How Manchester United plunged into the recurring crisis
The umpteenth reckoning at Manchester United was equal parts alarming and familiar. It started on Saturday in Brentford the same way it did in Watford 2021 and countless times before – with unhappiness. It culminated in embarrassment and then, as always, a fruitful quest for guilt. Players who became experts scolded. Commentators rattled off unimaginable statistics. Fans were angry. And outsiders were confused amid glee and memes.
Asthey wondered Could Manchester United, the biggest brand in the world’s biggest league, be that lazy?
And like, in a sport increasingly characterized by inequalitya sport where United can pay a single player more than Brentford’s entire squad, the most valuable and successful English football club could sit at the top bottom of the Premier League, 20th out of 20?
The reactionary responses were individual errors and tactical mismatches under the first United manager in 101 years to lose his first two games.
The real answer is the same as last season at Liverpool and 2020 at Leipzig; West Ham, Newcastle, Bournemouth and Watford in 2019 and Liverpool and Everton the season before. It’s the same as after losing to Swansea, Arsenal, Norwich, Bournemouth, Stoke, Southampton, Sunderland, West Brom, Tottenham and West Ham in 2015-16; and to many of the same humble enemies of two years earlier.
Since 2013, when Sir Alex Ferguson retired and the club’s despised American owners, the Glazer family, took to the road, United have been a rudderless, ill-managed mess.
Manchester United’s cyclical mismanagement
While its two main rivals, Liverpool and Manchester City, took forward-thinking approaches to management and team building, United lagged behind. Until last year, it had never hired directors for football or data science; The most powerful decision-makers were instead financial brothers who formed friendships at PricewaterhouseCoopers and JP Morgan decades ago – and years later hired each other to run one of football’s most famous clubs.
Across Europe and throughout the 21st century, many of United’s peers had gradually moved away from this outdated structure and towards a ‘director of football’ model similar to what is common in American sport. Instead of entrusting all football operations to an all-powerful manager, clubs began hiring football-savvy executives to run robust HR departments and create rosters for a head coach. The model promotes the division of labor and, above all, sustainability. The sports directors communicate with the coaches, of course, but don’t bow to every demand. At well-run clubs, each signing is thoroughly scrutinized by multiple departments and fits into both a short-term and medium-term plan that transcends any manager.
United, on the other hand, have never bestowed such power on anyone with a football background. Managers had a direct line to Chief Corporate Cony, Executive Vice Chairman Ed Woodward. Woodward brought Matt Judge, the head of corporate development, on board and together they became the go-to for transfer negotiations – until both resigned earlier this year. Over more than eight seasons, they released more than $1.5 billion in spend to players — many coveted by one coach and discarded by the next.
Ferguson selected David Moyes as his Scottish replacement. When Moyes failed, the club fell into a vicious cycle that is still spiraling out of control. They fired an underperforming manager, hired a new one with fresh ideas, and desperately tried to seed those ideas with suitable stars. Louis van Gaal, an eccentric Dutch professor, replaced Moyes and wanted his Player; Jose Mourinho, a selfish Portuguese pragmatist, replaced Van Gaal and wanted others. Palate cleaning club legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had his own vision; and his interim replacement, the sophisticated academic Ralph Rangnick, was outspoken in his assessment of the squad.
“There will definitely be a rebuild,” he said last spring. “It’s clear to me that there will be six, seven, eight, maybe ten new players.”
But then he clarified: “Before you sign these players, you have to be clear about how you want to play.”
It’s unclear if anyone has ever been to Manchester United. Woodward’s sole sporting vision was that of the modern manager. “When I took the job,” Van Gaal said a few years after his sacking, “we never spoke about the system Manchester United played with or about any philosophy.”
Instead, the short-sighted signings piled up, each giving way to medium-term mediocrity and making the next short-term solution more difficult. The roster became increasingly bloated, disjointed and expensive.
Erik ten Hag arrived last summer with a sophisticated system defined by ball play and pressing – but he inherited a goalkeeper, David de Gea, who is so woefully inadequate with the ball at his feet that he was sacked by Spain, the suppliers of one similar, has been demoted system; and a narcissistic striker, Cristiano Ronaldo, who is intentionally allergic to pressing.
He inherited a slew of relatively mediocre players who were either primarily misguided purchases or true talent whose development was stymied by United’s directionless chaos.
And so here we are, with Brentford pouncing on amateurish mistakes in the defensive third and Ronaldo sulking. He’s thrown the 37-year-old celebrity version of a tantrum this off-season to force his way out of United but no other club want him. His grumpy presence is said to be one of many things that lower morale.
United, meanwhile, have finally reformed their front office around a football director and technical director, but their summer transfer targets have all been Ten Hag favorites and business has been sluggish. The top target, Dutch midfield genius Frenkie de Jong, has reportedly turned down a move to Manchester in part because of the club’s “erratic” behaviour.
The heart of the problem at ManUnited
Supporters have ripped the Glazers for refusing to spend money on reinforcements, but that criticism is misplaced. As of 2013, United’s net spend on the transfer market is $1.1 billion, the highest in the world. (Man City is the only other club with over $900m.)
The problem isn’t a lack of investment in players. It’s a lack of competence in the people who hire players and a lack of investment in everything around them. United are notorious in the analytics world for their stone-age approach to recruitment and their refusal to integrate data into their transfer deals and day-to-day operations.
It has a new CEO and a new org chart and has said all the right things about football people being put in charge of football decisions now, but key new hires – including CEO Richard Arnold, who first met Woodward in the financial world a long time ago PwC – were promoted from within. Since then, the transfer policy has not seemed particularly clever or data-driven. The organizational ethos has not changed noticeably.
Demolition and rebuilding is clearly necessary and will require patience and time that the club and its 1 billion followers worldwide do not have. Ten Hag reportedly yanked the entire squad into training at 9am on Sunday, a scheduled day off, and guided them, a disciplinary measure that would have sports scientists flinch. Pressure will likely force him to deviate from the philosophy that made him an attractive candidate in the first place and sacrifice long-term learning for short-term stability.
“The problem is that you can’t ask for that much time,” Van Gaal said in 2019, as long as Manchester United Manchester Unitedhis words will ring true.
And the crisis cycle, the defining feature of United’s current era, will continue to spin.