The past 10 years have been a massive struggle for Manchester United players and fans alike. As the cliché says, all empires must eventually fall. And where once it was the empires of Rome and the Ottomans that crumbled, so too the empire of sustained success and utter European dominance Manchester United built under the legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson disintegrated with terrifying rapidity, following his sudden retirement from management in 2013.
To make matters even worse, the club’s closest rivals assumed the mantle of European heavyweights. Manchester City and Liverpool began to strike fear into opposition, not seeing Manchester United on the fixture list. No longer did Old Trafford make dreams for the home team and nightmares for the visitors.
No, it was the dreaded trip to Anfield or the Etihad. There, two of the world’s foremost managers, Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp and Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola, built awe-inspiring juggernauts. They did that as the ashes of United’s demise continued to linger in the air.
A sudden departure
To put the chronology in perspective, we need to start with the abrupt retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson. Many regard the Scotsman as the most talented and successful football manager of all time. He is a renowned tactician and fierce man manager hailing from Glasgow. In his first season at the helm in 1986, United finished 11th. By 1991/92, United won the Premier League, its first title since 1966/67.
From there, he didn’t look back. By the time SAF retired, United won a record 13 Premier League Titles, including his last season in charge in 2012/13. Augmenting this unbelievable trophy haul was a measly 10 Community Shields, 5 FA cup wins, 4 League Cups, 2 Champions League triumphs, a European Cup Winners’ Cup, a club world cup, and the super cup.
But, suddenly, towards the end of the 2012-2013 season, Ferguson shocked the world by announcing his retirement.
Since then, Manchester United plunged into a paradox of struggle. The American owners, the Glazer family, pumped millions and millions of pounds into “star” players. Almost each time, those players flopped and failed to succeed. United have failed to win the Premier League since Ferguson retired. Additionally, United struggles to finish in the top four on a consistent basis. That valuable positioning secures the promised land of Champions League Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Instead, they entertain massive crowds on Thursday evenings, in the far less impressive Europa League.
Managers have come and gone. Some of those have world class pedigree, like Louis van Gaal or Jose Mourinho. Others were less flashy. For instance, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, David Moyes or Ralf Rangnick.
The most successful of this bunch was arguably journalist favorite Jose Mourinho. The Portuguese won the EFL Cup, the Europa League and the FA Community Shield during his tenure.
However, in the 10 years since Ferguson retired, the club has won a measly 4 trophies, 3 of which came under Jose Mourinho in the same season, 2016-17. The other was the FA Cup triumph under Louis van Gaal.
Players have come and gone as well, many of whom were considered undisputed world class talents. The likes of Radamel Falcao, Angel Di Maria, Memphis Depay Bastian Schweinsteiger, Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez donned the famous red kit. Yet, none of them could assert themselves. Nor could they make the desired impact their eye-watering price tags demanded.
Clearly, absurd spending and flashy signings were not the solution.
Fixing the club
The answer is one not of money, not of individual players and not of the ownership. Although, United supporters heavily contest the last one is at fault. Rather, the answer is culture. How is culture created and fostered? By a manager who carefully constructs the desired culture for success. By a group of players he and the recruitment team sign who buy into and further enhance the culture of the club. Scouts, owners, management, and board members who also buy into this new culture, this sense of team, club, and success above the individual, the paycheck, the royalties and marketing rights.
For the first time in a very very long time, it feels like United have signed a man capable of collecting those components. He can combine them into the finished article: a culture of success and determination. United can exhibit hard work, humbleness, accountability and high standards.
Erik ten Hag is the Manchester United solution to struggle
Ten Hag made his name coaching an Ajax team composed of the likes of Hakim Ziyech, Matthijs De Ligt, Frenkie De Jong, Dusan Tadic and Donny Van De Beek. He brought them within minutes of a Champions League Final in 2019.
He may have an ability to develop players. Still, it is his prowess for player and squad management that makes him the key cog for Manchester United. United welcomed a toxic dressing room for years after Sir Alex Ferguson. Narcissistic superstars cared more about themselves and a paycheck than the badge on their chest. The lack of character famously led to players leaking information to the press.
Ten Hag cut the dead weight that dragged United down. Those on their way out included Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata, Alex Telles, Paul Pogba, Edinson Cavani, Nemanja Matic, Lee Grant, Andreas Pereira, and Eric Bailly. Finally, and most recently, he shipped away Cristiano Ronaldo, who carried Manchester United to relevance a season ago. Yet, under a new boss, Ronaldo lost a spot in the squad and did enough to have his contract terminated midseason.
Erik ten Hag proceeded to add players such as Lisandro Martinez, Tyrell Malacia, Christian Eriksen, Antony and Casemiro. Not only do these players show class, but they are strong and passionate characters.
Martinez absolutely kills himself for the jersey. The Argentine World Cup winner earns his clean sheets with tenacity, grit and sheer will. The fans love him, and according to reports, his teammates do, as well.
Eriksen is a quiet genius, leading by example both on and off the field. At the age of 30, he is a father figure with experience to many of those younger talents in the squad. His emotional maturity, technical ability and experience radiates class.
Malacia and Antony are still gems in the rough, young and playing well. They are awaiting the full heights of their potential. Both can develop into truly world class players. Plus, their desire to fight for the badge and prove themselves to a manager sorely lacked over the last decade at Old Trafford.
Finally, there is Casemiro. He is an immense presence, both on and off the field. A proven winner, having won 15 major trophies at Real Madrid, including five champions league titles, he combines experience with incredible talent. His ability to not only break up play, but facilitate attacks and spread the ball is remarkable. His range of passing, vision, and tackling ability are second to none. However his reading of the game and positioning is by far his strongest attribute. United’s midfield finally looks world class, with a midfield triangle of Casemiro at the base, and Fernandes and Eriksen in front, roaming around and causing havoc with their passing prowess and finishing ability.
On the path
The team is most definitely moving in the right direction, and for the first time since Ferguson left, it really feels like there is an end to the struggle surrounding Manchester United.
And with the recent announcement that the Glazer’s are looking to sell the club, the future of United could be looking even brighter than before.
PHOTO: IMAGO / PA Images
200+ Channels With Sports & News
- Starting price: $33/mo. for fubo Latino Package
- Watch Premier League, Women’s World Cup, Euro 2024 & Gold Cup
The New Home of MLS
- Price: $14.99/mo. for MLS Season Pass
- Watch every MLS game including playoffs & Leagues Cup
Many Sports & ESPN Originals
- Price: $9.99/mo. (or get ESPN+, Hulu & Disney+ for $12.99/mo.)
- Features Bundesliga, LaLiga, Championship, & FA Cup
2,000+ soccer games per year
- Price: $4.99/mo
- Features Champions League, Serie A, Europa League & Brasileirāo
175 Premier League Games & PL TV
- Starting price: $4.99/mo. for Peacock Premium
- Watch 175 exclusive EPL games per season