Manchester United can get back to winning ways by getting back to Fergie's way
Not everyone has children but we all started out as one. At some point, a parent tried to get you to do something you’d never done, maybe a push-up or chin-up, maybe just walking across the balance beam in the local playground. Life to that point was a dream. Everything was done for you. Suddenly, you were expected to do something yourself. Instinctively, you knew where that was heading. If you accomplished this trick, more challenges would be set until you could do everything for yourself. The easy life was ending. So you cried and blubbered, “I can’t do it. It’s too hard.”
It didn’t work, did it? Your parents kept challenging you right up to the point you moved out on your own. You now [I hope] understand responsibility and can make wise, healthy decisions on your own.
Of course, some children are spoiled. Their parents do everything; they want for nought. When it comes time to be on their own, they are ill-equipped and unprepared. Yes, I’m talking about Manchester United.
The worst thing to happen to the club in this generation was not Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. It was that David Gill went with him. Both parents had abdicated their responsibilities and the children left behind were all spoiled. They didn’t have a clue what to do.
Fergie tried to ease the transition by naming his successor. Most United fans will shudder and tell you what a horrible choice David Moyes was. But those fans are spoiled children, too, who expected life to continue as easily as it had under mum and dad. The United board never respected Moyes, mostly because he was asking them to handle responsibilities with which they were entirely unfamiliar. David Gill had done all that. The fans hated Moyes because he was too patient. They were used to an iron hand and he was too considerate of their feelings. It was one thing to patiently shape Everton, but to come into Manchester United when such a power vacuum existed? What’s that saying about inmates running the asylum?
Ed Woodward positioned himself as the head inmate. He's learning on the job and what an education it has been. Sending a commando team of barristers to Bilbao to storm the San Mames and sign Ander Herrera was straight out of Dungeons and Dragons. Sitting patiently in the Barcelona waiting room while Pedro was sold to Chelsea must have brought back nightmares from boarding school.
Ed has improved but as Round and White's Sayantan Dasgupta notes, he is all about image and marketing. Naturally, you build on your previous experience. That is Ed's. I disagree with Sayantan’s conclusion that United have adopted the Arsenal policy of playing to be in the top four rather than winning titles, relying on the marketing arm rather than the squad to grow the club.
The marketing arm exists and Ed Woodward will always have a marquee player or three to drive shirt sales. He also understands that trophies are the ultimate currency with fans, however. It’s why he hired Louis van Gaal when David Moyes turned into an unfit parent, then Jose Mourinho when Van Gaal began to lose the clubhouse. Throwing Marcus Rashford, everyone’s favourite little brother, under the bus was not a good idea, but the point here is both LvG and Mou won their share of trophies before coming to Old Trafford. Ed wants to win.
United differs from Arsenal in their willingness to spend. Even if you are buying top managers and players with an eye to staying in the Champions League places, you are eventually going to win a title or two by accident. Oh, sit down, Pep.
Sir Alex eventually won a title at Old Trafford, although it wasn’t by accident. Because it was purposeful, he continued winning. Ultimately, that is what United supporters expect. The problem is, they will tell you Fergie was a one-off, that no one can replicate his success.
“We can’t do it; it’s too hard!”
Oh, boo-hoo. Of course, we can. My buddy Sayantan astutely notes Juventus is doing it as we speak and the Old Lady has won seven titles on the trot. Don’t tell me there’s a difference between Serie A and the Premier League. The only pertinent difference is you are here and unwilling to accept the challenge. You want what Fergie delivered; in fact, you demand it. Yet you won’t support the work that must be done to achieve it. Sayantan shared Juve’s recipe.
Juventus configured a two-pronged approach to signing players. One dimension was grabbing low-priced up and coming talent. Next, they targeted the opposite spectrum, hiring players in their late 20s and early 30s whose value has recently diminished.
Sound familiar? That’s because it is Sir Alex Ferguson 101. Like the Scudetto hoarders, Fergie bought his share of Gonzalo Higuains and Miralem Pjanics to fill the gaps. Think Dimitar Berbatov or Robin van Persie. SAF didn’t throw money at every problem just because he had it, though. Or because the fans kept crying for it. Ed does.
Sir Alex couldn’t do it. It was too easy. Maybe you’ve noticed that the good things in your life never come as easily as the bad? Paris Saint-Germain have noticed. So have Manchester City. Real Madrid’s Champions League dominance only returned when they calmed down and adopted a steadier, mature approach.
Javier Ribalta’s departure upset many. The chief scout once worked for Juventus, identifying many players in their roster. United has tried to smooth over his exit after only a year on the job, saying Zenit St Petersburg offered him a top role. Why didn’t United offer him that role if their philosophies matched? The answer is they don’t.
It doesn’t take a Javi Ribalta to see Toby Alderweireld is a top defender. He’s the guy who tells you whether Bas Dost is good value as cover for Romelu Lukaku in Jose Mourinho’s system. Or if Aleksandr Golovin offers the trequartista skills at attacking mid that the Red Devils sorely need. Only, Ribalta does it before those players put up 50 goals in Portugal or shine in the World Cup.
Sayantan blames Ed Woodward’s fixation with image and celebrity. I think Jose Mourinho’s reliance on proven performers he needn’t teach has as much to do with it. That's why he adopted the Antonio Conte pout the other day when asked about the club's transfer business. "One thing is what I want..." Translation? It's too hard. I can't do it.
Teaching is difficult. So is taking a patient approach and buying for value. The hardest thing, however, is finding the belief inside to say, “We can do it.”