The banner in the Manchester United away end read ‘Broken and rotten from top to bottom’. That was at Villa Park in January and there has been nothing to dispute that lacerating summary. Whatever its Latin translation, it would be an appropriate club motto for United.
United can scout another 804 right-backs to replace the £50million misfit, spend another £80m on a centre-back, £40m on another Ajax academy graduate and it will take them no closer to City because they need fixing at the top.
The structure that United finalized a year ago needs changing as much as the flaky squad. End May trophyless and outside the top four and it is legitimately the worst season in the post-Ferguson era, one laden with humiliations.
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United are the only football club that has to consistently clarify their objective is silverware. “We know that consistency is key as we strive for a top-four finish this season,” football director John Murtough said last week. “I want to reiterate however that this is not the ultimate objective for Manchester United, and everyone at the club is focused on challenging for the top trophies.”
Sir Alex Ferguson surveyed a second derby surrender in four months from the directors’ box at the Etihad. As long as the Glazer family’s hands are in the till, Ferguson is not entirely absolved of the blame. He was an enabler in 2005.
The club’s priorities were exposed in the wake of the evisceration by Liverpool in October when a club official did more to shield Joel Glazer than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The absentee landlord Glazer has not attended a United game since April 2019.
At this stage, it is futile to waste any more words on the corrosive Glazer family. There has not been any concrete evidence of a takeover since the family took ownership in 2005 and none of the parties interested in buying Chelsea are looking north to United.
Ferguson is proof a figurehead can manage a successful period under the constraints of divisive owners. So was Jose Mourinho for a long briefer period. United have been consistently competitive in the transfer market, gazumping City time and again in recent years.
Below the Glazers is the new chief executive Arnold, a friend of Ed Woodward’s since university and a rugby enthusiast who literally placed the business before the club in last week’s investors’ call. Nobody is pretending the chief executive at a football club has to have played the game or possesses an encyclopaedic knowledge of it, but some have questioned Arnold’s credibility of him and his tone-deaf sound bites of him in the past are an embarrassment.
Arnold, lest we forget, said a year ago Solskjaer had brought ‘phenomenal success’ to United. That utterance would have had his card marked at any seriously run football club.
The football arm of one of the game’s greatest institutions is run by Murtough and Darren Fletcher. City had the foresight to head-hunt Soriano and Txiki Begiristain from Barcelona, with the former influential to Pep Guardiola’s contract extension in 2020 despite his broader role as the chief executive of the City Football Group.
Begiristain and Manuel Estiarte are Guardiola’s confidants, with Soriano and the chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak involved when required. Begiristain is obsessive about transfers and also serves as a sounding board to Guardiola on tactics. That dynamic is unlikely at United with an interim manager installed.
A fan who has encountered Murtough and Fletcher said ‘they’ve been enthusiastic’ in engaging with supporters. Murtough, experienced and friendly though he is, has survived David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to climb up the ladder. With Woodward now gone, supporters may identify Murtough as the common denominator in almost a decade of failure. Industry sources who have dealt with Murtough say his involvement in recruitment has been overstated.
Fletcher attempted to clarify his technical director title at the recent fans’ forum and failed to convince. Fletcher’s world view impressed as a player and a pundit but he is now in the deep end and in need of armbands. It is impossible to take his role entirely seriously when he still laces his boots and poses in ‘winning team’ training pictures.
Mick Court, the technical chief scout who heads up the recruitment department, has to be held accountable. So does Marcel Bout, part of Louis van Gaal’s backroom staff and inexplicably appointed the head of global scouting after high-ranking United figures derived Van Gaal’s recruitment hit-rate.
This season, United’s credibility was shot at the moment they delayed dismissing Solskjaer after the thrashing by Liverpool. Scousers, City fans and Leeds fans sang ‘Ole’s at the wheel’ and they were still unmoved. It took United’s own supporters to boo Solskjaer – a line they were loath to cross – after a 4-1 humbling at Watford for Woodward and Arnold to summon him to the guillotine.
If United had the nerve to sack Solskjaer and hire Antonio Conte with the team nine points behind the Premier League leaders in October, supporters would have still believed a title challenge was possible under a demanding serial winner of a coach. Yet United were so blindingly invested in Solskjaer and so scared of the confrontational Conte they never entertained the prospect of hiring him, despite Conte’s interest in him.
With Conte, United’s identity crisis was laid bare. He was short-term, outspoken and favored signings in their late 20s or early 30s. United purportedly prefer younger targets with resale value (you are now doubtless thinking, ‘Like Wan-Bissaka?’) yet have two strikers with a combined age of 72 who were signed within the last 18 months.
United are seeking a long-term coach who preaches an adventurous playing style. Gary Neville had to illuminate Micah Richards on Sunday: “They didn’t want him (Conte). I agree that they didn’t want him. Conte’s not a manager for Manchester United. He comes in for one or two years, he does a great job. They’ve been there with Jose Mourinho.”
Yet Conte wins. So did Mourinho. “Half the staff fear him and the other half hate him,” someone at Carrington said shortly after Mourinho’s appointment. United could do with that now.
Seeking short-term gains under Conte would have been more logical than settling for an interim and a fourth-place finish. That is un-United.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.