Manchester United are skidding towards a critical philosophical juncture

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
December 18, 2018

Now is not the time for a quick fix at Old Trafford. Jose Mourinho is gone and the list of candidates to replace him seems to be doubling by the hour. While the immediate concern relates to the 2018-19 season and the need for some damage control, over the longer time Manchester United must now contemplate what kind of football club they intend to be.

For the duration of Mourinho’s reign, all criticism of him was tempered by a less than ideal working environment. That never fully excused his performance, his sacking has been due and just for many months, but there has existed a recognition that all is not as it should be. In summary, that the club’s recruiting strategy was focused more towards its commercial ambitions than its sporting objectives and that, more prohibitively, the organisation’s infrastructure was unsuited to modern sporting success.

When such a situation exists, managerial change is almost incidental. It may create certain, superficial differences, but it’s incapable of correcting deeper problems. Chief among those at Old Trafford, is the nagging sense that United are a club content to simply exist at the top of the game without actually competing properly. The suspicion is that if the club’s owners were offered a guarantee of a top-four finish each season, a modest run in the Champions League and the odd appearance in a domestic cup final, then that would be satisfactory.

That is nothing but a guess, but it’s certainly a theory supported by the appointments and signings which have been made during the post-Ferguson era. It’s not quite true to say that the right player has always been the most famous one, but United are certainly guilty of being overly-seduced by the promise of billboards in virgin markets. Alexis Sanchez, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba; all had certain merits, but each transfer depended on a degree of wilful ignorance. Sanchez’s was in his career’s red zone at the time United made him the highest paid player in the league, Ibrahimovic was well beyond his imperious best and Pogba, gifted though he may be, was never quite the right piece for their midfield jigsaw.

The culture is evidently wrong. United have felt themselves slipping from the game’s summit and, time and again, blindly fired what they hoped might prove a silver bullet into the ether. That approach has not only seen them fall well behind Manchester City and Liverpool, but also become only a distant concern to Chelsea, Arsenal and, most unforgivably, Tottenham. Even at this stage of the season, the chances of United catching any of those clubs already seems remote.

In a way, that’s a blessing. For all intents and purposes, the year is a write-off and whomever is handed temporary control of the first-team is tasked simply with saving face. Within that stark reality lies the opportunity for change, though, and the chance to evolve towards a less transient and reactive model. Essentially, to make a simple decision between being a predominantly commercial enterprise or a club capable of balancing more than one objective.

Affluence and perofrmance are not mutually exclusive. As other clubs continue to prove, it’s possible to make a great fortune from football whilst still fielding a truly excellent side. There is no stronger brand value than tangible excellence and, moreover, it’s a more sustainable quality than literal visibility and the fleeting reassurance afforded by eye-catching transfers. Build a cohesive, productive first-team and eventually the individuals within it become stars. There is no need to buy them off-the-peg at great expense for the sake of just appearing to be a market leader. After all, hang a Premier League winner’s medal around the neck of almost any player and, eventually, he too can be green-screened into a film trailer or a Mexican potato snack advert.

Within lies a credible strategy: United most construct a team, identify small groups of players who can join at pliable stages in their career, and grow those pods into inter-positional combinations within their first-team. Improvement should follow, but so too should a definitive identity. That’s essential, because all the club’s core characterstics have been eroded over the past half-decade; what is it to be a Manchester United player now, other than to be over-paid and under-performing?

Recent financial results suggest that to be a smarter approach, too. As of this week, the club’s share price was reported to have fallen 34% since August, meaning that the team’s institutional dysfunction has started to loom above the thick social meda fog and opaque marketing jargon. The implication being, of course, that a critical point has been reached at which, almost unimaginably, there’s a declining faith in the club’s ability to remain at the top of the sport. That’s not unreasonable, either, because what guarantees actually exist in this world of oil barons and soft power-seekers?

That necessitates an urgent correction. Manchester United were built on sporting success, their legend was forged from the essence of the game itself, and yet – at a certain point in the past – that seems to have been forgotten or discarded. It’s as if, with so much historical capital in the bank, the club believe that its energies can be directed away from the field without any consequence. Football, for them, has been ‘completed’. With a quick flutter of notes each summer, tossed carelessly into the market place, they can maintain their position in the hierarchy, re-engage their global audience, and then focus their attention elsewhere. They don’t need to win, they just need not to lose badly enough to dilute the concept of what Manchester United is.

Unfortunately, that point is appearing in the windscreen, bringing with it a critical moment. This, then, is the time for a pause for thought and a surveying glance across the football landscape. Manchester City have the means and methods now to dominate the game’s superstructure. Liverpool can match United’s global appeal and have the infrastructural systems in place to quickly grow their audience and swell their trophy cabinet. Arsenal and Tottenham are both equipped with superior training facilities and, very soon, both will inhabit more modern stadia better designed for the sport’s future. If United aren’t careful, their neglect of sporting imperatives will cost them their status within the game and that’s the kind of generational shift which can take just as long to correct.

Personnel changes can help arrest that slide, but with United specifically, this has always seemed like more of a question of attitude and focus. Employing a technical director would help, following certain transfer guidelines would obviously also be beneficial, but the greater worth would be in restoring the intangible sense that football matters above everything else.

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