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.