I was eleven years old when Manchester United beat Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final. At the time, I was not aware of treble implications, David Beckham’s unanticipated introduction into the starting eleven, or even Sir Alex’s construction of a football dynasty. The only thing I understood was that the team in red never gave up, never surrendered, and never lost faith.
On that night in Spain, the Red Devils personified values that still resonate with me today. After multiple close calls off the woodwork and deep lapses in possession, United found itself somewhat lucky to only be trailing by one goal as stoppage time approached. However, with sheer grit, tenacity, and the type of belief that sends Peter Schmeichel galloping into the area to try and nod one home, United pulled themselves off the precipice to conquer Europe with two goals that can only be described as unyielding.
To overcome the uncertainty and doubt that currently plagues the storied club, ownership and management need to remember how Manchester United once snagged victory from the jaws of defeat to anoint themselves kings of Europe. They need to remember the club’s identity. Throughout this Premier League campaign, David Moyes’ men looked unimaginative, unhappy, and bereft of purpose.
On its surface, this might seem like a problem with tactics. Improper X’s and O’s on the drawing board, or more likely, mixed messages from a manager who cannot quite decide how to play and who to field. For example, it seems clear that the holding midfielders cannot quite link into possession as they fail to choose whether they should play wide, push through the center, or bomb deep balls to waiting strikers. The ensuing glut at the moment of conception results in back passes and stalled forward movement – a stifling of momentum that crushes United’s ability to create consistent opportunities.
However, replacing Moyes should not only concern itself with finding a manager that can effectively dictate how players should play. Moyes’ appointment was premised on just this theory: the retainment of a manager that could employ the right tactics to squeeze maximum value from his team sheet on any given day.
It has become brutally clear during this year’s campaign that successful management is not only about game planning. A manager still has to manage men, after all. Finding a leader that can instill a sense of purpose and identity – specifically United’s purpose and identity – needs to be the focus of the club’s search for a new manager. The Red Devils achieved unprecedented success by staying true to a philosophy embodying determination, pride, and an unwillingness to ever mentally concede defeat. David Moyes undid years of belief within his first season as manager by openly admitting that his Champions League foes were superior and likely to emerge victorious in the competition. This mentality may suit Mourinho as he digs his strikers’ graves, but it stands in direct opposition to how everyone at United, including the players on the roster, have been groomed to operate.
The club must recapture the identity that had been building up to the 1999 Champions League final, and ultimately was cast in iron at the expense of the more skilled Bavarians. I appreciated the passion associated with that United side, and watched as that attitude carried the club to victory throughout the ensuing decade. I can only hope that after this season’s experience, the club’s board comes to its senses and does the same.