired an interim manager who isn’t expected to stay in the position after June.
It’s another classic mess of a situation created by the Manchester United owners – but if, for once, they give the manager actual control, it could turn out to be one of the biggest steps forward they could take.