Manchester United – The Rudderless Ship

 Manchester United have been longing for domestic success ever since Sir Alex Ferguson decided to step away from the bricked dugouts of Old Trafford. 


They became the most domestically decorated club in England and one of the most feared teams on the continent under Ferguson, with players and managers alike fearful of taking the trip to Manchester to face the Red Devils. 


Despite Ferguson’s departure being only 9 years ago, it must feel like a lifetime away for United fans. Their revered fear factor has gone, the gritty determination of the players has dissipated and the club renowned for challenging at the pinnacle of domestic and European football has slipped into limbo. 


The recent 4-1 loss to their noisy neighbours Manchester City, brought all that frustration to the surface, yet that hopeless feeling of anger towards the club’s inertia in the transfer market and lack of competitive progress is now not new to United fans.


How have United slipped from the unreachable summit of English football to a side that is consistently battling for Europa League football, in under a decade?


Manchester United’s Midfield: Problems and Solutions


The last 9 years have been filled with operational incompetence, the club lacks a definitive direction, and the existing executive structure has led to confusion in their talent identification policy. This has significant impacts through the whole club.


The club’s recruitment is not coherent, the philosophy of the managers they have employed does not fit that of either the fans, or the squad that the recruitment team has assembled; and in attempting to remedy this the club employs another manager with a completely conflicting tactical style to the previous. 


United have become a case study of how not to run a club. 


The executive weakness and lack of club-wide identity shown since Ferguson’s departure show two things. Firstly, it shows that Ferguson was not only a terrific coach but a fearsome executive.


Almost a manager, coach and Director of Football all rolled into one. United’s recruitment was solid during Ferguson’s final years, tactically they were well drilled, and the club’s identity of hard work was clear for all to see. 


He worked closely with David Gill between 2003-13, one of the most underrated football directors of all time. The two would spend a decade creating some of the most formidable sides in English footballing history.


From Keane to Van Persie, Ferguson personally identified players he believed would be beneficial to the club on the pitch and trusted Gill to deliver them.


Player Analysis: Anthony Elanga


It seems unlikely to be coincidental that Ferguson’s and Gill’s departed Old Trafford at the same time; the two worked in almost perfect unison and United’s failure to replace the duo has had terrible consequences on the pitch. 


Secondly, it shows that Ferguson papered over deep-rooted cracks in United’s foundations: cracks that run right up to the upper echelons of the club.


So far, United’s executives have shown themselves to be incapable of running an efficient football club capable of competing with England’s finest.


Ed Woodward was not a world-renowned Sporting Director who was to lead post-Ferguson United into an age of efficient recruitment. He was a banker, employed to look after the business side of the club.


This is all well and good and is now commonplace in modern football considering the huge financial establishments that football clubs have become, but it is very rare that these are the ones that hold influence in deciding the transfer policy of the club. Let alone one of the biggest in the world. 


Following the announcement that Woodward’s years of failed leadership were coming to an end, United have frantically tried to create an executive structure more reminiscent of a top European club. However, Woodward should not be the person to be directing these reforms.


Player Analysis: Diogo Dalot


His body of work during his time at Old Trafford should have shown the Glazer family that he was not the correct man to create an effective and coherent structure fit for an elite club. 


But this has been a problem with the Glazer ownership throughout. Fortunately for them, they had Ferguson who was able to hide these gross deficiencies in ownership. But now he steers the ship no more, the ugly reality that the Glazers have mismanaged the club for years has reared its head. 


The Glazers have so far failed to employ the correct people to carry out one of the most important and prestigious jobs in football, a Sporting Director of Manchester United.


As a result, United have become a rudderless ship, bobbing around with no clear direction and with no path forward. The effect of not having the correct people in executive positions since Ferguson’s departure have impacted every major decision that the club has made since, especially when appointing managers. 


United have radically changed the playing philosophy of the club every time they appoint a new coach.


The first appointed David Moyes on a six-year-deal. Moyes’ tactical preferences being rather similar to that of his infamous predecessor. A style that placed great emphasis on the physical domination of their opponents with variation in their build-up play.


The Moyesian Revolution at West Ham


Sometimes playing more directly into their physical forwards, but at times creating wide overloads using the technical ability of the central midfielders and advanced playmakers. The latter of which we have seen on display often during his time at West Ham. 


But Moyes survived less than 10 months at the Old Trafford dugout, and after a brief spell of Ryan Giggs’ interim management, Woodward and the board decided to turn to Louis Van Gaal.


Van Gaal is arguably one the biggest coaching influences on the concept of positional play, his time at Ajax and Barcelona being the clearest demonstrators of this. He demanded a rigid structure to United’s play and was very selective in the players that he believed could fit into his way of playing.


He conflicted with the fans about the nature of his football, with the Stretford End complaining of their boredom on numerous occasions, but he was not given sufficient time to fully implement his philosophy.  


When Woodward decided that his time was to come to an end, United then appointed the world’s most famous coach for counter-attacking football, Jose Mourinho.


Like Moyes he demands physical domination over opponents, this is why Marouane Fellaini flourished under José during their time together, but Mourinho championed a completely different style of that of Van Gaal.


Manchester United 2007-09: Sir Alex Ferguson’s Greatest Masterpiece


Subsequently, he inherited a squad, whilst thin in terms of quality, that struggled to adapt to his more defensive style of football. And when Mourinho demanded more autonomy in transfer dealings he was laughed out of the room.


It seems nonsensical that Woodward should be the one able to tell a two-time Champions League-winning coach that the players he desires are not in the interests in the club. 


After Mourinho’s fallout with Woodward and the board over this perceived lack of support in the transfer window, United decided to make a sentimental and initially temporary appointment of Ole Gunnar Solskjær.


Whilst being excellent at the public relations side of the job, it swiftly became clear that Solskjær was tactically out of his depth and instead relied on individual quality to see him through games.


However, Woodward and the Glazers decided to back him with a £412 million war-chest in an attempt to “rebuild the squad”, a term that seems to be repeated every time United change manager. 


Manchester United Youngsters Thriving in the Championship


Now they have decided that the Godfather of the German Gegenpress is the way forward, but only until the end of the season, whereafter United will search for yet another manager.


Rangnick’s tactical philosophy has been well documented for decades: a high press, with a high line, with a preference to play with a 4-2-2-2 formation.


Yet there are those that are surprised that a back 4 that are mainly suited to playing a low-block, a holding midfield lacking the technical ability to dominate possession and an ageing frontline are struggling to adapt to these demands.


The problems that United are facing should not be lay at the feet of the interim manager, but rather with the ones who have appointed him.  


United’s executives have appointed five different managers with five completely different tactical footprints, given them a large amount of money but a small amount of time to change the fortunes of a club whose real issue is upstairs. 


This has culminated in a squad filled with players signed by different managers with completely opposing tactical preferences who are now unable to adapt with the almost constant changing of the club’s direction at a huge cost to the club. It has been a complete failure in recruitment policy for almost a decade.


When fans become frustrated with yet another failure to “rebuild the side”, rather than sticking to a coherent recruitment plan, United have made big name, big money signings – Maguire, Ronaldo, Wan-Bissaka, Pogba – to appease the fans.


Finding a Paul Pogba Replacement


This has not been productive, but detrimental. With the possible exception of Bruno Fernandes. 


 Yet despite these overwhelming obvious issues, United don’t seem to be addressing them. In fact, the imminent changes in their executive structure will further clutter and confuse their already substandard recruitment policy. 


At the end of the season Rangnick will be moving into a consultancy role, adding to a recruitment department already consisting of Darren Fletcher, John Murtough, Matt Judge and new CEO Richard Arnold. The club are also attempting to appoint an Assistant Director of Football for next season and Woodward is still believed to have a say.  


This structure is far too clustered. It muddies the water to fans, players and potential targets alike. Who is in charge? Whose philosophy are the club following? And who is the manager’s point of contact when they want to express concerns about the strength of the squad?


United need a single point of contact. Compare United’s proposed structure to that of their arch-rivals Manchester City and Liverpool. 


In Merseyside, Michael Edwards directs a coherent and consistent policy of identifying and purchasing players with good value for money who are also tailored to Klopp’s preferred tactical style. 


Across the other side of Manchester, Txiki Begiristain holds control over the talent identification department and purchases players that Guardiola can develop into his intricate system of possession domination and off-the-ball movement.


Ralf Rangnick: The Hoffenheim Diaries


Who will this be for United? Will it be Arnold? Murtough? Fletcher? Or Rangnick?


It should be Rangnick but despite his wide experience creating and running a worldwide network of scouts during his time in the Red Bull Franchise, it seems unlikely that United will remove Murtough and Fletcher having just only just appointed them.


Not only can Rangnick spot players with fantastic potential; Upamecano, Haaland, Adeyemi and Patson Daka as a few examples; he also has an eye for fantastic coaches who are capable of implementing a high press system.


Ralph Hasenhüttl, Jesse Marsch and Julian Nagelsmann all came through the Rangnick school of Gegenpress before going onto manage at the highest level. 


Manchester United’s Struggles in Set-Pieces


So, this will leave United’s recruitment in the hands of Fletcher and Murtough. The former with no experience of management or of the European and global markets, and the latter who possesses a glittering CV but is yet to deliver in the transfer market for United. 


United must define their identity. They must appoint elite sporting minds to elite sporting positions rather than businessmen who will look after the Glazers’ financial interests.


Once they define their club-wide identity, they must be steadfast in their following of it and cannot continue simply dabbling in one style of play before radically changing it a few years down the line.


The recruitment department must be streamlined, and it must work alongside the philosophy of the Director of Football and the coach. Simply throwing money at good individual players will not create a squad or a club capable of competing against the titans of City, Liverpool or Chelsea. 


The problems that United face do not belong to Rangnick, he is an unfortunate symptom of a problem that has rotted the club for far too long. Until the club make difficult choices regarding sporting appointments, the rudderless ship will continue to drift further from its destination.


By: Charlie Watkins / @90PlusFour

 Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Popperfoto