Manchester United: The Once Pinnacle of Excellence Now a Rollercoaster of Failure
by Rory Grant
(Photo courtesy of Front Office Sports)
August 13, 2022. Cristiano Ronaldo puts his hands to his head. The entire Manchester United team looks completely in defeat. The final whistle has just blown at Brentford Community Stadium, with the final score being Brentford 4, Manchester United 0. United were bottom of the Premier League table (last place) for the first time since the league’s creation, in 1992. It’s an utter embarrassment to the club. Brentford hadn't beaten United since February of 1938, before World War 2. This wasn’t just a loss, this was an utter dismantling.
The club’s manager, Dutchman Erik Ten Hag continues to feel pressure just weeks into his managerial stint at United. It’s not just a problem he has faced, but nearly every Manchester United manager before him since the great Sir Alex Ferguson retired in May of 2013. Managers come in and out, with most managerial stints ending after around 2 years. Why have none of United’s managers been able to bring back the glory days? What has caused this chaos, this downward spiral?
The Golden Days
Let’s start with the last hurrah for United; the 2012/13 Premier League season. Sir Alex Ferguson announces that this will be his last season as manager of Manchester United, and that he will be retiring from the sport completely. Ferguson was instrumental in United’s success, bringing them over 30 trophies during his career, including 13 Premier League titles, 5 FA Cups (a knockout competition played concurrently with the Premier League that has a long history), and 2 Champions League titles (another concurrent cup competition where the best teams in all of Europe compete against each other. Winning allows you to call yourself the Champions of Europe). Needless to say, he won a lot. United, fueled by the motivation to win one last Premier League title for Sir Alex, complete an amazing campaign and take back the Premier League title from neighboring rivals Manchester City. However, fans are worried. Now that Sir Alex was gone, who would continue to manage this legendary team and continue the path Sir Alex had set for them?
“Not to worry!” United proudly proclaimed, as they appointed David Moyes as their new manager, a man that had been personally selected and approved by Sir Alex to coach United. Moyes started off the pre-season that year quite strongly, winning the Community Shield (a match for charity between the winner of the Premier League and the winner of the FA Cup). Banners could be seen in United’s Stretford End row of their stadium, Old Trafford, with a picture of Moyes next to the words “The Chosen One”. Things looked bright, but it was all about to soon go downhill.
David Moyes’s The Chosen One banner
(Photo courtesy of ESPN)
The Managers Keep On Coming
The day is April 22, 2014. United are a horrible seventh in the Premier League, 13 points off of fourth place, which holds the last precious Champions League spot (only the top 4 teams in the Premier League qualify to play in the next season’s Champions League) and things are really, really bad. David Moyes is sacked after a bad run of losses, including a 2-0 loss to Everton, the club he left to manage United. United then go on to announce that their new manager is club legend, Ryan Giggs. It’s important to note here that Giggs had not only never managed before, but was still playing for United when this was announced, making him an incredibly rare player- manager. United finished that season in seventh place, while their very local rivals Manchester City, yet again won the Premier League, making it two titles in 3 years for them, to add even more insult to a bad United season. Giggs was sacked in favor of Dutchman Louis Van Gaal, who lasted until 2016.
After Van Gaal’s exit in May 2016, we got the very vocal, very passionate Jose Mourinho, who’s time in charge won a few small trophies, and got United a second place finish in 2017/18 season, but is most notable for the very public and very toxic feuds between him and superstar United midfielder Paul Pogba. His reign ended in December 2018.
Jose Mourinho v Paul Pogba, a very toxic and unfortunate feud.
Later that week in training, Pogba was told he would never captain
Manchester United again.
(Photo by Kieran McManus, and courtesy of the Daily Mail)
Then, in came another club legend, the Norwegian Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who actually had some success with the team. Solskjaer’s downfall is by far the saddest of them all. At the end of the 2020/21 season, Solskjaer had led United to a solid second place, 12 points off leaders Manchester City. While that may seem like a pretty giant gap between first and second (Each win only gives you 3 points), it’s incredibly hard to keep pace with City, so this was seen as a successful campaign. Things were looking up, and Manchester United’s owners, the Glazer Family, were ready to commit to Solskjaer and go out and buy him the players he wanted. The Glazers saw an opportunity to improve their bad public image , and turned to a strategy that had worked for them in the past.
The Glazer Family’s Plan
The Glazer Family also owns the NFL team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and a few years ago, the Buccaneers were a decent team, but nowhere near contenders for the Super Bowl. That was until the Glazers made the incredibly big decision to convince Tom Brady, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, to leave the New England Patriots, a team where he had so much success, and to join the Buccaneers. Not only did they get Brady, but his incredible tight end teammate, Rob Gronkowski. Those two players were instrumental in not only bringing Tampa Bay recognition, but success, as Brady won the Bucs a Super Bowl in 2020. The gamble paid off.
Seeing as buying the best player in the world won them the best trophies possible, the Glazers thought “why not apply this to United.”, and so they did, buying one of the greatest players in soccer history, Cristiano Ronaldo, CR7, one of the most famous people in the world. Not only was it great PR in and of itself in just getting Ronaldo, it allowed them to complete a storyline most Manchester United fans didn’t dare dream of; Ronaldo’s homecoming.
A photo from Cristiano Ronaldo’s homecoming
photoshoot, with him in his iconic red Manchester
(Photo courtesy of Manchester United FC and Manchester Evening News UK)
You see, this was not Cristiano Ronaldo’s first stint at Manchester United, as way back in 2003, after making a name for himself at Sporting Lisbon in his home country of Portugal, Manchester United paid $12.27 million pounds ($14.07 million dollars), a then record fee for a teenager to bring Ronaldo to Old Trafford. Ronaldo then went on to win 3 Premier League titles, an FA Cup, and a Champions League under the tutelage of Sir Alex before being sold to Real Madrid for $94 million euros ($92.8 million dollars), which is even more money adjusted for inflation in today’s economy. When Ronaldo came back to United, it was a homecoming, a celebration, and a sign that United surely were on the rise. Not only did they sign Ronaldo that season, the Glazers also went out and signed 21 year old wonderkid winger Jadon Sancho from the non-stop young talent producing machine, Borussia Dortmund. Sancho, the young Englishman had been one of Solsjaker’s targets for a few years at that point so his signing showed even more ambition. The Glazers finished their transfer haul with the signing of Raphael Varane, an accomplished Champions League winner with Real Madrid, who teamed up with the legendary Sergio Ramos to form an legendary center back pairing (a center back is a central defender, who is the last line of defense in front of the goalie). This not only gave United experience, but leadership, and someone Ronaldo knew as well, given that they were both key pieces in that incredible Real Madrid team. With all these signings, surely United couldn’t go downhill, surely they were headed in the right direction, right? Wrong. As shocking as this may sound to someone who doesn’t watch soccer all that frequently, Ronaldo ruined the team.
Ronaldo #7, Casemiro # 14, and Varane # 5, all Real Madrid winners
and legends, all now have spent time on Man U’s bench.
(Photo courtesy of Real Madrid FC and Raphael Varane’s Instagram)
Ronaldo: The Cure or The Poison?
Cristiano Ronaldo, who was 36 when he signed for United, is a legend of the game. An incredible goalscorer no doubt, one who was always consistent, and showed up in the biggest moments when you needed him. But Ronaldo has one big flaw: He doesn’t play defense. As a striker in the modern game, while you are not expected to be making goal line clearances like a center back would, you are expected to have constant energy, to drop back to help your team with build up play to create chances, and most importantly, to press the opposing teams back line if they have the ball. Ronaldo doesn’t do any of that. He’s always been quite selfish, and expects teammates to pass to him while he hardly passes the ball back. His goal scoring capabilities have always excused this, but nowadays, especially in a league as physical as the Premier League, Ronaldo cannot get away with not pressing. Still, Ronaldo doesn’t press, and if someone makes a bad pass to him that gets intercepted, he refuses to run after the player with the ball and win it back. He just slowly walks towards midfield waiting for someone to pass to him again. To be fair as well to him, he’s also 36, he doesn’t have the speed or stamina to burn chasing after the ball, he has to conserve his energy for attacking runs.
These factors, mixed with the fact that Solskjaer was forced to play him in a system that was not friendly towards Ronaldo (Solskjaer was forced to play Ronaldo due to pressure from the fans and owners), led to United having a horrible season in the Premier League, and would end up finishing in 6th, with their worst ever Premier League points tally of 58, under interim managers Michael Carrick and Ralf Ragnick. Solskjaer was sacked in November of that season, just 4 months into the campaign. Carrick, an assistant of Solsjaker would serve as interim manager for two games until an official interim manager could be found to carry the wounded United till the end of the season, a role which was filled by Ragnick.
In summary, Ronaldo scored goals to save United from situations that they might not have been in if Ronaldo wasn’t at Manchester United. Currently, Ronaldo is stuck at United playing Europa League (the European Competition below the Champions League, and while it still has good teams in it, there is less respect and prize money for winning) soccer against teams that literally are called Sheriff. He hasn’t had to deal with such an injustice since 2002, when he was just starting out with Sporting Lisbon.
The last time Cristiano Ronaldo played in the Europa League
(Courtesy of Reuters and Pinterest)
The Real Glazer Family
The Glazer Family, owners of Manchester United, have been hated for years. The fans-at many times throughout the years-have made pushes, and begged for the Glazers to sell the club, but the family continues to hold onto one of their greatest assets. Manchester United have worldwide fame and acclaim. Fans all over the world know Manchester United, and some even support United because that was the only European team they knew. Only Real Madrid really are on par with how truly worldwide the club is. United is a cash cow; when Ronaldo rejoined United, that day more Ronaldo #7 jerseys were sold in a single day, more than any other day or player before him, so why would the Glazers sell?
The Glazers make money. Serious dough. That’s part of the reason they are hated so much. They only care about the money. The man they trusted to run one of the world’s largest soccer clubs, now former CEO Ed Woodward, was a great accountant and banker before he worked there. They put people in positions where they shouldn’t be. Someone who actually watches and cares about soccer should be making key decisions about the club, rather than someone who focuses on the money. This led to United making many bad decisions, like overpaying massively for players, like they did with Harry Maguire. Maguire, a good up and coming center back at Leicester City in 2018, was sold to United for around $90 million dollars in today’s money. When Leicester City saw that offer, they took the money and ran. Maguire, a decent defender to be fair, now has an unfair price tag over his head (the best he was worth was $45-50 million dollars in that economy), which has definitely led to a lot of mental health problems. He’s memed on constantly, and now with Ten Hag bringing in another center back over this past summer (2022), United’s captain is stuck on the bench.
Poor Harry Maguire, stuck on the bench.
(Photo courtesy of Sky Sports)
These economic mistakes aren’t even the worst problems. Sure, they messed up and spent their money wrongly, but at least they were spending money in the first place. Do you want to know how they thought they could make up some of that lost money? The European Super League . Fans absolutely hated this, and they rioted in Old Trafford to make it known. Their match against Liverpool was postponed that weekend and United promptly left the project. But considering Woodward was one of the key representatives of the project, you have to wonder how serious they really were about the league. Were they really that out of touch with the fans?
Where are United Right Now?
Right now, United are on the rising part of the rollercoaster, but it is still very much a strange team. United can lose 4-0 to Brentford one week and then go and beat league leaders Arsenal 2-1. Ten Hag’s United squad clearly have the backing of the owners, as they were willing to spend around 85 million dollars on one of Ten Hag’s former players at Ajax Amsterdam, Antony. Rather than sign players Ten Hag has no experience with, he continues to sign former Ajax players that he feels comfortable with. This definitely has paid off as United currently sit 5th in the league, 3 points off a Champions League spot. As we head into the World Cup break, we will see how United’s players adapt. The break gives Ten Hag extra time with players who didn’t get called up to their national teams, which will only make his squad stronger.