Manchester United have been accused of many things over the years, I myself have laid a fair amount of blame at the feet of Ed Woodward and Matt Judge for the state United are in but there is one thing I haven’t criticized and that’s their lack of planning.
Forget transfers for 5 seconds and look at the bigger picture at Manchester United, the club seems to run around aimlessly without a real plan going forward. Rivals Manchester City built and planned their future around Pep Guardiola, thanks to Txiki Begiristain.
Liverpool is building a force thanks to the forward-thinking of gaffer Jurgen Klopp and even Chelsea have begun to build their vision going forward by appointing football men around Frank Lampard to increase his chances of success.
So what about Manchester United? Where is their plan?
Manchester United do, or should I say did have a fantastic strategy to rebuild the club that was ruined. Not by Ed Woodward or Matt Judge, not by the Glazers either. Manchester United’s future was quite literally ruined because of the way a large number of the supporter base behaved in January 2016.
Let’s go all the way back to Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure to put this into perspective. The club was happy, naively happy, to let Sir Alex Ferguson choose his successor, his primary option had already turned the move down prior to David Moyes being approached and that was Pep Guardiola during his sabbatical year away from the game.
After it became clear that Pep wasn’t going to be an option, Sir Alex looked to the next best option to bring stability to the club in the short term, at the time, there was nobody beside Sir Alex and Arsene Wenger that held credentials in bringing stability more so than David Moyes.
If nothing, the move did symbolise some kind of logical identity.
Unfortunately, Football isn’t a game founded on predictability, in fact, the opposite is true and David Moyes departed less than a year later with the club in league standing turmoil. When these things happened and in around April 2014, the Manchester United hierarchy set out their path back to the top.
Louis Van Gaal’s Red Army
Van Gaal’s red army was the start of a new future for Manchester United. Before appointing Van Gaal the club had already agreed on a fully-fledged deal with his successor. A man that never got to Old Trafford due to the fans themselves making him deliver a complete U-turn on the club.
I’ll get into the who in just a moment but right now I want to talk about what was supposed to happen with Van Gaal and why it didn’t happen. Van Gaal stayed with Manchester United for 2 out of his 3 years initially agreed, this is a very important factor that will become clearer as I go on.
The initial plan was for Van Gaal to rebuild an ageing Manchester United side with young blood from the academy. If you speak with Van Gaal he will tell you he has never had a 25-man squad, only a 17-man squad with the remaining 8 players being academy players. It’s how he has always worked and it explains his strong history in producing world-class talent everywhere he has been.
The three-year deal was agreed because Van Gaal wanted to retire by 2018 at the absolute latest, therefore a 3-year deal would provide Van Gaal with an opportunity to extend his deal if the club were happy with his results and the successor was not quite ready.
But it all fell apart for United in January 2016. It is true that Van Gaal never officially offered his resignation but he did do effectively that in a conversation with Ed Woodward that took place on January 26th.
His reasoning for the request was because he felt the fans would never accept anyone that wasn’t called Sir Alex Ferguson and he did not want to bring anguish to the United fans. It was this meeting that cost Manchester United everything.
Who did Manchester United spend 2-years planning for?
Manchester United, as mentioned above had agreed on a deal with then Juventus manager Massimo Allegri for him to take over following the expected retirement of Van Gaal after his contract with the club expired.
Van Gaal and Allegri were both aware of the situation and remained in close contact, along with others at United to help build a side Allegri would not need to tear up upon arrival. Much like what Manchester City did, United was looking to build an identity that would be developed and built upon for years to come by one of the brightest young minds in the game today.
Allegri was informed by Van Gaal that he was on the brink of leaving, stating his desire for the fans to be happy as the cause. However, their conversation was far more personal than the conversation Van Gaal had with Ed Woodward previously and specific incidents were discussed between Van Gaal and Allegri that were not discussed with Ed Woodward.
Those things include barrages of hate mail, death threats, ‘fans’ sitting outside of his rented home in Cheshire, the Mirror gives some insight into the level of fear felt by Van Gaal whilst in Manchester.
It was this conversation, the actions of the clubs ‘die-hard’ fans that scuppered years or rebuilding for Manchester United.
Pep Provides Panic and Problems for United Hierarchy
Less than 60 days after Allegri delivered a damning blow to Ed Woodward, he was yet faced with another HUGE dilemma. Liverpool had appointed Klopp, a man with a great reputation in football and now Manchester City had announced they were finally ready to bring in the final piece of what I refer to as the British Barcelona.
The years spent building the facilities, bringing in the players and working towards an improved Barcelona infrastructure was finally complete and my word did it bring some panic to the red half of Manchester.
Ed Woodward was in a position where he was happy to keep hold of Van Gaal for another season in order to try and salvage something from the once-promising future they had mapped out but the abuse from the fans continued and in the end it was the fans themselves that created a situation where Woodward felt he had no choice but to fire Van Gaal.
The huge surge in emotions at City mixed in with the devastating lows of the United fan base created such an ugly atmosphere within the club that something needed to be done, and that leads us to the only man on the planet who could and had competed with Pep Guardiola consistently and found success, Jose Mourinho.
Mourinho’s Era, Promising Beginnings to Toxic Fandom
There is no doubt that the club felt it had returned it’s exciting, league challenging, trophy getting ways with the appointment of Mourinho.
Against his own wishes, boyhood superstar Paul Pogba had returned, Matic had made the trip up north, Eric Bailly delivered in a fantastic debut season, and the wonderfully exuberant albeit problem causing Zlatan Ibrahimovic arrived, in many eyes as the next Eric Cantona.
A trophy-winning campaign followed with the Europa League and League Cup success, a 2nd place league finish then followed the season after and things were beginning to resemble the old Manchester United to some extent.
Throughout all of this, however, one question remained. Why is Jose Mourinho living at The Lowry? Well, there are a few genuine reasons behind this decision, some positive and some not so positive.
For example, Mourinho felt it would allow him to focus solely on his job, without distractions from his family or regular home life. Mourinho also felt that the club wouldn’t be able to support his ambitions and thus didn’t want to commit to anything long term.
There is one reason that outweighs them all and its complexity is interesting, to say the least. Jose Mourinho has been and had at the time been on speaking terms with Louis Van Gaal, much like Massimo Allegri he knew the abuse that Van Gaal suffered.
Coupled with his belief that United did not have the ambition to return to the top he became increasingly concerned that it would lead to fans turning on him, this leads him to draw two conclusions that either:
- His safety would be at risk and he, therefore, appreciated the added security that being in the Lowry brings.
- He believed if the fans turned, then much like the circumstances he was appointed under, he would also be fired under them.
There was a brief period in the summer prior to his removal from the club where he took a stand against the clubs hierarchy and temporarily won the admiration of the fans as he conveyed his frustrations but when the football started and the results failed to come, the fans begun to turn on the man who leads them, Jose Mourinho, and that in turn leads his dismissal.
Luckily, as mentioned, Mourinho saw this coming a mile off and he wasn’t exactly unhappy to be leaving the most stressful and hate-filled period in his career to date.
Ole’s at the Wheel but is There a Destination?
To date, many, including myself believe that when Ed Woodward stated Manchester United will conduct a thorough interview process in order to replace Mourinho in the 2019 offseason that it would be the right move, the smart move if you will.
The club backtracked on that statement and appointed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer without conducting interviews with any other candidates – Ole’s interim management interview being the exception.
“Solskjær will take charge of the first team with immediate effect and will remain in place while the club conducts a thorough recruitment process for a new full-time manager.”was the sentence used in the Manchester United statement confirming the interim appointment of Solskjaer.
As mentioned, I believe Manchester United should have conducted that process and if Solskjaer was to be the choice at the end of that then fair enough, but the club failed to seriously consider other options which may have put them in a better position going into 2019.
Now, whilst I do believe that it is important to understand United didn’t just give him the job without serious consideration and planning as to how the club moves forward, I do believe they should have given themselves far more options to choose from.
The club has silently appointed an array of employees to fill the technical director role under a different name with Nicky Butt now completely responsible for making sure players understand the tactical outfit they’re expected to play in.
Marcel Bout and John Murtagh have been assigned the responsibility of defining the clubs playing style in a bid to avoid a movement away from the ‘United way’.
Whilst Matt Judge, Ed Woodward and a host of external agencies are responsible for the recruitment process (both incomings and outgoings).
It’s an unusual set-up but one that United feel very comfortable in. Interestingly the lynchpin holding this all together is Mike Phelan, his duties besides day to day coaching involve keeping the communication flowing. Phelan is considered to be a hugely influential member of the Old Trafford staff and as such has a large role to play when it comes to helping define the clubs structure going forward.
I’d expect Mike Phelan and Nicky Butt to be swallowed under one role eventually.
Defining the Destination
So where do Manchester United plan on being in 12 months, 24 months, 36 months and so on. Well, it all starts with unity.
Ole is the first step on a multi-year plan at United, he isn’t expected to deliver silverware, he is expected to create a modern Manchester United based on the principles founded during the Sir Alex Ferguson era.
Ole will be judged on how the team plays, how the clubs buy into what Manchester United are and how happy they are as an entire squad.
If Ole stays long term the expectations will change but as of now, the destination isn’t stability in results but stability in club culture.
‘Phase two’ of the plan, so to speak revolves around building a young, energetic squad that can compete for trophies on a regular basis, whilst ‘phase three’ will be dependent upon success and results.
The clubs strategy is, of course, more complex than I’ve listed but essentially those are 3 things the club hope will lead to the growth of a modern Manchester United.
At the end of this all I hold considerable concerns regarding the Manchester United fan base, whether they realise it or not they are solely responsible for the position the club find themselves in at present.
Ed Woodward has not covered himself in glory, the Glazers certainly have not either but Manchester United would be on the verge of entering year two under Massimo Allegri under what would have been year 5 in their rebuild plan, no doubt Manchester United would not be so far off the pace in world football if it wasn’t for the ten or eleven fans that threatened the lives of Louis but more importantly Truus Van Gaal.
I hope this serves as a lesson for fans of football and fans of Manchester United, your overly bias and emotional opinions harm your club more than you can ever realise.
If you wish to discuss this story with me, you can find me on Twitter @Jlombard_