Manchester United and the dangers of living in the past

The catwalks at Old Trafford were always filled with Liverpool fans, basking at the sight of their team’s sacking from the Theater of Dr...


The catwalks at Old Trafford were always filled with Liverpool fans, basking at the sight of their team’s sacking from the Theater of Dreams last month, when representing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer argued for the defense.

What he had just witnessed, he admitted, represented the “darkest dayOf his three years at the helm of Manchester United. But, he said, he didn’t want to – couldn’t – tolerate the idea of ​​quitting, of walking away. “We’ve come too far as a group and we’re too close to give up now,” he said.

Leaving Old Trafford that day, the idea that Solskjaer could come out unscathed seemed fanciful. He had become something worse than an object of pity: he had become a punchline. That night, United leaders gathered to discuss how to respond. Somehow, they came to the same conclusion as the man they named: Now is not the time to go back. Solskjaer survived.

There are several ways to explain Manchester United’s reluctance to accept the blinding evidence, the absolute refusal of the so-called biggest club in the world to recognize that their manager was way over their heads until ‘he wasn’t just humiliated at home by Liverpool. , but dismissed with disdain by Manchester City, then humiliated, plaintive and pathetic, by the modest Watford.

One explanation – the simplest, that of Occam’s razor – is cold and indifferent cynicism: United’s hierarchy appointed Solskjaer, first temporarily, then on a series of endlessly extended permanent contracts, and declined. to make a decision that would effectively be an admission of error, and the owners of the club didn’t care who was in charge as long as the money kept pouring in.

Another, much nicer version would highlight the curious sentimentality that seems to infect Manchester United: for an organization that behaves in almost every other sphere of its existence like a faceless corporate monolith, carving up and selling its history. to the one who will pay for a share, United thinks with their hearts rather than their heads, more often than you think.

That sentimentality was there in the rush to award Solskjaer a permanent contract after increasing his first months as a goalkeeper in 2018 and 2019, and again when the club extended his contract last summer after finishing well behind Manchester City in Premier League.

Solskjaer is a former player – a legend of the club, as the flattering statement who announced his departure put him on – and the romance that it could be him who restored the team to his place at the top seemed to be irresistible to those who employed him. Solskjaer even got an exit interview, a chance to say goodbye on his own terms, with tears in his eyes.

Perhaps it should be common practice: Managers, even those who lost heavily at Watford, are human and should be treated as such. Certainly, the affection for Solskjaer among United fans made the interview quite understandable. This is not, however, the decision that the most intransigent and ruthless companies would make.

But United are not as hard-nosed as they could be, not all the time. There will have been many within the club rubbing their hands with joy at the impact of Cristiano Ronaldo’s return last summer: his vast Instagram account, his army of followers, his huge business profile.

It wasn’t all of this, however, that persuaded Rio Ferdinand, Alex Ferguson and Patrice Evra to step in when it looked like Ronaldo was set to join Manchester City. They helped advocate with Ed Woodward, the club’s central broker, to intervene. Ronaldo’s talent of course played its part, as did the status he had acquired during all his years away, but also the allure of bringing home a prodigal son, the feeling that he was. back to its place.

This is of course not ‘best-in-class’ behavior that United would like to regard as their hallmark. It didn’t take great knowledge, even in advance, to wonder if this little jaunt into the past could come at the expense of United’s balance, which Ronaldo could relegate to the club’s future – Mason Greenwood and Jadon Sancho, in particular – to the shadows.

It didn’t take any sort of tactical qualification to realize that Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba, as well as the rest of United’s sparkling lineup of attacking talent, cannot be easily integrated into a compelling system. No insight was needed to see that the money could have been better spent on a defensive midfielder. After all, even Solskjaer knew it.

But then this is the great irony of modern Manchester United, the one at the heart of the third, and perhaps the most convincing, explanation of how long Solskjaer’s experience lasted – through the loss to City and the ‘collapse to Liverpool and the defeat in the Europa League final last season and the 6-1 home loss to Tottenham and the 4-0 mauling by Everton and all the other glowing and burning red flags.

It is a club which, for 20 years, has done nothing but win. There is a banner at Old Trafford that shows how central the final victory is for this club: silhouette images of every trophy available for an English football team around the slogan ‘We have won it all’. Most of them were accumulated between 1991 and 2013, when Ferguson turned Old Trafford into a monument to his own greatness.

This is the standard to which current and future iterations of Manchester United must match; this is the extent to which they have failed, time and time again, in the eight years since Ferguson stood on the ground at Old Trafford, an emperor believing the sun would never set, and assured the fans that the good times would never end.

And yet, despite all of these victories, there is very little indication that anyone at Old Trafford quite understands how it happened. Solskjaer has often spoken of restoring United traditions, but what they were has never been particularly clear.

In this, he joins a long and not particularly proud list of Ferguson alumni who tried to follow in their mentor’s footsteps and failed. United had a lot of players during Ferguson’s tenure who seemed made for management: the calm authority of Steve Bruce, the inspiring anger of Roy Keane, the fierce intelligence of Gary Neville, his brother Phil.

None have lived up to the billing. Ferguson’s former assistants fared a bit better – Steve McClaren and Carlos Queiroz, in particular – but there is little evidence of a Ferguson school.

This is not a unique phenomenon – the Liverpool dynasty of the 1970s and 1980s also did not produce a series of managerial titans – but it is, against the backdrop of United’s failures since the departure of its totem figure , remarkable.

In retirement, Ferguson built a lucrative cottage industry in management and leadership books. It is not denigrating his genius or his heritage to suggest that he did not pass these lessons on to those around him in his time. Few of his former players absorbed them effectively and, according to all the available evidence, none of his theoretical superiors did. Ferguson doesn’t appear to have left behind anyone at Old Trafford who really understood the inner workings of his winning machine, which could bone his genius.

It’s easy to drift into meaningless jargon by listing all the things needed to be successful in modern football: a clear vision, a defined philosophy, a cohesive structure. Sometimes their importance is exaggerated; Real Madrid have won three straight Champions League titles because they had the best players, after all. But whether they come by accident or on purpose, most elite teams have them. Manchester United does not.

Perhaps that is why the club’s executives were able to believe Solskjaer when he said that, in the face of everything that had happened against Liverpool, the club were “too close to give up now”. It was unclear what United were supposed to be close to, minutes after the yawning chasm between Solskjaer’s side and their biggest rivals was brutally and surgically laid bare.

But how were people responsible for deciding whether to keep his job or not whether he was right? They know Manchester United should be great, because it was great under Ferguson, but they don’t know how Ferguson made that greatness happen, so they have no way of measuring the club’s current closeness to him.

Instead, they fell back on the one lesson the club seems to have learned from Ferguson: that success lies in the gift of one great individual, and that whatever he needs to do to be restored to his roost is to find that person. They hoped with all their hearts that it could be Solskjaer. It was not. And now they’re going to start their search again, hoping to get closer once more, even as they move further and further away.



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