Why Manchester United are losing games

I post a lot on twitter about Manchester United. I’m a fan since the mid 80s. I think the moment that sealed the deal for my 8 year old self was watching Norman Whiteside’s FA Cup final goal against Everton.

The drama of the moment was everything that I’d come to love about Utd, even though for much of the early years my fandom, they were far from a great side. They had some great players but were by no means the finished article and so it was difficult to tell which team would turn up.  Would they win comfortably or lose embarrassingly. There were enough moments of both to keep you guessing. Then there was the Irish connection with players such as Kevin Moran, Norman Whiteside and the masterful Paul McGrath.

The Ferguson years started inauspiciously. Ferguson had gotten the job on the back of a collapse by Ron Atkinson’s 86 side that had looked like title contenders at the start of the season until they struggled to win a game. Perhaps the dismissal of Atkinson was hasty but much was expected of the young scot who had taken lowly Aberdeen to the European Cup Winners Cup title a few years prior.

Ferguson’s first side, albeit only for a half season ended up finishing in mid table. His first full season was much better with a second place finish. The players he signed such as Steve Bruce and Brian McClair would go on to be Utd stalwarts for years to come. His second full season was another mid table performance with a typical collapse of form. Somme fans were angry with him but, with hindsight, this kind of performance was to be expected given the level of rebuild required for the squad. History records that in the 89-90 season, Ferguson came within a game of losing his job, only to have it rescued by the unlikely match-winning performance of Mark Robbins in an FA Cup victory against Notts Forest.

You know the rest. Ferguson built a very good football team to end the more than 2 decade league title drought and then created even better teams to win the European Cup twice, also appearing in 2 other European Cup finals and winning an additional 12 league titles. His 2008 side which won the Champions League, the league, the league cup and the Fifa World Club Cup  is the benchmark by which all subsequent Utd sides will be judged. They had everything. Grit, guile, beautiful goals, pacey counter-attacks and a powerful & uncompromising defence. They also had the world’s best player that year, Cristiano Ronaldo.

Ferguson had the most successful managerial reign in the Premiership with only a few blips, several of which brought about by the current incumbent in the Manchester United managerial hot-seat.

Jose Mourinho really wanted the Utd job. It’s clear that this is the position he’s cherished for most of his managerial career. He’s only a few games in and already the knives are out after a string of poor results. This is premature of course but it’s worth looking at how Utd fans got to this position of discontent. From decades of stability and success to a rollercoaster over more than 3 years of struggling to mount a title challenge and to qualify for the Champions League. Performances of such insipid poverty that fans have left stadia in disgust and recrimination. During the Moyes era, we even flew a plane with a protest banner.

The answer ultimately involves many issues which, considered together, have left the club playing far below the expected standard. From my perspective these can be summarised as

  1. The Glazers
  2. Ferguson himself
  3. The Moyes Debacle
  4. The LVG years
  5. Mourinho’s initial decisions.

The Glazers

It’s more than 10 years since the Glazer family took over Utd in an £800M highly leveraged buy-out which left the club with massive debts to repay. During this time, Utd rarely signed the best players and were outbid by Real & Barcelona for pretty much every major talent that emerged in world soccer. The only reason Utd were competitive at this time were some clever buys of young players (think Michael Carrick), the blossoming of recently bought talents such as Ronaldo and Rooney, and the final years of the most extraordinarily gifted crop of players produced in the Premier League, embodied by the profound gifts of Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs. This was the last great side that Ferguson produced. He may have reclaimed the Premier League and even gotten to 2 more European Cup finals against a resplendent Barca side, but he would never again have a side that could lay claim to the title of the best in Europe. His canny recruiting and brilliant man management skills papered over the cracks of a side whose main talents were fading.

Ferguson argued in his second biography that he left Moyes a talented and title winning side in 2013 but the reality is that he left a side whose spine was wilting and with new players that were untested and inexperienced. Our best player had been lost to Real Madrid and we showed no signs of being able to recruit anyone with similar talent, save a one season wonder from the injury-prone Robin Van Persie.

It seems very unlikely that the leveraged buyout of the club didn’t impact dramatically on our ability to replenish the side in those years. That may have been combined with Ferguson’s inability to identify players that were as talented as his fading maestros.

Ferguson himself

For all his brilliance, Ferguson’s final year was always going to be a last hurrah for the club. He’d signed a veteran and injury prone star striker and brought Paul Scholes out of retirement to lift the Premiership title once again. This does not suggest planning for the future. Even more incongruously, the man picked to succeed him was David Moyes. The process to recruit Moyes was a massive embarrassment for the club. In a nutshell, Ferguson either didn’t want Mourinho to have the job or didn’t speak loudly enough to endorse him when Charlton dissented, was rebuffed by Guardiola (who claimed not to know he was being offered the job) and ended up with Moyes by default and for reasons that don’t stand up to more than 5 minutes of scrutiny.

In short, his recruitment was a debacle which damaged Ferguson’s reputation,  the club and his successor. Moyes has been battered by the experience.

David Moyes

In many ways a nice and decent man but one who seemed overawed and shocked by the decision from the moment he took the job. It was a disaster waiting to happen. He replaced the backroom staff who had won for years, changed the coaching setup and methods and signed a player who was never fit to grace the team in Marouane Fellaini for the then unbelievable sum of £27.5M. It’s still barely believable.

Struggling at Christmas time, he then spent £10M more than that on Juan Mata from Chelsea. A talented and skilful footballer but one who didn’t appear to fit into the team or address the major problems in midfield or defence. He wasn’t the obvious signing in any respect. He was, however, a statement signing as Mata is the kind of talented and creative player that Moyes probably felt Utd should sign.

Mata aside, Moyes had no clear strategy to develop another world beating side. He gave the impression that a hopeful Champions League position was the best the fans could dream of. He expressed palpable trepidation before big matches and applauded mediocre performances afterwards. His dismissal was inevitable by January of 2014 following terrible results in cup and league competitions.

His worst decision however was extending Wayne Rooney’s contract in February of 2014 by 5 years. This decision made no sense given the criticism of Rooney’s performances at the time and the number of years he’d already played. It would see a 34 year old Rooney still playing for Utd for an annual salary not much less than what other clubs were offering for him back in 2013. Economically it was bizarre.

It’s clear from Ferguson’s 2nd biography that he would have had grave doubts about this decision but, once done, it bound Utd to Rooney for years to come.

In terms of recruitment percentages, Moyes scores at most 50%. Mata is a good player but arguably not the player we needed. Fellaini should never have been signed.

The LVG years

The LVG era started well in a preseason tour of the US but landed back to earth following a collapse against Leicester in August of 2014. That was quickly followed by a defeat to MK dons in the league cup which led to huge criticism of the Dutchman and his tactics. He would never quite recover. Utd played a safe possession based game for all his time in the club, produced some better performances than during David Moyes ill-fated 10 month reign but never looked like becoming a dominant force in the premiership.

LVG recruited Daley Blind, Ander Herrera, Luke Shaw, Marcos Rojo, Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria in his first season. 2 of these players lasted less than 12 months. Marcos Rojo has been erratic and it’s reasonable to say that most Utd supporters don’t rate him and would be glad to see the back of him. His first year successful recruitment % is about 50% as in 50% of the players he signed have contributed to the current squad. They’re not perfect and in the case of Herrera and Blind, we may wish we had alternatives in the positions they’re playing in but they’re good players. Falcao and Di Maria were massively expensive flops.

In his second year, LVG was more expansive and made the following signings: Sergio Romero. Bastian Schweinsteiger, Matteo Darmian, Memphis Depay, Morgan Schneiderlin and Anthony Martial. This represents about €150M of direct cash and add-ons. These players are still within the club and were recruited to take Utd to the next level and to play in the Champions League during the 2015/2016 season. Romero is an excellent keeper and was in any case, very cheap. Schweinsteiger spent almost an entire season inured. Given his age, he was a surprising signing. Damian was good but not great. Schneiderlin is a decent footballer for a mid table club but doesn’t contribute much to the Utd squad never mind the first XI. Anthony Martial made an immediate impact and looked a good buy. Depay played well in his first few games and contributed nothing for the rest of the season. Optimistically, we could say that 50% of his signings have contributed positively towards the first XI. Less charitably, it’s about 34%. This failure to improve the squad and a disastrous performance in the Champions League would see Louis lose his job, despite winning the FA Cup.

Louis had the opportunity to sign Kevin De Bruyne and didn’t. He had the opportunity to push for Renato Sanches and didn’t. When Mourinho came in it became clear that he’d wanted Sanches and somehow Utd let him slip away while deciding how and when to get rid of LVG. A costly mistake.

Mourinho’s initial decisions

On the other hand, Jose appears to have believed he was getting the job and had plenty of time to plan. Let’s analyse what he’s done right and what hasn’t worked out, yet.

If you follow the logic of my analysis of the time since Ferguson’s departure, I’m suggesting that at most 50% of the players we signed made any contribution to the current squad. Of those that remain, I believe that recruits such as Fellaini, Darmian and Schneiderlin have added nothing to our squad.

I am disappointed with the performances of Martial this year and Depay in general but they may come good and become consistent performers. Herrera is a good player but he’s a squad player rather than a first XI regular. I believe he might be better in a deeper lying position but I don’t see him as our replacement for Paul Scholes. In short, almost all our recruits in the past 3 seasons before Mourinho have been inadequate if our aim is to build a title winning and European Cup winning side. If you think this isn’t the case, ask yourself have we replaced Scholes, Giggs, Ferdinand, Evra or Ronaldo with players of similar quality? Not a chance.

So what has Mourinho done? He’s brought in Bailly, Mkhyitaryan, Ibrahimovic and Pogba. These are all good players. Bailly can be a more technically adept replacement for Vidic. He’s young however and needs experience beside him. Blind provides experience and nous but not the power or pace that’s sometimes required against premiership strikers.

Ibra is a very talented footballer at the end of his career. He’s a nostalgia hire from Mourinho who had him during his days as a world class striker at Inter. He can still do it but he’s no longer going to do it all himself as he doesn’t have the legs for running around the pitch, taking on players etc.  You can see the rationale however, to help him bring on Rashford, bring some physical threat to the side etc. He’s scored some good goals at the start of this campaign. He’s also missed sitters against City & Watford. At this stage it’s difficult to know whether this was from frustration (those were very frustrating games) or losing that little bit of sharpness that makes the difference in tight games.

Mkhitaryan has the talent but may not have the physique for the physically aggressive premiership. Only time will tell. From studying his performances with Dortmund last year, I believe he was signed to be a right-sided creative player who would play instead of Mata and provide assists for fast counterattacks. It hasn’t happened as yet but it’s early days. Is he as good a player as City’s Kevin De Bruyne? I don’t believe so but if he recreates his best form for Dortmund we won’t mind too much.

Paul Pogba is a world class midfielder who we’ve paid a world class fee for. I have no doubt he’ll come good BUT he needs a team around him to shine. At Juventus he had the right blend of midfield experience and attacking nous/pace. At United, he doesn’t. It’s as simple as that. He’s trying too hard right now and it’s affecting his shooting and passing. I’ve seen him enough times for Juve to know he’ll be a great player for Utd in the future but he’s the target of mostly undeserved abuse because much of the rest of our team is underwhelming.

So I’ll give Jose a provisional 75% rating for his signings as improving the squad, it could rise higher. This is in stark contrast to the record of the past 3 seasons which has been at best 50%.

The problem isn’t the signings he’s made. It’s what he hasn’t done. Jose hasn’t recognised that there can be no place for Rooney or Fellaini in a title winning Utd side. Or if he has, his actions suggest the opposite. Pogba needs another talented midfielder beside him who can help orchestrate play.  Modric, Kroos, Pjanic, or even Fabregas would be ideal. Schneiderlin doesn’t cut it. Herrera is better but not great and Fellaini will never work in that position. It’s a far cry from the midfields of Pirlo and Marchisio that Pogba became accustomed to.

Mourinho apparently vetoed Pjanic in order to prioritise Pogba. The board should have accepted we probably needed both and a clear out. We got a farming out of many players who weren’t going to make it or get a game to other clubs. This will hopefully yield some dividends for the future as players such as Januszaj & Perreira get more games. I have high hopes for Perreira.

Jose didn’t manage to recruit another central defender which means we may have to rely on Chris Smalling. Smalling is a talented athlete but he has suspect judgement and cannot be relied upon to lead a central defence. Combined with Bailly, he’s going to produce very dicey moments and calamitous lapses of judgement. We saw that at Watford. Indeed, there have been several moments over the past few years where De Gea and Smalling haven’t communicated properly leading to conceded goals, terror in the defence etc.

He didn’t replace Rooney.  Rooney is still calling the shots in our attack. He’s still competing and showing commitment but he just doesn’t have the touch or legs anymore to play in that position. He’s most likely to lose the ball in a promising attack and many commentators are waking up to the idea that Rooney is no longer good enough to be the United Number 10. 

Even if we signed 3 more world class players, we’d still need a replacement for Valencia at RB soon enough. So that’s another 4 players needed.  It would be easy to suggest this is just making excuses for Mourinho but we’ve seen the results for ourselves the past 3 seasons. Moyes was bad, LVG made mistakes but the fundamental problem is the players they were left with and those they recruited.

Ferguson left us with almost nothing; a decaying ruin of a once great monument to free flowing attacking football. Moyes then sacked the coaches that could have helped the side transition more effectively. At least 50% of the money spent since he left was wasted on players that could never make Utd great again. It’s a sorry tale.

We need the remaining 50% to step up but players like Martial and Depay look shell-shocked while Mata isn’t getting a game in his best position. This may be a tactical decision but Mata has always been Mourinho’s lacuna. A problem he needs to get over quickly if our season isn’t to collapse.

However, this is not a classic Mourinho side. It doesn’t have the miserly defence. It doesn’t have the clinical finishing or counter attacking pace. Everything about this side suggests he’s operating within restrictions of the players he has and that he’s increasingly unhappy with some of those. This new Mourinho is trying his best to be friendly and supportive, even though the press and other managers are baiting him relentlessly. He appears somewhat humbled and diminished from his Chelsea experience.

To summarise, Manchester United are losing games not because of tactics but because, on average, our squad isn’t good enough.

This is a tough pill to swallow. I believe we have a good enough squad to win most of our games given players remain fit but we are not in the position of Manchester City, for instance, where the spine of the side has players such as Silva, Gundogan, De Bruyne & Aguero who are ideal for the kind of fast attacking play that Pep Guardiola wants them to execute. Guardiola inherited those excellent players in key positions. Jose Mourinho didn’t. Pep has been ruthless in getting rid of players he didn’t think fitted his style of play. Jose hasn’t yet done this & so this United side isn’t a Mourinho team yet.

Moyes and LVG had the same problems, funnily enough. Neither of them got to grips with it. Moyes didn’t have a clue and LVG

Even if this season is a complete and unmitigated disaster we need to stick with Mourinho for at least 2 years and back him in the transfer market to the hilt for the simple reason that he’s shown he can win titles when allowed to play the style he wants with the players he wants.  Also because he’s shown he can identify good players that will raise the standard of our squad. Eventually, this will create a winning team.

The pain fans are feeling now is the inevitable result of replacing our most successful manager ever with one who had never experienced success and then replacing him with a manager who was somewhat out of touch with coaching a major club & who had a serious difficulty in identifying the right players to improve the team. I don’t think Louis is a bad coach but he clearly wasn’t happy with the players he had yet didn’t recruit wisely. Fans have a sense of “here we go again” when we lose to a team like Watford but we’re forgetting that a lot of the same players that disappointed us week in and week out are still at the club. It’s just not possible to recruit 8 world class players in a single transfer window so Jose needs time.

The cost of replacing the side has increased because opposing teams know we have both a huge amount of cash AND that we desperately need better players. They’re just taking advantage of this & who can blame them?

Jose is trying to mitigate this by totally revamping our scouting operation and not before time. Mourinho has a huge job ahead of him. It won’t be easy. We need to let him complete it in the same way we showed trust in Fergie. Failure to do so could lead to Utd having the same long loss of prestige and fortune as Liverpool. We’re making similar mistakes. Poor choice of replacement managers, recruiting inferior players to what we had etc.

The biggest mistake we could do now is to lay the blame for a few years of poor decisions on the last person to walk through the door.