In Part One of this article, we looked at Manchester United’s defence and goalkeeping departments, and assed the likelihood of each player being at Old Trafford next season. Now we focus on the midfield and attack, the players who are brought in to generally excite the fans. So which players deserve to be at United next season, and which will ones actually will be?
Possibly the nicest guy at Old Trafford, but probably not for much longer. When Mata signed for the club during David Moyes’ one and only turbulent season, much was expected of the two-time Chelsea player of the year. Although the Spain international clearly loves the club, the truth is that he has never shone on a consistent basis. The reason for this may be that United have mostly used him in a wide role, rather than his preferred number 10. With his contract due to expire this summer, United’s reluctance to offer him more than a one-year extension speaks volumes of his importance to Ole GunnarSolskjaer’s plans. Maybe it’s best for him to make a fresh start, as he deserves better than to be a bit part player.
Opinion: Get rid. Prediction: Leave.
The Serbian was one of United’s best outfield players last season, but this year he has been largely poor. He looks like he has lost a yard of pace (something he wasn’t particularly blessed with in the first place) and seems a shadow of the player who protected Chelsea’s defence in their last two title triumphs. Although his contract expires next year, the club have the option to extend it by a further twelve months. With so many potential comings and goings this summer, it’s possible that Matić won’t be one of them, but at this stage of what seems to be a declining career, he wouldn’t be a huge loss. If United want to get back to the pinnacle of English and European football, they’ll need a better anchor-man than him.
Opinion: Get Rid. Prediction: Leave
Another Spanish international whose time at the club appears to be drawing to a close, and the cause of much unrest among the fans. Herrera’s passion for the club is not in question, never has been, but United have been so far unwilling to match his wage demands. As a result, rumours that he has signed a pre-contract with Paris Saint-Germain have surfaced in recent weeks. Given how United have wasted money over the last few years, if he is a part of Solskjaer’s plans then they should pay it. After all, what he is asking for (reportedly in the region of £170,000 per week), is a fraction of what some less deserving players are earning.
Herrera is a quality player, sure he isn’t world class and he’s never going to be. Then again, neither were Darren Fletcher or Phil Neville, but look how successful they were at Old Trafford. Players like that who give their all can be an asset to any team. If some of United’s more talented players had had his work rate and attitude over the last few years, they might not have fallen as far as they have. Given that it would probably cost at least £40 million to replace him, why would you let a player like that go for free?
Opinion: Keep.Prediction: Leave.
The talented Brazilian’s future is still up in the air and is unusual because the one-year option in his contract has to be agreed by both player and club before it can be triggered. Under José Mourinho, Pereira was sidelined for the first half of the campaign but has worked his way into Solskjaer’s plans in recent weeks. Having been much touted as one for the future throughout his early career, Pereira has still yet to completely show what all the fuss is about. With so many players possibly leaving this year, it could be his chance to finally do that.
Opinion: Keep (for now).Prediction: Stay.
The other Brazilian in United’s midfield has had a troubled campaign, but in recent weeks has started to show why United paid Shakhtar Donetsk £52 million for him, and why Pep Guardiola was interested at one stage. He was immense in Paris, and probably United’s best player in the home defeat to Barcelona. At one stage it looked like he might be on his way after just one season, but he has probably shown enough in recent weeks to suggest he is worth persevering with for at least another year.
Another player who has changed many fans’ opinions over the last few weeks, mine included. When Matić pulled out of the Liverpool game, the young Scotland midfielder was drafted in his place. McTominay put in one hell of a shift against United’s biggest rivals and did the same against PSG ten days later. He recently scored his first goal in the defeat to Wolves and was one of the few players to emerge from the Barcelona catastrophe with any credit at all. Even if United sign another defensive midfielder this summer, it’s hard to imagine McTominay being among those shipped out. Could have a bright future if given the chance. He certainly seems to have the right attitude.
Opinion: Keep.Prediction: Stay.
Supposedly the jewel in United’s crown, it might be time to get rid of the World Cup winner while they can still make a profit from him. There is no doubting Pogba’s talent, but that alone doesn’t make a player great. The application and desire to be the best, like Cristiano Ronaldo has shown throughout his entire career, must be there as well. For every world class through ball Pogba makes, there is a performance where he looks disinterested. After his showing in Barcelona, his ambition to win the Balon d’Or has never looked further away.
Apparently United have told Real Madrid, who he flirted with lately in a press conference, that they must pay £130 million to sign Pogba. Given their financial problems, it would be surprising if he moved there this year, but would it really be the worst thing in the world if they stumped up the cash? Added to what will already be a sizeable transfer budget, maybe Solskjaer can use that money to build a team full of young hungry players, rather than the kind who are more interested in personal glory than being a team player.
On the flip side, Solskjaer has maintained that he sees Pogba going nowhere, and is keen to build a side around him. If he can do this, maybe United fans will see exactly why the club paid a world record fee for him in the first place. Given that he has two years, with the option of a third, still on his contract, United are under no pressure to sell him this summer. They should probably give him one more year to prove he is among the best in Europe. Next season could be make or break for Pogba.
Having come through the academy, Jesse Lingard will always be given more of a break by the fans than someone who was brought in for big money. On his day he can be fantastic, but it’s fair to say that this comes in patches, rather than with any consistency throughout the season. He has scored some important goals, two of them in cup finals, which suggests he is a big game player, but often goes missing in others. With so many players likely to be on the move, it is unlikely he will be going anywhere just yet. But if Solskjaer does get it right, and gets the team challenging again for the big trophies, the question needs to be asked; is Lingard good enough for that level? For me, the jury is still out on that, but he’ll be going nowhere this summer, and nor should he.
Opinion: Keep.Prediction: Stay.
Few players who have a strike rate of almost a goal every two games divide opinion quite like the big Belgian. Like Lingard, his best form seems to come in streaks rather than consistently, and his ability to trouble the big teams is still in question. He hasn’t scored since his double in Paris, and there are not only rumours that Juventusare admirers of him, but that the interest is mutual according to his agent. It’s hard to imagine Europe’s top defenders, or even the Premier League’s, being terrified of him. If United get a decent offer for him in the summer, based on the fact that Solskjaer seems to prefer Marcus Rashford up top, a move might be best for both parties. It doesn’t seem like too many clubs are queuing up to sign him, though.
Opinion: Get rid. Prediction: Stay.
In danger of being one of United’s most high-profile flops of all time. The Chilean has scored five goals in fifteen months since his move from Arsenal, and the fact that he is the club’s highest earner has ruffled a few feathers in the dressing room. This is understandable when a lot of players who have contributed far more receive a fraction of his salary. Sánchez has a big month ahead of him, all that is now left of United’s season, to convince his manager that he can be a part of the club’s future.
The rumours are that Solskjaer wants him out, but the problem is finding someone who will pay his wages based on his recent form. None of Europe’s big clubs would want him, and the smaller clubs wouldn’t be able to afford him. Unless he is willing to accept a move to China, expect him to still be at United next season.
Opinion: Get rid. Prediction: Stay.
Without a doubt, one of the most improved players under Solskjaer. The confidence that his new manager instilled in him, just by playing him in his favoured central striking role, paid dividends in the opening weeks of his reign. Rashford has struggled since the Liverpool game, where he played most of the match injured after receiving a kick on the ankle. In that time, the team have lost the momentum they had six or seven weeks ago but, make no mistake, this is one player who neither the fans nor the manager want to leave.
He is coming to the last year of his contract, but United can extend that by a year, which they no doubt will. Barcelona have reportedly been sniffing around him in recent weeks, believing him to be a good potential replacement for Luis Suárez, but it is widely expected that Rashford will sign a new deal soon. He’s a born and bred Mancunian, a lifelong United fan and has not expressed a desire to leave. He is one of the few players in the squad who can benefit the club in the long term going forward.
Opinion: Keep at all costs. Prediction: Stay.
A player who was in danger of leaving under Mourinho now looks like the least likely of all to go anytime soon. Earlier this season, shortly after Solskjaer took over, he penned a new long term deal which seems to have put paid to any rumours of him departing.
Martial is hugely talented, yet inconsistent, but with plenty of years to develop into the player United fans hope he can become. With a better selection of players around him next season, he is expected to become a major part of the Red Devils’ attack for years to come.
In most circumstances, ripping up a squad and starting from scratch is a bad idea. When Alex Ferguson finished second in the league in his first full season as manager, this is exactly what he did and it initially looked like a mistake. United finished 11th and 13th in the following two seasons, before the glory days of the 1990’s kicked in. It is usually best to do it gradually, so that there aren’t too many players struggling to settle in. The problem with this is that United have been doing this for years, and too many average ones have remained. This squad needs a complete overhaul.
Of the 25 players I have assessed over the course of this two part article, there are only 14 that I believe should have any type of future at Old Trafford, be it long or short term. Two of that group are backup goalkeepers, and three outfield players, one of whom is Pogba, are in the last chance saloon as far as I’m concerned. This means that only nine of them are players that I can see being important to United going forward – and one of them is Ander Herrera, who seems certain to leave anyway. If these wishes came true, United would need to sign around ten new players in the summer.
What Manchester United currently have is a squad that bears various hallmarks of their last four managers. Some of them have outstayed their welcome, others were never good enough in the first place. Whatever your opinion, most of them have had more than enough chances to prove their worth to the club and have failed.
One of the true tests of how good the current squad is will be in the summer transfer talk. Almost every one of them will be linked with a move away in the summer. The types of club that are reportedly interested in them will tell the story of how good they are. Pogba, Rashford, De Gea and possibly Lukaku (if the Juventus rumours are correct) will interest the elite clubs like Barcelona and Madrid. Herrera and Mata possibly will because they are out of contract, and maybe there will be interest in Martial. The rest of them will be linked with moves to clubs with a profile nowhere near that of United. This is because most of the squad don’t deserve to be there. They aren’t good enough for the level that United expect, and are expected, to be at.
It’s coming to the business end of the season, with the media filled with stories about which players will be making big money moves this summer. Naturally, Manchester United dominate a lot of these headlines in any transfer window, but with a clear overhaul needed at Old Trafford the speculation is in overdrive this year.
The Champions League exit to Barcelona showed that United have a lot catching up to do, in order to get back to the level that a club of their size should be competing at. Despite a bright start in the Nou Camp, two perfectly avoidable errors gifted their opponents a lead they were never going to lose. What is clear is that the United team that starts the first game of next season will most likely have a very different look to it than the current one. Some players are just simply not good enough, others have outstayed their welcome.
This is my prediction, looking at the current first team squad, as to which ones should stay or go, and which ones actually will. One thing is certain, Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s first spending spree will be the one that shapes his managerial career in M16. But which ones will still be here next season?
Part one of this article focuses on the defence and goalkeeping departments and part two, which will be published tomorrow, will look at the midfield and attack. If Solskjær sees things in the same way as me, the majority of this overpaid, underperforming squad won’t be United players much longer.
David De Gea
The Spanish goalkeeper is probably the best shot stopper in the world right now, his clanger in the Nou Camp aside, and is coming into the last year of his contract. He has made his intentions to the board; he wants to be the best paid player at the club. Considering he is the only undisputed world class player in the squad this is not an unreasonable request, given that United’s current highest earner has done little to justify his salary so far in his eighteen-month spell at Old Trafford.
United face a dilemma here as they have the option to sell him for anything up to £100 million, or risk letting him run down the last year of his contract, in the hope that he will sign a new deal, and potentially lose him for nothing next summer. Make no mistake, United should move heaven and earth to keep him, but it wouldn’t be the first time they have proved their incompetence in these situations. Ask Ander Herrera.
Opinion: Keep at all Costs.Prediction: Stay.
If De Gea does go, at least United have a more than decent back up for him. Sure, he is not in the same league as the Spaniard, but not many are, but it’s doubtful that any club in the world has better goalkeeper as number two. On the plus side, if De Gea stays, Romero seems perfectly content with his role as back up, so it would be a surprise to see him leave.
Opinion: Keep.Prediction: Stay.
The third-choice goalkeeper was brought in on a free transfer from Stoke City last summer, and has only featured once for the first team so far. It’s hard to see him getting past De Gea and Romero, but the fact that he knew his position before joining, plus the fact that he still has a year left on his contract suggests that he will probably be at Old Trafford next season, unless he pushes for a move.
Opinion: Keep.Prediction: Stay.
It seems almost pointless putting the current United captain on here, as Solskjær has confirmed that he will be going in the summer. The fact remains, however, that given how the current board deal with problems, it would surprise nobody if they offered him a new contract now that the option to trigger his one-year extension has expired. The reality is that this won’t happen, as Solskjaer quickly identified that Valencia is years past his peak. A far cry from the explosive winger who Real Madrid were once interested in, he has become a converted full back who seems to have developed a fear of crossing. Unfortunately, in spite of a decade of loyal service, he won’t be missed when he leaves,
The decline in the former England winger’s form in recent weeks has been alarming. Young was one of the few players to seemingly improve under both Louis van Gaal and José Mourinho, especially after being converted to a full-back, and was regarded as possibly the best crosser at the club. Unfortunately, in both games against Barcelona, and in several others leading up to that, it is quite clear he is no longer cut out for this level. He has a year left on his contract so he will probably stay as a squad player, but if anyone expresses an interest in buying him, only United’s haters would be upset to see him leave.
Opinion: Get rid. Prediction: Stay.
The centre of defence is where United really need to splash the cash this summer. The club are so short of reliable options in that position, it’s not even funny. With Smalling recently given a new contract, it is hard to see United selling, especially when they are likely to be moving other defenders on but sell him they should. In recent weeks, he seems to have become part of United’s first choice centre back, along with Victor Lindelof, but it’s not like he is keeping world class centre backs out of the team.
The harsh reality is that after nine years in a Red shirt, Smalling still doesn’t look like a United quality player. He lacks concentration and focus at key moments, he isn’t the quickest and his distribution from the back is questionable. Compare him to some of the United centre backs from the past, would he have kept the likes of JaapStam, Gary Pallister, Nemanja Vidić, Steve Bruce, Rio Ferdinand, Ronny Johnson, even David May or Mikaël Silvestre out of the team? No, he isn’t just not in their league, in fact he’s barely even playing the same sport. He’ll probably stay, but they should sell him if possible. After all, if he isn’t good enough for England, why is he good enough for United?
Opinion: Get rid. Prediction: Stay.
Another one who was recently given a long contract, Jones’s career looks like it will be a case of what could have been. There is a quality player in there, but the man cannot stay fit long enough for that player to develop. With that in mind, it’s questionable whether any club would want to spend the kind of money it would probably cost to sign someone who can’t be relied on to play 25 games a season. It’s also unlikely that Solskjær would let both Smalling and Jones go in one transfer window, especially when so many others are likely to leave. As Smalling is the one most likely to stay fit, it would point to Jones being the more likely of the two to depart Old Trafford.
Opinion: Get rid. Prediction: Leave.
Five years after his arrival from Sporting Lisbon, it is still hard to see what it was that “enchanted” Louis van Gaal about the Argentina international. He is far from being a United player, from his limited pace, his rash tackling, and the fact that he clearly likes his food more than his football, which probably contributes to his inability to stay fit. What sense there was in giving Rojo a new five-year contract last year is anybody’s guess, especially when he has played more times for his country in that time than the club who pays him. If United can find a club to take him off their hands, they should jettison him out of Old Trafford as quickly as possible.
It’s hard not to feel a little bit sorry for the Italian full back. He looked like a real bargain in the first couple of months after his arrival, but it all went downhill after a 3-0 defeat to Arsenal at the Emirates. Darmian never recovered from that and has struggled for game time in the last couple of seasons. He doesn’t seem particularly well suited to the Premier League, with his lack of pace well exposed on several occasions. With his contract down to the final year in the summer, it looks like Darmian will be saying arrivederci to Old Trafford. This is providing that his stock hasn’t fallen so far that nobody wants him.
Opinion: Get rid. Prediction: Leave.
This time last year, it looked as though the young left back would be very likely heading out of the Old Trafford exit. Fast forward a year and he is one of the few defenders that seems an absolute certainty to stay. Despite harsh criticism in the past from both van Gaal and Mourinho, Shaw has battled back from a career threatening double leg break to make the left back spot his own. He was without doubt United’s standout performer of the first three months of the season, and though that isn’t saying much, it’s unlikely he will be moving on in the summer.
When the Ivory Coast international first signed in 2016, it genuinely looked like United had stumbled upon a gem of a defender. Strong, athletic, fast and a tough tackler, finally it seemed they had a proper leader at the back. Three years on and it looks like the defender will be one of the first to be sacrificed this summer. While he has had his fitness issues, he also seems to be suffering from a lack of confidence as well. Given that he is into the last year of his contract, it might best for United to cash in now and let the player make a fresh start, given that he doesn’t appear to be in Solskjær’s plans.
Opinion: Get rid. Prediction: Leave
Probably the only centre-back that most United fans are convinced can be a part of the club’s long-term future, possibly even a future captain. Like Shaw, twelve months ago it looked like Lindelöf could be on his way out after an underwhelming first year at Old Trafford. This season has seen him turn a corner and become a leader at the back, and with a real quality centre half beside him he could form part of a solid partnership going forward. United just need to find him a top class partner, the kind he currently lacks.
Opinion: Keep.Prediction: Stay.
One of the few real success stories from United’s season. The young Portuguese full back looks a quality player, fast, fearless and with fantastic crossing ability. Given that he has four years left on his contract and seems to be a major part of Solskjær’s plans, it would be a major surprise if he was playing anywhere else next season.
Opinion: Keep.Prediction: Stay.
In my opinion, out of these thirteen players that have featured this season, only six of them have any business being there next term. The sad thing about that is that three of them are goalkeepers, two of which are merely back up. Ten outfield defenders, and only three of them good enough to wear that red shirt.
The back line is the main area where Manchester United need to do some serious surgery in the summer. It has been well publicised that four of United’s back five that started in the Nou Camp (De Gea, Smalling, Jones and Young), also lined up in their defeat to Basel in 2011. That’s one of the main reasons a change is badly needed. They have been in an environment where mediocrity is acceptable for too long, with De Gea the only one of that quartet who deserves to wear the shirt.
Anyone who rates the players I believe should be gotten rid of might want to ask themselves one very simple question. How many of them would get near the squads of Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham, or even Chelsea or Arsenal?
Even some of the ones I believe still have a future at Old Trafford probably wouldn’t, either.
Manchester United are in crisis, no doubt about it. Something needs to change, but you get the impression that nothing is about to. The Red Devils have just played two home games in a week, and it took them more than three hours to score just one goal. That is unacceptable.
30 Years ago, United had a team that ended up finishing 11th in the table, something which doesn’t look out of the realms of possibility for the current squad. Incredibly many of the fans would probably rather watch that particular team that what they are currently being served up on match days.
Here we look at the similarities between the United team of back then and the current one, as well as some glaring differences.
At the end of the 1987-88 season, things seemed to be looking up for Manchester United. Alex Ferguson had just completed his first full season at Old Trafford and had finished 2nd in the table. They were still a considerable distance behind the eventual champions Liverpool but seeing as United had gone over twenty years without winning the league, this was a considerable improvement on the previous season’s 11th place.
Much was expected going into the new campaign, especially after Brian McClair had become the first United player since George Best to score more than 20 league goals. When Mark Hughes returned from Barcelona in the summer of 1988, it looked like they finally had the firepower to overthrow their scouse rivals.
What happened is that the season petered out before the end of Autumn. By the start of December, United had only won three league games, and were out of the League Cup. English clubs were still banned from Europe at the time, which meant United’s only hope of silverware was the F.A. Cup, which ended after a disappointing home defeat to Nottingham Forest. McClair and Hughes scored 32 goals between them (16 each), one less than McClair had managed on his own the previous season.
The highlight of the season was a brilliant 3-1 win over Liverpool on New Years Day 1989, after an encouraging performance from Russel Beardsmore. United finished 11th in the table, and it seemed like they were just going backwards. This was highlighted further when the following season they finished 13th, five points above the relegation zone, despite winning the F.A. Cup.
The Current Situation
United have had their worst start to a season in the Premier League era. They have won less than half of the thirteen league games played so far, and have a negative goal difference for the first time at this stage of the season since the 1970’s. In three Champions League games at Old Trafford, United have scored just one goal, in injury time against Young Boys last night. That’s over four and a half hours of European football at Old Trafford before they found the net.
Romelu Lukaku has struggled to find the net this season, after hitting 27 goals last term. The calls for him to be dropped are getting louder, with his lack of mobility being cited as one of the reasons for United’s pedestrian approach to games. There is certainly no doubt that his goal drought is one of the elements in United’s failure to score, as he was quite reliable last season.
Just like thirty years ago, they are already out of the League Cup and with 14 points separating United and Manchester City, José Mourinho can forget the title this season. It’s very unlikely they will even finish in the top four, given the teams they have struggled to score against this season.
There are numerous similarities between the current campaign and that of thirty years ago. On both occasions, United had a manager around two years into the job, and both had finished the previous season as runners up in the league, but quite a distance behind the eventual champions. Just like in 1988-89 United’s inconsistent form saw their title challenge effectively ended with less than two months of the season played.
United went out of the League Cup at home to Derby County at the first hurdle earlier this season. Thirty years ago, they also suffered an early exit, but at least made it to the second before Wimbledon knocked them out. If United were to be knocked out of the F.A. Cup in the quarter-final, like in 1988-89, it would be no surprise.
Another interesting comparison between the two eras is in the striking department. On both occasions a striker who had scored more than 25 goals in his first season at the club, struggled in his second. Lukaku has played 17 games this season and scored just four goals, the last one being at Watford in September. By the end of November in 1988, McClair had played the same number of games and scored six times – three of them against 4th Division side Rotherham United.
It is also worth noting that in both seasons, United had endured a disappointing summer in the transfer market. Only two of Mourinho’s targets, Diogo Dalot and Fred, were recruited but their high-profile failure to attract a new centre-back was one of the talking points of the summer. In 1988, Ferguson had been promised by Paul Gascoigne that he would be moving to Old Trafford, only to change his mind and join Tottenham Hotspur. Mark Hughes was the only major addition that summer.
It could see a similarity in terms of outgoing transfers as well. Towards the end of the 1988-89 season, Norman Whiteside, Paul McGrath and Gordon Strachan were all transferred to pastures new. They had been three of United’s best players throughout the early to mid-1980’s. Fast forward thirty years and every day United’s three most important players, Paul Pogba, David de Gea and Anthony Martial are linked with a move away from Old Trafford. The latter two have deals that expire at the end of the season, although United will no doubt trigger the one-year extension for both players.
Despite the similarities regarding certain situations, the Manchester United of 1988 could not be further removed from the one we watch today. In both cases, the teams are infuriating but thirty years ago, United would be brilliant in one game and either very poor or average in the next. This season United have only played to their potential in one game, against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge when they were unlucky to concede a last-minute equaliser. Many of the positive results they have had have been ether ground out or rather fortunate, such as Juventus away.
One of the reasons for the inconsistency of the 1988-89 team is that Alex Ferguson was slowly rebuilding the club. He was struggling to get a tune out of Strachan, who didn’t enjoy playing under him, and Whiteside and McGrath’s off-field disciplinary problems were too much for even Ferguson to handle. Hughes and McClair were struggling to gel as a partnership (which never really happened completely), the recently acquired Steve Bruce didn’t have a regular partner, leaving Bryan Robson as the only world class player that Ferguson could rely on. The rest of his squad were made up of youngsters and fringe players from the Ron Atkinson era who were surplus to long term requirements.
The one thing that can be said about United this season is that they have been consistent. Boring to watch, slow-paced, dispassionate and looking like they are afraid of the opposition has been a theme in almost every game this season. They have consistently been awful. It’s hard to find an explanation for this, either.
José Mourinho has got a squad full of talented players, all of whom are internationals, assembled at vast expense over the last ten years. Unlike in 1988, most of these players have played together for at least a couple of years, yet they play like they are alien to one another. One of the most disappointing things, however, is that they show little urgency to break down the opposition. Sometimes it looks like they are worried about the opposition, rather than letting them worry about what United can do to them.
The vast difference is in how both of squads approached games. United would always try to win games under Ferguson, but the problem was that most of the players he inherited from Atkinson were not of the calibre expected of an Old Trafford player. Ability wise, they wouldn’t get near the current squad. But they always gave it their all. Many of the current United squad, although certainly not all of them, as individual players have the pedigree required to wear that famous red shirt. The problem is that, a lot of the time, they look like they can’t be bothered.
In 1988 there were certain excuses that could be made for the plight United found themselves in at the time. Ferguson was overhauling the club from the ground up, particularly at youth level, and the first team were a mix of some of his early signings and what was left from Atkinson’s reign. It would get worse before it got better, as United finished 13th in 1990 but also won the F.A. Cup. The difference is that those players ran through brick walls for the shirt, sweated and even bled for the cause.
Watching United last night in the Champions League it is not hard to understand why the ground wasn’t full. The attendance was less than 73,000, meaning more than 3,000 seats were empty (United always publish the actual attendance, unlike some clubs who announce the attendance how many tickets were sold). Given that some fans come from all across the country, even the world, you can’t blame them for not wanting to turn up, especially when half the team don’t either.
At the end of the 1988-89 season United had an attendance of 23,368 for a home game with Wimbledon. In those days Old Trafford held less than 50,000, and the club had literally nothing to play for, having bored the fans for most of the season already. Last night qualification for the next stage for the Champions League hinged on a United win. It would have been unthinkable five years ago for United not to sell out a fixture such as that.
Compare the two situations, a game that meant nothing at the end of the season three decades ago, against a game that United’s entire season could depend on. In both instances, the fans voted with their feet. The difference is that in 1988, it was easier to pay on the door at Old Trafford, the match day attendances weren’t as dominated by season ticket holders. The chances are that most of those empty seats last night had been paid for, an important game, and they didn’t have a full house. It could have been the last Champions League match at Old Trafford for a very long time, as well.
If we’re honest, the only way United are likely to be playing Champions League football next season is if they somehow manage to win the competition. In fairness, Mourinho has won it twice, and both times with clubs who were nothing like the best team in Europe. It would take a brave man, however, to bet on lightning striking a third time.
Something needs to change at Old Trafford if they don’t want to see similar attendances going forward. Manchester United is not the draw it once was for Europe’s top players, and Old Trafford is no longer a ground that opposing teams fear to play at. The standard of football, the attitude of the players and the fact that they haven’t challenged for the league title since they last won it was bound to have a knock-on effect. It is no surprise that some fans don’t want to go out of their way to watch them anymore.
Think about it another way; when you pay money to go to watch a film at the cinema, and it turns out to be nowhere near as good as you thought it would be, how annoying is that? Why would you pay at least ten times that amount to go and watch something you already know is going to be of very little entertainment? The fans that do go to every game are the ones who do so out of pure loyalty.
The reality is that top flight players these days have little to lose. Even if they spend the season on the bench, they will still be at least a couple of million pounds richer by the end of it. Each contract they sign ensures that. Now what the club have is a bunch of overpaid, overpampered players who don’t care about playing for the shirt (they still get paid a king’s ransom at the end of the week), and a manager who seemingly doesn’t know how to get the best out of them. All of these elements, plus the sleep inducing football on show mean that, unless they can turn it around soon, they will be known as the worst United side in thirty years.
The real Manchester United fans (not the ones who only started supporting the club because they were winning everything) are not too concerned about the fact that they aren’t anywhere near the best team in the country right now. They don’t think United have a divine right to be winning trophies, and would stick with them even if they got relegated. What they want to see is a team that at least tires to win the game and tries to play attacking football. They want to see a team that cares.
In 1988, the players in the Old Trafford dressing room were nowhere near as individually talented as the current crop. Most were players who knew they genuinely had no place being at a club the size of Manchester United. But at least they tried to put on a show for the fans.
When Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013, he left Old Trafford in the way that he had ruled it for most of his 27 years at the club. He went out a winner, as Manchester United lifted their 20th league title, and their 13th in the Premier League era.
Since the club’s greatest ever manager called it quits, United have not once challenged for the title. The five years since his departure have been largely frustrating, and the football on show has been nothing short of sleep inducing. Gone are the days when opposing teams would turn up to Old Trafford, and be beaten before they walked out onto the pitch. These days, many sides come to the Theatre of Dreams confident of getting a result.
In part one of this article, we focused mainly on the five years before Ferguson retired, and how United stood still while teams such as Manchester City and Chelsea moved forward. It has to be said, however, that there are just as many decisions in the half decade since his retirement that have contributed to the position the Red Devils find themselves in today.
2013-14 David Moyes
You had to feel a bit sorry for David Moyes, as he was walking into a dressing room full of players who had won it all, whereas he had not a single trophy to his name. The players just didn’t buy into him. Coupled with the fact that you always got the sense that Moyes never believed he was good enough for the job, it was a disaster waiting to happen. Throw in the fact that the new CEO, Ed Woodward, was also a novice and you start to realise why only Marouane Fellaini was signed that summer. Having been linked with Gareth Bale, Thiago Alcântara and a Cristiano Ronaldo return, the Belgian seemed like a consolation prize by comparison.
It’s possible that few wanted to be the man to follow Ferguson, after all he had achieved at the club, but José Mourinho never made any secret of the fact that he wanted the job, or that he doesn’t feel inferior to anyone. A lot has been made of the fact that he has never stayed at a club for more than three years, but how many managers do in this day and age? Either way, if United were going to appoint him, they should have done so while they were on top.
It started well enough, as United followed up a 2-0 win over Wigan Athletic in the Community Shield with an impressive 4-1 opening day win at Swansea City. A month later, however, it was a different story. A narrow defeat to Liverpool at Anfield was followed by a 4-1 thrashing by City at the Etihad, a scoreline which actually flattered United. When West Bromwich Albion came to Old Trafford and won 2-1, everyone knew that United’s title defence was already over, less than six weeks into the season. The general consensus was that Champions League qualification looked unlikely.
The writing seemed to be on the wall when United lost two home fixtures in the space of a few days. Moyes’ pre-match comments that he wanted to “contain” Newcastle are not what is expected when Old Trafford is hosting a mid-table team. Matches such as this were commonplace during his sole season in charge of the club, and one of the factors was the regular absence of Robin van Persie. The Dutchman had been an injury-prone player for most of his career, but had finally found a way to overcome it. His previous two seasons had seen him score almost 70 goals for Arsenal and United, and this was down to a personal training programme that enabled his body to cope with the demands of English football. Although it has never been confirmed by van Persie, it is rumoured that Moyes completely disregarded this training regime, and the Dutch striker was made to do the same training as everyone else. Whether this is true or not, van Persie made twenty appearances less than he had in Ferguson’s last season, still scoring 18 goals.
There were big expectations when United signed Chelsea’s two-time player of the year Juan Mata in the January transfer window. Much like Fellaini, this smacked of a panic signing, and did nothing to change United’s season. They were 7th in the table when Mata signed, and that’s where they finished. The season also saw United hand a £50,000 a week contract to Adnan Januzaj, based on one good performance against relegation battlers Sunderland. Clearly the board were mindful of another Pogba situation, but he never once repeated that kind of performance after signing. Few were sorry when he left the club.
During Moyes’ last game in charge of United, it was clear that he had lost the dressing room, but a lot of those players were gone that summer anyway. Who knows what might have happened if he had been allowed to build a team? Instead the board panicked and brought in a big name manager with an equally big reputation. But why hand a six year contract to Moyes if they never had total faith in him?
2014-16 – LVG
When Louis van Gaal took over, there was a lot of expectation. Here was a manager who had won titles in Spain, Holland and Germany. His Ajax side who won the Champions League in 1995 were one of the best teams of the modern era. He had also led the Netherlands to 3rd place in the World Cup. It seemed a match made in Heaven.
The reality was that the fast-flowing football played by his sides in the 1990’s was not how he played it at Old Trafford. Instead, van Gaal seemed more interested in keeping possession than in the actual results. If United drew 0-0, but had 75% of the ball, it was like a victory to him.
Some of the signings that were made in his tenure were also ill thought out. Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin and Memphis Depay were all shipped out within nine months of van Gaal being sacked. Daley Blind left earlier this summer and Matteo Darmian seems certain to follow him. Marcos Rojo might have been on his way had United secured a new centre-half this summer. Ángel Di María never wanted to come in the first place. Only Ander Herrera, Luke Shaw and Sergio Romero remain from van Gaal’s transfers, none of whom have made themselves indispensable so far.
On the subject of transfers, one of the most exciting players currently in the Premier League, Wilfried Zaha, was let go for a criminally low fee of £3m. The last signing made by Sir Alex Ferguson would now walk into United’s squad, especially in a position they are trying to strengthen. His Old Trafford career spanned just four appearances before returning to Crystal Palace, none of them under van Gaal.
The overpriced, underperforming players added to the formula of the sleep-inducing football on show at Old Trafford, meant that the fans were never going to be on van Gaal’s side for too long. When United failed to qualify for the Champions League in 2016, even winning the F.A. Cup was never going to be enough to save him. Appointing the Dutchman was a move that seemed to make sense at the time. In hindsight, maybe Ed Woodward should have paid more attention to what the hierarchy at Bayern Munich had said about his reign there before hiring him.
The Mourinho Era
Two trophies in his first year, and Champions League qualification in both seasons points to a slight halt to the decline, on paper at least. There are a lot of United fans that are still disgruntled at the current situation, however, especially given the lack or transfer activity this summer.
Despite the heavy spending over the previous two years, the squad is still in need of surgery. The eight years of mismanagement that preceded Mourinho’s appointment cannot be undone in two seasons. The reality is that Mourinho’s reign can only really be judged when he either leaves Old Trafford, or wins the Premier League or Champions League. He will either be a success or a failure.
Unfortunately, some fans unrealistically thought that because he has won so much at other clubs that he would come in and instantly turn the club around. Pep Guardiola’s impact at City has only served to amplify this, but he walked into a much better squad than Mourinho. Many of the players like David Silva, Fernandinho, Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling, as well as Agüero, were already at the club when he arrived. All of them were big contributors to City’s title success last season.
Compare that with Mourinho, who has still to clear out the last remnants of what he inherited from van Gaal. He had a much bigger task than Guardiola, and his record suggests he should be given the chance to finish the rebuild. He does, however, need to get the team playing in a more attacking manner. If he doesn’t, and should he ever drop out of the Champions League places, he will most likely go the same way as van Gaal.
Put simply, United’s transfer activity over a few key years following Moscow is where it really went wrong. But why did they fail to invest back then, only to do a complete U-turn a few years later? It leaves a number of questions.
Did the Glazers not trust Fergie with big money? Given that the last big money signing he made, Dimitar Berbatov, wasn’t even deemed good enough to start either of the Champions League Finals United reached in 2009 and 2011, it’s very possible. In fact, he was left out of the squad altogether for the last one so that may be the case. If so, it would strengthen the argument that he wasted £30 million on a player he later realised he didn’t really need. With Ronaldo gone, Carlos Tevez could have played a starring role for United.
Was it that Ferguson was determined to show that his squad didn’t need to match the spending of City and Chelsea, so he decided that he would match them without adding to the financial madness that ensues in every transfer window? If so, then he was being truthful when he said there was “no value in the market”, but then again, the transfer fees in football have been over inflated for years. It may also be that the debt placed on the club meant that Ferguson was told he would have to keep things ticking over with minimal spending for a couple of years. This would also explain that comment, as he would have to tell the fans something. Most United fans believe the latter.
With the revenue generated by football increasing every year, plus the size of the deals that United have signed with Chevrolet and Adidas, the club have indulged in some unbelievable spending in the last few seasons. If they’d spent like this when they were on top, however, they probably wouldn’t be playing catch up now. As a result the over-inflated, wasteful spending that followed Ferguson’s retirement tells its own story. Panic buying to paper over the cracks of a bang average squad is what Mourinho has had to try and patch up over the last two years.
This is not to say, however, that Mourinho is without fault. The football served up under the Portuguese manager is only a slight improvement on that of his predecessor. That Mourinho doesn’t completely trust any of his backline comes as no surprise to any fan; most feel the same way. This seems to be the reason for the bus parking mentality that even seems to creep into home games against relegation strugglers.
The annoying thing for United fans is how limp they are going forward. There is so much attacking potential there that it is baffling that Mourinho doesn’t throw caution to the wind and let the shackles off. If he believes that defence is his side’s weakness, why not concentrate on a major strength? Right now, most United fans would rather see their side throw away a three goal lead at home because they are attacking, than take a 1-0 lead and then bore the opposition to death until full time. He needs to find the right formula before he loses both the dressing room and the Old Trafford crowd.
The position United find themselves in at the moment cannot be wholly blamed on Mourinho. The club had been mismanaged for eight years prior to his arrival, but two years into the job he seems no closer to challenging for the big prizes. Some fans believe that Manchester United would still be dominating if Ferguson was still in charge. It’s very likely they wouldn’t have fallen this far, and that Champions League football would probably be guaranteed every season. But he would have had to retire at some point, and if he had been using the same quick fix solutions as he did in the last few years of his tenure, the freefall would have still happened eventually.
The gap by which Manchester City won the Premier League last season served a sobering reminder of just how far Manchester United have fallen in recent years. Despite an opening day win over a good Leicester City side, not many people are giving United much of a chance in this season’s title race. Sunday’s limp defeat to Brighton & Hove Albion only served to highlight this even further.
Fiveyears ago, the Red Devils won the league by a country mile, only to finish seventh in the table the following season under David Moyes, following Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. Given that the club went from champions to not even qualifying for Europe in the space of twelve months, many believe that it was because United appointed the wrong man to succeed Ferguson. While this may have been true, and the board certainly saw it that way, the finger pointing should really be directed a little bit deeper than that.
It goes back as far as 2008, when United lifted the Champions League trophy in Moscow. After that superb triumph, a lot of decisions were made that have contributed in some way to the position the club finds itself in today.
2008-09 - Berbatov
Ferguson had previously lamented that when United won the Champions League in 1999, one of the biggest mistakes he made was not to strengthen while on top. This was probably in his mind when he broke the club’s transfer record to bring Dimitar Berbatov to Old Trafford for £30.75 million. With the Bulgarian added to a front three of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, the options at Ferguson’s disposal looked frightening. Predictably, United won a third straight Premier League title by four points, despite being beaten twice by second placed Liverpool. They also won the League Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup. United were only three games away from making it a Quintuple, losing the Champions League Final and going out in the semi-finals of the F.A. Cup. United played some of their best football under Ferguson in this campaign, and while the rot that would later filtrate through the club wasn’t felt instantly, this is where it started.
To this day it’s hard to understand why United signed Berbatov. There is no doubt he is a supremely gifted player. He can do things with a football that most didn’t even think possible, but anyone who had watched him at Tottenham could see he wasn’t a player who fitted United’s style of play. Under Ferguson, United always played at a furious place, with a strong ethos on counter attacking. Berbatov slowed that down, he doesn’t have a rush in him. Tevez had fitted in at Old Trafford superbly, and that money would have been better spent making his loan deal permanent.
As the season progressed, Tevez found game time hard to come by - only Ryan Giggs made more appearances as a substitute in that campaign. Manchester City, who had been bought by billionaire Sheikh Mansoor the previous summer, were watching developments closely. Knowing that Tevez’s two-year spell was coming to an end, City sensed an opportunity to put one over their neighbours. They duly signed him in the summer of 2009.
United fans were devastated, as they had been imploring Ferguson to “sign him up” during the weeks leading up to the end of the season. A lot was made of Tevez being greedy by joining City, and no doubt money played a part, but there was more to it than that. A year earlier, he had been a major part of United’s success at home and in Europe, with his all action style and endless running to chase down lost causes. He was then replaced by someone who wouldn’t slam a door in anger.
People will say that Berbatov was a success at Old Trafford, and on paper he was. He won two Premier League titles, two League Cups and even hit a hat trick against Liverpool. A closer inspection, however, shows a different story. The 2010-11 season where he finished top scorer with 21 goals, more than half of these came over the space of four games. He hit five against Blackburn, three against Birmingham and Liverpool and two against Blackpool, so it’s not as if he was scoring every week.
Ferguson always admitted that when he signed Juan Sebastián Verón that, despite him being a great player, he wasn’t sure how to play him. This may also be true of Berbatov, as he didn’t start either of the two Champions League Finals that Manchester United reached in his time there. He didn’t seem to trust him in the big games. A great player, but a foolish signing. If you want to see the best of Dimitar Berbatov, you need to build the entire team around him. United were never going to do that, so why sign a player you don’t need?
2009-10 Ronaldo & Tevez Depart
If it wasn’t bad enough that United had lost Tevez to their noisy neighbours, who gloated by “welcoming” him to Manchester, the long running transfer saga of Ronaldo to Real Madrid finally concluded in the summer of 2009. It wasn’t a huge surprise, as every United fan knew that Ronaldo had wanted to go to the Bernabéu right after Moscow. Ferguson pulled a masterstroke in persuading him to give him one more season. To Ronaldo’s credit he rolled up his sleeves and helped United pull level with Liverpool on 18 league titles.
While City spent around £100 million on a new team, the majority of which would later play a huge part in their first Premier League title victory, United spent less than £20 million. The most expensive of these was Antonio Valencia from Wigan, but after losing Tevez to their cross-town rivals, they replaced him with Michael Owen on a free transfer. Despite hitting the winning goal in theManchester Derby, he was already about four years past his prime by the time he rocked up at Old Trafford. At this point, United were a club that could have attracted almost any player in the world. With a world record transfer fee of £80 million burning a hole in their pocket, they should have significantly strengthened. This was the first of a few summers of underspending.
During this campaign, Rooney was unplayable at times. It seemed now that he was no longer in the shadow of Ronaldo, he was about to fulfil his real potential. Unfortunately, he never really did. United came close to retaining the Premier League title, and may have done so with better luck. But if they had invested more money into the first team squad, the chances are that luck wouldn’t have been needed.
2010-11 Another Disappointing Transfer Window
Another underwhelming summer of transfer activity saw Manchester United fans cast envious glances at the names being recruited across town. While City were bringing in names like David Silva and Yaya Touré, the likes of Chris Smalling, Javier Hernández and Bebé didn’t exactly excite the fans. This was probably down to the fact that nobody had really heard of any of them, and in the case of Bebé, even the manager hadn’t seen him play before signing him. This was in a World Cup year as well, during which United had been linked with players like Wesley Sneijder and Mesut Özil, only for Ferguson to claim that there was no value in the market. Not what United fans wanted to hear, especially when anyone with eyes could see what direction City were heading in.
There was also the episode where the “no player is bigger than the club” myth was put to bed, as Rooney held a proverbial gun to the heads of the Old Trafford hierarchy to become the best paid player in English football – and his slow declineseemed to begin around that point.
Despite all this mayhem surrounding the club, United managed to win a record 18th league title, and reach the 2011 Champions League Final. In truth a reality check is needed for anyone who looks back at these achievements through rose-tinted spectacles. Reigning champions Chelsea threw their title away with a poor spell of form in mid-season from which they never recovered, and if City had begun that season the way they finished it, they probably would have gone on to win the title. Their team was starting to gel, and a lot of United fans were worried now that they had ended their trophy drought and finally got into Europe’s premier competition.
The Champions League campaign demonstrated how average the team were to anyone who was paying attention. On their way to Wembley, the best team United faced was Chelsea, who they play at least twice every season, in the quarter final. Their group opponents were Valencia, Rangers and Bursaspor, and in the knockout stages they faced Marseille and Schalke either side of the Chelsea tie. None of those opponents would strike much fear into the Barcelona team who wiped the floor with United at Wembley, showing just how far the Red Devils had fallen in such a short space of time. Two years earlier in Rome, United had been the favourites after Barcelona got into the Champions League Final by the skin of their teeth. At Wembley, nobody expected the trophy to be heading back to Old Trafford.
2011-12 – City Make Their Mark
United loosened the purse strings a bit in the close season, bringing Ashley Young and Phil Jones to the club, as well as replacing the retired Edwin van der Sar with David De Gea. The fact is that these despite United spending around £50 million, the gaping hole in their midfield, which had been there ever since Owen Hargreaves got injured, still hadn’t been addressed. City, meanwhile, went out and bought a player who would go on to become one of the best strikers in world football, Sergio Agüero.
Ferguson had previously shown an interest in signing the Argentinian striker earlier in his career, and his hesitation has since cost United on several occasions as a result. In addition to scoring in City’s 6-1 win at Old Trafford, he also scored the last minute goal that won them the Premier League title with the last kick of the season. A lot was made of Phil Jones’ facial expression when that happened, so much so that nobody paid too much of the look on Ferguson’s face. Despite stating that he only made up his mind to retire about six months later, he had the look of someone whose immediate plans had just been changed. A lot of United fans believe he would have retired there and then had Agüero not scored that goal.
2012-13 – The van Persie Band-aid
Ferguson’s immediate reaction to losing the title to City was to buy the best striker in the Premier League at that time, Robin van Persie. It worked, as thirty goals from the Dutchman returned the trophy to Old Trafford, but United fans could see that the manager was merely papering over the cracks.
In the four years since that Moscow triumph, the midfield had been allowed to stagnate. Hargreaves had left after failing to recover from Tendonitis, Anderson‘s season ticket at Bem Brasil had seen an inch added to his waistline every season, and Fletcher had a long-standing illness which robbed United of the payer he used to be. Paul Scholes had retired and then come back, and Paul Pogba had been allowed to leave at a criminally low price, only to return for a world record fee four years later.
While United strengthened their attack, City allowed several players to depart, such as Nigel de Jong and the now disgraced Adam Johnson, who had proved themselves to be valuable squad members. They replaced them with Jack Rodwell and Scott Sinclair (who didn’t make 30 league appearances between them), and Javi Garcia who wasn’t highly rated by most City fans. Like Chelsea two years earlier, City threw their title away and Ferguson knew exactly how to capitalise. Who else could have won the league with Tom Cleverley playing in midfield every week?
Sir Alex Ferguson was determined to go out a winner, which explains the quick fix solution rather than planning for the future. He left an ageing squad, with most of the best players the wrong side of thirty. This contrasted with his claims that he would leave the club in good shape when retired, yet, in the last five years of Ferguson’s tenure, United didn’t buy a single central midfielder. They may have been champions, but he had squeezed every last ounce out of them.
While United’s greatest ever manager cannot be blamed for the decisions that have occurred in the five years since his retirement, he definitely contributed to how quickly the clubs decline escalated after he left.
In part two of this article, we’ll look at the decisions that have been made since Ferguson left.