If you listen to the podcast that runs with this website, you’ll have heard a phrase uttered much too often for the liking of any Manchester United supporter – “This is the lowest point since Sir Alex Ferguson retired”.
Make no mistake, there are plenty to choose from; each permanent manager to succeed Sir Alex has had their moments which people could comfortably categorise as such. Lists are fun this time of year and as such, I wanted to do a quick trip down misery lane to go over the five lowest points of the decade for Manchester United.
Some will ask why Sir Alex’s retirement doesn’t feature in this list; it was inevitable that he would retire at some point in the decade, and he had most certainly earned the right too. In essence, then, this is more like a ‘five key points’ which have signalled United’s decline.
5. “We are going to make it as hard for them as we possibly can”
“Obviously they are coming to Old Trafford and we are going to make it as hard for them as we possibly can,” David Moyes said of the visit of Newcastle in December 2013.
United fans had already seen their team lose at home to West Brom (for the first time since 1978) that season and were licking their wounds after seeing Moyes’ former club Everton come to Manchester and win at the Theatre of Dreams for the first time since 1992.
The comments ahead of the visit of the Magpies were hardly inspiring and gave cause for fans to doubt whether Moyes was capable of handling the pressure of being a personality, which the job demanded. After Newcastle won (spoiler alert – United didn’t make it hard for them), Moyes admitted he was fearful of bringing off a clearly unfit Robin van Persie because of the criticism he would face from reporters.
Later that season, Moyes further enraged fans after a comprehensive defeat to Manchester City when he said City played at “the sort of level we are aspiring to”; in an interview with Four Four Two some time later, he defended himself, saying : “I’d never say that… I may have said that we aspired to play like one of the teams at the top when we weren’t at the top, but I’d never say that Manchester United should aspire to be like Manchester City. I don’t think that’s something any United fan would aspire to.”
Unfortunately for Moyes the damage was done. The players had become as uninspired as the supporters and Moyes was sacked soon after.
Some might say that this was the period where the will to self-motivate left the Old Trafford dressing room; the price has been paid ever since.
4. The revolving door summer of 2014
One charge levelled at every successor of Ferguson has been the resources argument; to many it is incomprehensible that a club with the financial power of United, even taking into account the ownership, should have struggled so badly.
The club changed overnight when Louis van Gaal arrived, but he was not completely responsible for the overhaul which took place that summer. Some of the moves were already in motion both in terms of incoming and outgoing transfers.
Squirm with me as we take a look at the ins and outs of that summer :
Ins : Luke Shaw, Ander Herrera, Angel Di Maria, Marcos Rojo, Daley Blind, Falcao (with Jesse Lingard, Paddy McNair and Tyler Blackett all called up to play regular football with the first team.)
Outs : Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, Ryan Giggs, Nani, Wilfried Zaha, Alex Buttner, Michael Keane, Federico Macheda, Javier Hernandez (on loan, at first), Danny Welbeck and Shinji Kagawa (Anderson and Darren Fletcher left in the winter, too.)
United lost over 3000 games worth of top-level experience from their squad and replaced it with 67 games of British experience in Luke Shaw and no experience in the British game with the other incoming transfers.
It was a record-setting summer in terms of United’s expenditure but the truth was even that came nowhere close to replacing what the club lost. One could also use this summer as an example of Manchester City’s obscene wealth skewering the ‘financial resources’ argument; United, as is hopefully obvious to all, are still paying the consequences of the actions of that summer today as they are unable to recirculate players in the same way City are.
Five and a half years later and Luke Shaw and Marcos Rojo are still deemed as contenders to hopefully succeed in a left-back role that nobody has made their own.
Moyes had alienated a number of the key experienced individuals who left; Van Gaal inherited players the club had already agreed to sign and was presented with — and he has some culpability in sanctioning — ill-fated transfers which had no coherent strategy, including that of Angel Di Maria, a player who was openly coveting the move to Paris he was able to achieve a year later.
The loss of experience and the apparent lack of a strategy set United back years.
3. Norwich City, December 2015
In terms of ‘worst performances’, well, you can take your pick.
Goodison Park has been the venue of some horror shows for Moyes, Van Gaal and most recently Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. There have been some insipid — though thankfully not quite as resounding — showings at Anfield too, and a couple of hidings at Stamford Bridge.
But even Sir Alex suffered the odd pasting, a fair few games where nothing seemed to go right.
The real concern has come from games where United have looked unlike the side of old, bereft of ideas and a plan to come back into the game. Recoil with horror as these games come back into the memory; the aforementioned home defeats to West Brom, Everton and Newcastle in the first few months of the Moyes era, the home games against Southampton under Van Gaal where United appeared to have 99% of the ball but no shots on goal, and of course now countless games against opponents who appear to have worked out that the old ethos of United knowing that their most basic principle is to work as hard as the opponent doesn’t really apply anymore.
Gone was most of the experience, replaced with players who were on the wrong end of their careers, players who were decent squad options but not quite ready to deal with the rigours of being a permanent fixture in a Manchester United team, and foreign imports who did not comprehend, because they hadn’t lived it, that representing United might as well have been representing the champions because of how much everyone wanted to beat them.
These things are, one could fairly summarise, a natural part of a transition, even if some of those elements appear to have been avoidable. But against Norwich City in December 2015, something more uncomfortable appeared to be transpiring.
It had been a difficult start to the season. The good will from the end of the prior campaign, which saw United win consecutive games against Liverpool, Man City and Spurs, had all-but evaporated due to the fact it was built on the idea of Marouane Fellaini as a striker.
Goals had been relatively hard to come by. A 0-0 draw with PSV put United on the brink of elimination from the Champions League and draws with Leicester and West Ham did little to brighten the mood. Defeat against Wolfsburg, and a confirmed Champions League exit, was remembered infamously for the bizarre substitution of Juan Mata for Nick Powell. All was not well at Old Trafford, as Van Gaal had admitted he had been confronted by Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick about training methods earlier in the campaign.
There was pressure from the inside and outside of Old Trafford; Jose Mourinho had been sacked from his Chelsea return and it was speculated that Ed Woodward would sack Van Gaal imminently.
United were hoping for a response against Norwich but fans booed the team off the pitch after they lost 2-1 and registered just two shots on target. Cameron Jerome was unplayable with Chris Smalling and Phil Jones looking like strangers despite hopes of them being the bedrock in the centre of defence.
United looked uninterested and lethargic, going through the motions; and whilst you would not ever say that even as bad as it was, they were playing to get the manager sacked, it seemed obvious that they felt it was imminent. The fundamental basics were missing and it set a dangerous precedent for the years to follow.
Many performances have followed this pattern, with players having the relative comfort of knowing their contracts are longer than the expectation of a manager’s tenure, and therefore never really paying the consequence of a poor performance or run of performances.
It was the realisation of a comfort zone and a significant drop in standards and intensity; if United cannot win the league, as has become increasingly more obvious, the frequency of the poorer displays has become more pronounced.
Louis van Gaal came out defiant as Woodward decided to wait until the end of the season, presumably on the word that Mourinho wanted a break. What followed was a bitter pill for some United fans to swallow; the obvious shadow of Mourinho — whose arrival might well have galvanised United to win a very winnable league that year — loomed over Van Gaal, who worked honestly despite everyone knowing he would likely be gone by season’s end. And when he was sacked minutes after winning the FA Cup following a run where he had brought in a load of kids to the squad, well, the distaste still lingers.
This is one reason for sticking by a manager; giving him the confidence and platform to oversee a transition, instead of becoming a victim of it, is a crucial step in any redevelopment. Just ask that lot up the road.
2. Ed Woodward hiring Jose Mourinho at the wrong time
By all accounts Woodward was only marginally involved in the recruitment of David Moyes, so cannot be blamed for missing the opportunity to hire Mourinho in the summer of 2013.
As short term as Mourinho would likely have been, it would have (probably) been the perfect and smooth (as smooth as it can be) transition from the Ferguson era to the modern one. A proven winner moving from Real Madrid; Mourinho would have made Old Trafford look like a step up, a PR boost they would have desperately needed considering that they spent that summer instead being turned down by Gareth Bale and resorting to Fellaini.
When Woodward was the man in charge of the hiring and firing, he couldn’t resist bringing Mourinho on board. The damage had already been done by the speculation and the obvious and inevitable conclusion to it all, so if the change had at least been made in December of 2015 it would have been somewhat logical.
By then, of course, though, the aura around Mourinho’s personality had significantly diminished. Embroiled in a bitter internal battle at Stamford Bridge, it was alleged that several members of the Chelsea squad had aligned against Mourinho despite winning the league title earlier that year. Performances dropped off a cliff and the once-charming and at least always entertaining Mourinho now gave lengthy monologues to broadcasters, none of which offered anything in terms of tangible explanations for the problems that had overcome him.
This was the Mourinho that Woodward hired in the summer of 2016. Whilst there was a section of the support who were definitely against the appointment, there was also a fair number who — having already witnessed poor football without success — would have felt poor football that at least brought trophies would be a fair trade off for what United needed at that particular time. In that respect, Mourinho did just what was expected.
1. The financial disaster of January 2018
How could this have gone so wrong? Let us journey back to the summer of 2017 when the first seeds of discontent were sewn.
Mourinho had grown frustrated with the lack of transfer activity; the early signings of Victor Lindelof and Romelu Lukaku had shown promise, but the manager wanted more. The two names were everywhere in the press; Nemanja Matic and Ivan Perisic.
The logic was that Matic would do the defensive work that Pogba had been asked to do, and Perisic would provide the crosses that would be required to get the best out of Lukaku.
Both were gettable; Chelsea were happy to sell as they were signing Tiemouye Bakayoko. Inter Milan were reportedly holding out for an extra £5m.
Negotiations were protracted — needlessly so in Mourinho’s eyes. The manager was heard having stand-up rows with Woodward in the US; less than 48 hours later, the deal for Matic had been agreed.
The deal for Perisic stalled and the flaw of having a technically limited striker in Lukaku was quickly revealed. It was still not quite as costly as the mistakes made in January.
United were someway off City in the league but were comfortably second, their best achievement in the post-Ferguson era. The football had not been great, but it has occasionally been clinical, and with two trophies from his first season, Mourinho might have felt justified in demanding to be backed.
Clearly, conversations between Woodward and Mourinho were had about the future, and the vision appeared to be shared. A new three and a half year deal was given to the manager in January. Even before the end of that season, the names of Willian and Toby Alderweireld were mentioned as incoming transfers.
Anthony Martial was tipped to leave the club after reacting badly to having his shirt number changed and the signings of other players such as Lukaku, Ibrahimovic and Alexis Sanchez.
United finished second and quickly moved to sign Brazilian midfielder Fred and young Porto defender Diogo Dalot. Mourinho had prioritised other signings and they never materialised.
An unseemly battle of the leaks took place in the press as it appeared Woodward had personally vetoed the exit for Martial and refused to spend more on a centre-back when Mourinho had already signed Lindelof and Eric Bailly. That logic was roundly supported by critics of Mourinho; but it brought into question how wise it was to give such a long contract to a manager only to refuse to fully back him in the very next transfer window.
One would have presumed that at such a football club — any, really, but especially at the top — there would have been an agreement of the plan ahead of time, an agreement which would have resulted in that new contract being agreed.
With Woodward’s power prevailing, Mourinho’s position was untenable, and he was culpable with some poor team selections and performances, not to mention hugely controversial and spectacular fallouts with players like Luke Shaw and Paul Pogba before he was inevitably sacked less than a year after signing his new deal.
It was a definitive moment in United history as the year revealed who wielded the true power at a club which was once run by great managers. Woodward had enjoyed more influence than a person of his position should when it came to decisions about the squad; having seen the players exert their own power in the latter months of the disastrous end to the era, it became obvious that the manager of Manchester United had become the third most influential title, behind that of the chief executive and that of player.
That is a potentially cataclysmic point in the journey of any football club and can only put right by patience, allowing a manager the time and support to execute his strategy instead of interfering if you disagree.
Ultimately, most of these negative moments from United’s recent history are the consequence of some form of needless, or at least avoidable, turbulence. Of course, if you are so inclined, I’ve written about it all at length in my book Redprint which was published in August.
Whilst nobody can deny that Solskjaer’s year in charge of the club has seen plenty of those poor performances which have become disturbingly regular in the second half of the decade, it must also be said that there have been more moments in this last 12 months where United have felt like the club they were before 2014. As we head into the new decade, stability seems to be the key for continued progress.