Is This Shaping Up To Be The Worst Season In Manchester United History?

Most football fans will be waking up today excitedly hoping for some transfer news. Maybe it’s a new signing to strengthen a title challenge or perhaps a loan signing to stave off relegation.

If you’re a Manchester United fan, you’ll be resigned to a familiar inevitability, almost hoping for no more headlines or that the owners don’t sanction a last minute panic spend considering most of this window has been spent focusing on the gambles of summer 2020.

Yesterday was not a good day to be a United fan. In fact, it was one of the darkest days in the entire history of the club. And there have been a few this season.

We’re only in January and yet it’s a fair question to ask – are we witnessing the worst season in the history of Manchester United?

It started with such promise, didn’t it? Our star player scored a hat-trick on the opening day against our bitter rivals. Our next star player seemed to provide all the goals. We paraded one of the world’s best centre-backs on the pitch before the game and we had one of the country’s brightest prospects recently signed and waiting for a game.

Then, a couple of weeks later, United made what is arguably the biggest transfer in history when they re-signed Cristiano Ronaldo. Last season’s second place now looked as though it could be improved upon.

Expectations were raised and even embraced by the manager, in spite of a couple of disconcerting realities – the midfield wasn’t in any way, shape or form equipped for a title challenge, and the defence still looked like a collection of individuals that couldn’t withstand an injury and be expected to do anything but compete for a top four place. United were supremely blessed in attack but again with a group of strikers who did not seem particularly complementary on paper or on the evidence of the last few years – when they have looked good, they have generally looked good as individuals.

The signing of Ronaldo carried with it a tone of confusion. The general message after the signing of Varane was that the well was dry. United would have to sell to buy and nobody wanted Lingard, Martial or Pogba, the three main saleable targets who seemed happy to leave.

But Ronaldo signed for a modest fee of around £15m and immodest wages that are earning him in excess of £250,000 a week. So that’s £1m per month. With United’s need for a midfielder well-documented, and that need clearly more urgent than another forward (where Ole Gunnar Solskjaer already faced conundrums, with how to fit Sancho in), the intention of the owners was questioned.

Did they want to challenge? Or did they see an opportunity for themselves? The club’s share value rocketed. Weeks later members of the Glazer family cashed in to the tune of over £15m, and that money was gone from the club. They had capitalised for their own gain, months after one of the most visible protests in history had forced the biggest game in English football to be postponed and also forced the Glazer family into a dialogue.

Change takes time but behaviour can be tracked. When more money was taken out of the club at a time when investment (or even just allowing the club to spend its own money) was critically needed in order to challenge, it was fair to question the honesty of the owner’s intention to change.

There has been a deep-rooted toxicity issue at the club, growing for around five years.

There was an uncomfortable period with Jose Mourinho in charge, a decision which looks more ill-fitting by the month with hindsight.

The problems grew from the moment Ed Woodward handed Jose Mourinho a new contract. Mourinho finished second – a distant second – and would probably have expected to be backed.

Instead, Woodward and Mourinho were at loggerheads almost immediately. The manager’s top targets were refused. His quest for a centre-back frustrated at every turn with Woodward briefing the press that it was because Lindelof and Bailly were Jose buys. His desire to move Martial on was blocked by Woodward who felt the player had too much potential.

Fred was brought in – and when he never played, the question was asked – was this actually Mourinho’s signing? And even if it was, was it really his priority, or the easiest deal on a list of potential targets, which consequently drained the money pot leaving priorities unaddressed.

Mourinho, knowing how failure was likely to look and how the judgement would fall upon him, started changing formations, playing Matic and McTominay at centre-back. This started a deeply concerning trend of throwing players under the bus.

The signs were already there – in April 2017 Mourinho had said of Luke Shaw, “He was in front of me and I was making every decision for him. He has to change his football brain.”

Then Old Trafford was mortified to see Mourinho turn to face them and remonstrate after Marcus Rashford missed a chance in a game. Finally, there was the infamous episode where Mourinho allegedly called Pogba ‘a virus’ down in a game at Southampton just before he was inevitably sacked.

Prior to all this, of course, the manager had first set a dangerous precedent by prioritising Europa League games over Premier League games, giving players an excuse. And, after embarrassing defeats at Old Trafford, Mourinho (on more than one occasion) cited achievements over a decade old to defend his record.

This attitude of finger-pointing and shifting of accountability pervaded through every sinew of the club. And when Mourinho was sacked, the players could breathe a sigh of relief, primarily because they were no longer being called out, and as a secondary reason, it was now a clear established pattern that the manager didn’t have control of things at the club.

He didn’t have control over who he could bring in. Who he could move on. And when results were not good, he paid the price.

When Mourinho was replaced by Solskjaer, the mood was improved. Well, it was on the floor, wasn’t it? And the players turned it on for a while.

When it came to the critical moment of truth, the time for the players to show they could in fact handle the demands of playing for Manchester United, there was a difficult reality for many of them – they were not in fact good enough to feature in a United team that could seriously compete for the title.

Effort might compensate for lack of ability. But that would look dangerously like accountability, and there was an easier option.

Manchester United finished second last season.

They were fortunate, because the summer window of 2020 was a rush job, with Van De Beek brought in seemingly to replace Pogba who never left, and then a group of players rushed through the door on deadline day just days after the club had talked up its long-term planning.

They were fortunate, because Liverpool’s injury crisis and Chelsea’s poor start meant United’s relative stability gave them a foot in the door.

But they finished second nonetheless, playing some good football at times – which, looking at what this squad has served up since November, seems quite an achievement, in spite of all the criticism about Solskjaer’s inexperience.

It was a squad that seemed likeable because that was the presentation given to us by the manager. He was the opposite to Mourinho in many ways, good and bad – and he lacked the authority and experience to kick these players up a gear when improvement was needed. His persistence in defending the players gave them all the protection they needed. There was no happy medium, no sweet spot, and no control to demand more from them because the reality was that he would be gone before them.

Without a midfielder United couldn’t have challenged for the league – and maybe the reality would have been third or fourth.

Faced with the reality of their talent being judged on merit or being given an excuse in the convenient form of an inexperienced manager, well… how is this coming across?

Too cynical on the players, perhaps? Because you can’t say they don’t try. You can’t put your finger on it. Roy Keane called them bluffers. People laughed, because you look at the game through spreadsheets now.

They laughed at Keane’s terminology because it’s too simple and it’s meant to be a complicated game understood by geniuses and Keane’s just an angry man who belongs to yesterday. He can’t understand it and that’s why he’s a failed manager, so say the scores of experts who have never kicked a ball professionally nor have been inside the walls of the Old Trafford dressing room so can’t understand the unique pressures.

We saw a concerning display against Aston Villa. Then against Everton.

Then we saw the worst ever Old Trafford performance (if you can call it a performance) against Liverpool. Some people say City was even worse, as we were toyed with on our own ground like school kids. They may be right.

The manager lost his job. That’s what happens when results are that bad. And by that bad let’s be blunt – some of the worst in the club’s history. The manager’s inexperience played a part in that. He just wasn’t good enough.

Now it was on the players to prove that he was holding them back.

Then came the bounce. And a reality. The new manager doesn’t have a track record of success at big clubs but he does have a track record of demanding one thing from the off – application. True and honest application means accountability.

If you were of a cynical disposition before, then this transfer window would only have confirmed your concerns, as there has been almost too much to digest.

Too much that is too difficult to stomach, on and off the pitch.

First let’s confront the uncomfortable embrace of summer 2020. Donny is off to Everton. Amad Diallo went to Rangers. Facundo Pellestri is still at Alaves. The idea is that all three come back and feature for United in the future. The concern is that they are all at their level.

Long-term planning in football should have meant that by now they’d all be around the first team squad. The reality is they’re all now in shop windows.

Were these Solskjaer’s signings anymore than Fred was Mourinho’s? It barely matters, really, only for us to know that there has been an uncomfortable amount of influence from people who shouldn’t be influencing things.

Anthony Martial came to Old Trafford with a clause to win the Ballon d’Or that would be exercised if he did. He’s in La Liga now. Not with Barcelona, who are desperate to sign loan forwards. No, he’s at Sevilla. The concern is that he is at his level. The suspicion is that he should really have been there in 2018, as Mourinho wanted.

Mino Raiola brought Paul Pogba back to United in 2016 and has spent just about every transfer window since hawking him to another suitor. Now he’s available for free and he can’t give him away. Where’s he going to go? Real Madrid might take him for nothing but he’s not their primary target. Paris might, should they lose Mbappe and need a marquee name. Disconcertingly, United remain a viable option still, because you can’t be certain they don’t learn from their mistakes.

Pogba remains a divisive figure. Under Solskjaer it seemed a very likeable squad, but the cracks that he was unable to paper over have revealed many unsettling things.

We have a captain who is happy to be pictured partying after defeats that aren’t only embarrassing, but era and career-defining. His relatives are ready to go war with unhappy fans. You can say the same about other players in the team, too. You have a couple of players who you can’t mention because (redacted, allegedly), but are so well-connected with a couple of journalists and people who pretend to be journalists that they leak news that should be kept in-house. Players who don’t want to play. Players unhappy because another one is playing. A player who keeps posting on his social media profile about playing for another team – he does it once and is forgiven as a misunderstanding, does it twice despite knowing how much it upset everyone the first time, and does it a third time hours after one of the most alarming incidents in the club’s entire history.

And when they go, where are the world’s elite sniffing around? Well, wait on a minute. We were told by @Martialogy on Twitter that he was an elite technical player being held back and neglected and wasted by Solskjaer. Why didn’t the new manager fancy him? Why didn’t City want him? Why not Barcelona? Why is he at Sevilla?

There’s an uncomfortable reality for some of these players and their stans. They’re not quite what you made them out to be. Better change that handle, kid.

So we have players desperate to hang on to the profile of playing for Manchester United without, it seems, a genuine understanding of the privilege.

We have owners that facilitate and empower this too, because neither do they.

They are happy to go along with the process of giving them a hiding place by firing a manager after not backing him properly, a situation that could have been rectified by itself if they just decided for one year that they wouldn’t be so (expletive) greedy and they’d allowed the club to spend the money that it generates itself. Not even asking for money to be put in. Nobody wants a benefactor. We just went self-sufficiency.

The owners, however, are happy for the manager to have none of the control of a proper manager but still be expected to take the responsibility as if he has. They’re happy because in those moments, the anger and apathy in the support is misdirected to the manager, whoever he may be, and not the root cause.

They are happy to react to what’s happening instead of planning like they said they were and instead of changing their ways like they promised they would.

Coronavirus hit us hard. We were impacted. So that’s why we didn’t spend in 2020, because it didn’t fit with our long term vision. But lose 6-1 to Spurs? Better panic and see what’s available on the last day of the window, with not one player currently in the long-term vision of the club less than eighteen months later.

We can’t afford a new midfielder to consolidate a title push. But we can buy one of the world’s best and most marketable footballers, albeit at the age of 36, on astronomical wages.

We sack a manager, put him through an emotionally distressing interview (even if he wanted to do it) and then don’t have a succession plan.

It is a shameful series of events that have culminated in a culture that supports the idea that the acceptable course of action is to respond to the worst ever performance in the club’s history by saying ‘we go again’ only to put out a performance to match it. Well, I guess, they did tell us they were going to go again.

With the new manager in place, there is no indication that these players were being restrained from their true potential. As the exodus gathers pace, their destinations inform us that United have been lucky to finish in the Champions League places in consecutive years.

Yesterday’s news is completely unconnected with what is happening at the club (it is not wise for anyone to comment on what is now a legal matter. Suffice it to say, this writer completely condemns any abuse), but it quite obviously impacts the club in a profound way and is deeply unsettling, compounding this feeling that it’s the worst season in the club’s history.

But they were relegated, I hear you say. Well, let’s take a quick walk down memory lane. And, for obvious reasons – not least this week being an anniversary – I will not mention Munich or the events of 1958. For expedience, I’ll also qualify this with an asterisk -we’re talking the worst post-war season.

Busby’s early years at United started well before he introduced the Babes. Even in the post-disaster years there was an emotional commitment from players who the task was perhaps a little too big for. In the infamous season of 1962/63, when United flirted with relegation, there was always the idea that they were playing within themselves and they needed a big moment – as proved in the Fa Cup Final.

Wilf McGuinness still had the Holy Trinity and lacked a bit of luck. Even Frank O’Farrell had the first half of his first season playing some magnificent football.

1972/73 was comparable. There were some shock exits. A sacking. The walking out of George Best. A young first teamer in a car crash. Some dreadful performances – the 5-0 defeat at Crystal Palace which prompted O’Farrell’s dismissal is up there as one of the worst. Shell-shocked, Tommy Docherty’s side limped to the finish line but still showed signs of commitment and an endeavour to play good football.

And the relegation season at least featured a revival of good football towards the end; and, in the earlier stages, it was still a team trying but not finding the click.

They weren’t demanding to leave (well, Brian Kidd requested a transfer, and eventually got one), they didn’t have agents in the newspapers trying to move them on, they didn’t refuse to play, their relatives weren’t arguing with fans, there wasn’t a chap calling himself @Buchanista writing into the MEN to say it was all Solskjaer’s fault, they weren’t going out after games and defending themselves for doing so, Lou Macari didn’t issue a public statement after the infamous City game with a picture of himself in a Celtic shirt.

Was it ever so bad under Dave Sexton? You might argue his inheritance was similar to Rangnick. A talented team, with some questioning the tactical intelligence of his predecessor so with some high-level coaching, more prosperous times should lay in wait.

Instead, what happened was what normally does – the dismantling of that team with a manager who had his own ideas, including the jettison of some popular players.

Atkinson’s teams were entertaining but frustrating, and when they became dire, he was quickly gone. Replaced of course by Ferguson, who had some tough times early doors.

But 88/89 still featured an influx of entertaining kids and a decent run in the Cup as well as some stand out results that gave hope for the future.

You might say that 89/90 bears some resemblance, but the performances were never as consistently bad, particularly at Old Trafford, and of course it ended with the springboard to the future successes. There was, still, the promise that the youth team was doing well, proof that the long-term plan was working.

What do we have now? All of the problems above and a distressing legal case that will now hang like a cloud until resolution and linger thereafter for some time. A squad that has a core of players quite happy to let it be known that they don’t want to be here. And that would be fine, if only they hadn’t been backed for years by the fans and backed by the club over managers.

United have eight league games remaining at Old Trafford. They could win them all and it would probably still have to rank as the worst home performance over a season, even if the mathematics of points won might say otherwise. The mental scars of those autumn games will not be forgotten.

Do we have the future?

The owners are aware that the majority of fans want them to go and relieve the club of the debt it doesn’t deserve. Perhaps there is still a protest that could be loud and visible enough to move them on – but it still seems like money will speak louder than any fan action. Who has the money?

The decision to sack Solskjaer effectively removed the pressure and expectation of a title challenge from this squad and also from the owners. The manager was gone so there was no expectation of an incoming transfer this winter. No sir. This window is about raising money and getting players out.

Maybe for the first time in a generation there will be a majority of fans not unhappy to see some players leave. And that is not a very comfortable feeling. It does not sit right.

So the squad trim is being executed with a hope of raising enough funds to make a summer spend, which will be undertaken with an ambition of getting the club eventually back to where they were in the summers of 2015, 2018 and 2021.

And, going by that trend, we can expect it to take another two years to get there, whether it succeeds or fails, before we start again. You can talk about a cultural reset, about the DNA of the club, but this is the unpleasant cycle supporters have been forced to endure since 2013 because the current custodians of the club are actually disinterested in anything that represents what it stands for so long as they can take money from it.

And you can have your favourite managers and players and criticise their failures and talk up the degree of their successes until you realise that every manager wanted to succeed and progressively the managers have had to deal with squads that in the main may have had the talent but simply don’t understand the privilege of playing for Manchester United, and so, have progressively looked further and further away from what we recognise.

That’s why it needs someone who understands what the club is about. Not necessarily from the manager, but within and around at least. Without that, the fire will extinguish, and it will be so far gone that it’s not worth recovering.

I don’t want that to be the case. The club that I support now feels unrecognisable now from the one I grew up supporting, and not because it’s not winning, but because almost every one seems more concerned with the profile the history of the club has given them instead of ensuring that history continues.

But it feels like a self-perpetuating cycle, resulting in a period where even a devastating defeat to Liverpool that left everyone feeling so hollow and bereft isn’t enough to galvanise and inspire change. And if that can’t do it… what can?

If it wasn’t so glaringly obvious, if it hadn’t happened in front of us, you could swear you were making it up.

You might also say it’s a dark comedy. Maybe rival fans are laughing, but Manchester United supporters certainly are not.

Wayne Barton

Wayne is a writer and producer. His numerous books on Manchester United include the family-authorised biography of Jimmy Murphy. He wrote and produced the BT Sport films 'Too Good To Go Down' in 2018, and 'True Genius', in 2021, both adapted from his books of the same name. In 2015 he was described by the Independent as the 'leading writer on Manchester United' and former club chairman Martin Edwards has described him as 'the pre-eminent writer on the club'.

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