Let’s change the subject. This week, of all weeks. Time for some escapism. Football will do. I would like to examine the bizarre recent history of Manchester United. I don’t support United and, up to a point, it is always a pleasure to see the mighty fallen. But what has happened to the club since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement is a useful parable for much else in life, and in particular the mercurial nature of success.
In 2012-13, Sir Alex’s last season, his team won the Premiership by 11 points. Most commentators agreed that it was flattered by this outcome, that the team was well past its best and that, had he stayed, Sir Alex would have been forced into a major rebuilding exercise. True, but the team still won by 11 points.
Since then, United have never threatened to be champions. In the intervening years, they have trailed the winners by 22, 17, 15, 24 and 19 points, respectively. Their position in the table has fluctuated between 2nd and 7th. Last season, as José Mourinho never tires of pointing out, his team were runners-up. But if you are a club that aspires to be at the top, and has the resources to be there, the number of points you are adrift from the top is a better measurement of how things stand than the lottery of the final position. On that basis, United have been, on average, 30 points worse off than in 2012-13 in every season since. Last season, they were still 30 points worse off, despite finishing second. This season, if things continue as they are, they will be 57 points worse off. What has gone wrong?
José Mourinho may deserve much of the current blame, but he doesn’t deserve all of it for the past five or six years. The club’s management is the principal culprit, and it has been atrocious, especially in its choice of managers.
I may be alone in thinking that the club’s worst decision was not in appointing David Moyes as Sir Alex’s successor in the first place, but in firing him shortly before the end of his first season. As can now be seen, Moyes’s performance was no worse than those of his successors. More to the point, Moyes was appointed because his strength was in building and nurturing a team, not in being an instant-fix manager. He was, correctly, intended to be the man for the long term. So to fire him after 10 months made no sense at all. It is hypothetical, but my opinion is that, if Moyes had been left in charge, United would be in a much stronger position now.
His replacement, Louis van Gaal, was intended to be a safe pair of hands who would steady the ship and prepare for a renaissance. His best years as a manager were already behind him. He was given vastly more money to spend in the transfer market than Moyes had been given. The team’s improvement was negligible, and its style of play was the antithesis of what everyone expected of United. After two years, he was sacked.
Enter José Mourinho. This was an astonishing appointment. Anyone, seeing how Mourinho had completely lost the plot during his second spell with Chelsea, should have seen the risk he represented. His finest achievements also lay in the past. Those achievements had been founded on the strongest possible bond with his players, imbuing them with unlimited self-confidence and belief. By the time of Chelsea Phase 2, this had already reversed itself. Mourinho had taken to blaming the players publicly for everything that went wrong – never the hallmark of a successful club or a confident manager. And that has intensified at United. I would be astonished if there was a single member of United’s squad who believed that Mourinho had improved his self-confidence.
United have continued to spend large sums in the transfer market, far more than was available to Moyes. The performances have been no better, and arguably worse. Even a team at the bottom of the table is not frightened of going to Old Trafford now. It is a matter of debate how much the recent transfer failures should be blamed on Mourinho, and how much on the Board. It was crazy, even at the time, to indulge in the then world record signing of Paul Pogba. Pogba’s place in any team is to take it from the excellent to the extraordinary, not to paper over gaping holes in the existing team. Three slightly less gifted players, targeted to specific positions, would have made far better use of the same money.
A disastrous sequence of managerial decisions. Incoherent dealings in the transfer market. A toxic blend of arrogance, ignorance, self-delusion and too much money. And all this at a time when managers such as Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, Maurizio Sarri and Unai Emery could have been available to United, and would have represented a future, not the past. Yes, Mourinho needs to go, but so even more does the club’s CEO, Ed Woodward. Until they both go, United’s fans can have no confidence in a better future.
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Still on football – but also on Europe and how the world is evolving. A few weeks ago, I went to watch my 6-year-old step-grandson, Ted, play a game of park football. As you would expect, several of the boys had the names of celebrated players on their shirts. There were two Antoine Griezmanns and a Kylian Mbappé, Alexandre Lacazette, Lionel Messi and Alexis Sanchez. Not a single English player among them. And, when you ask Ted which national team he supports, the answer is France.
The European Research Group must be turning in what I hope will soon be its political grave.