From Champions to Also-Rans: Dealing With The Fall of Manchester United
Manchester United is not just a football club. Manchester United is an idea. The idea is that they are exceptional in some fundamental way. The idea is that the general rules somehow do not apply to them — They do not struggle, they do not lose and they do not accept anything less than the best. Just as political, national and racial exceptionalism have ultimately found those who believed in it hoisted by their own petards, so will Manchester United if they do not learn to accept that they are indeed just a football club.
Manchester United does not believe that they must abide by the rules that govern other clubs because they never have had to before — in recent decades. They have never had to, say, consider selling Wayne Rooney because, despite his failure to live up to expectations, he has been the face of the club since he joined them. They have never had to consider managerial upheaval because they had the greatest manager of all time leading them. They never had to consider playing younger, more inventive lineups because they could always develop young players alongside their established stars. This all stems from the fundamental belief that they are exceptional, and up until this year they have been able to believe that because it has been true.
But now, times have changed. The air of invincibility and exceptionalism has gone. Fergie has left. Rooney is not the White Pelé of yore. Van Persie has been injured. The development of young talent has been stalled. Manchester United is no longer exceptional. And it is time for them to reckon with that fact. This means that they need to start acting like other clubs. This begins with accepting that David Moyes may not be The Chosen One, as banners hanging from the stands at Old Trafford decree. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they must sack him, but they need to accept that a lot of the problems they have had this year stem from his ability, or lack thereof, as a manager. What Moyes accomplished with Everton was undoubtedly impressive but with all due respect to the Toffees, they are not Manchester United by any stretch of the imagination. Moyes has a great mind for the sport, but he needs to address the idea that he needs to tailor his strategy to his players, not vice versa. Whereas smaller clubs like Everton must construct their teams from the ground up, the best clubs construct from the top down by purchasing the best talent and supplementing it with homegrown players.
Moyes stepped into a club with an already-forged identity and in his attempt to impress his own style, he sacrificed both his own integrity and that of his players. Ultimately, the club must accept that their first manager after Fergie does not have to be The Chosen One, and that it is acceptable to sack him because that’s what clubs in seventh place do.
Of course, the blame does not lie solely on Moyes’ shoulders. Injuries have plagued the team. The age of their former stars has slowed them down. These are not intractable problems, though. What the team needs to do though is stop hoping and waiting for their legends to return to form because that may (read: probably) never happen. Last year’s healthy RVP may very well be an apparition amidst a career of injuries. Rooney may have peaked. Giggs, Evra and Carrick are all old. It is time to accept this and move on, and that may mean selling Rooney and focusing more on developing their young stars, Adnan Januzaj, chief among them.
In considering Manchester United’s recent struggles, I find myself reminded of the Mark Twain quote of specious origin: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” When all is said and done, the club sits in seventh, just nine points out of a Champions League qualification. Speaking of which, they are still alive in the Champions League, and a win against Olympiakos in the first leg later this month would be a huge boon for them. All of this is to say: Part of not ending the Manchester exceptionalism means believing in the club’s ability to overcome adversity. As hard as it may be to believe that there is a silver lining to this season, far worse clubs have overcome far more. Manchester United may not be exceptional, but with just a few months left in the season, they can still salvage a season particularly with qualification for next season’s UEFA Champions League as well as a healthy run in the competition this season.