Football | A club without a plan: Manchester United’s shambolic start

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After Manchester United’s 1-0 defeat to Juventus in the Champions League, manager Jose Mourinho beat the familiar drum at the board over investment. This is despite the fact that the club have a net spend of £309m since the Portuguese man arrived, almost double that of Juventus (£166.5m).

As the New York Times football writer Rory Smith pointed out, it was not that long ago that Juventus would be coming to Old Trafford as underdogs rather than overwhelming favourites. They lost 4-1 to Fulham in the Europa League in 2010 at a time where United expected to be in the semi-finals of the Champions League every year, making three of four finals from 2008-11.

The numbers behind the Red Devils’ start to the season haven’t been pretty, 10th in the Premier League, out of the League Cup, four points from three games in the Champions League, a -1 goal difference in the Premier League to Man City’s +23 after nine games.

How has a club so well funded financially, so well supported – claiming to be the “biggest club in the world” – struggling so badly?

1. Lack of long-term successor planning

When Alex Ferguson retired from 27 years at the helm, he emphasised that United fans and the board should “back their manager” in the years following his departure. The successor chosen was David Moyes, a Scotsman who appeared to be of the Fergie-mould, but Ferguson probably did not quite envisage the decline that would happen under the new manager.

This was not helped by the long-time chief executive David Gill quitting the club at the same time as Ferguson, with inexperienced Ed Woodward failing to land transfer targets in Moyes’ first summer window. Moyes did not help himself by removing all of Ferguson’s coaching staff to bring in his own, an understandable if ill-advised move. It meant that a club that had won five of the previous seven league titles had discarded the team that got them there in favour of key personnel that had no experience at that level.

As Moyes struggled to 7th with an ageing side, he was given the boot before the end of his first season.

Next up was Louis Van Gaal, a football idealist and “philosopher”, who had a very headstrong way of playing football that was different to United and Ferguson’s identity. United sparkled at times under Van Gaal, but ultimately stagnated to a tedious possession game, they went several games without scoring a first-half goal. The Dutchman was gone after two seasons, despite winning the FA Cup.

The next logical step for the board after an idealistic, possession-based, Ajax-style dogmatist? That’s right, a manager was the exact opposite football philosophy – Jose Mourinho. It is difficult to think of two managers with a greater divergence in how they see the game in possession than Mourinho and Van Gaal, which has to have caused great confusion for players that played under both managers. It didn’t occur to United that might be a problem.

2. Scattergun transfer policy

Jose Mourinho might moan that United don’t have the quality to compete with the best sides in Europe, but that is definitely not because of lack of transfer spending. It is hard to say Ed Woodward was right to deny a £70m bid for Harry Maguire after the World Cup, but questions have to be asked about United’s recruitment strategy under the last three managers.

The transfer policy in the summer of 2013 was a joke. Marouane Fellaini was United’s only purchase of the summer, for more money than his release clause would have been at the start of the summer. Woodward chased marquee names like Toni Kroos and Cesc Fabregas, before almost getting Ander Herrera, but instead getting duped by fake lawyers representing the Spaniard on deadline day.

It feels like Woodward was stung from the embarrassment of missing out on stars that summer, as since then he has looked to bring in world-famous players, even if they fit into the team or not. Juan Mata arrived in January from Chelsea in what looked like a panic buy, when Van Gaal arrived he bemoaned that United had four number 10s yet lacked even cover in other positions.

In Van Gaal’s first season, Angel Di Maria arrived from Real Madrid for a club record fee of £59.7m, fresh off a Champions League win and reaching the World Cup final with Argentina. But nobody could think that Di Maria’s free-flowing and erratic style would easily fit in well with Van Gaal’s regimented control and Di Maria was gone after a season.

Under Mourinho, things have hardly been any better. Mourinho says he has no centre backs of quality to choose from, yet refuses to play Eric Bailly, who he bought for £30 million from Villarreal. Fred, who signed for a deal that could reach £52m with add-ons, scored a goal and played well against Wolves in September and has not been seen since. Alexis Sanchez, the player who was supposed to breathe life into United’s attack when he signed in January, has scored only four times in 26 games.

3. Poor coaching

It is very convenient for Mourinho that the players are never good enough for him, and more money must be spent on the transfer market, rather than working with the talented group of players that he has.

Since Mourinho cried about the quality of his defence, it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy as a defence that statistically was among the best in the league over the past few years has conceded 16 goals in its first nine Premier League games this season – more than bottom club Newcastle. One particular weakness has been from set-pieces, one clear sign of lack of organisation and coaching. This is coming from the team of a manager who once conceded only 15 goals in an entire season with Chelsea.

As journalist Michael Cox said, the Juventus game was typical of United’s illogical shape this season. They were too defensive in approach, where they stood off and dropped deep, but too attacking in selection with three forward and Mata. Mourinho did not have anyone on the bench to make an attacking shift so made no substitutions whatsoever. Scott McTominay as centre-back in the defeat against West Ham was one of the most baffling decisions that Mourinho has made this season, but far from the only one. Mourinho may be one of the best managers of the last 15 years, but he is nowhere near based off current performance.

4. Mourinho’s man-management

It is not unusual for players to fall out with Jose Mourinho, who is a tough character with a prickly personality. The likes of Eden Hazard, Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas had problems with Mourinho before, but the manager has brought his abrasive man-management style to new levels at United. Luke Shaw could have had a case for workplace bullying at times in a regular job under Mourinho’s reign, Henrikh Mkhitaryan was singled out for criticism several times in Mourinho’s first season and eventually left. Anthony Martial has been at loggerheads with Mourinho and was criticised for taking a few days off in pre-season to attend the birth of his child. Eric Bailly and Antonio Valencia look like the latest players to have fallen out with Mourinho, while run-ins with star player Paul Pogba are never far away. An unhappy team is not a team that will function to their fullest.

5. Lack of identity

For many years, United had a clear identity on the pitch. The “United Way” might have become a hackneyed term but broadly speaking in the club’s most successful years under Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson, they played in a loose, attacking formation, with an emphasis on wing play and young players. Under Alex Ferguson, everyone knew what to expect when Man United came to town. When a new player signed, he was brought in to fit the system, without affecting the running of the team.

Louis Van Gaal brought in a different philosophy to United, but at least he had a clear plan and constructed a team in his own identity. When watching United play this season, it is hard to think of a single identity that the team has. When you consider some of the top teams in world football today – Pep Guardiola’s City with their possession style, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool with their high-tempo, pressing game and Diego Simeone’s low-block/counter game at Atletico Madrid – United are yearning for some sort of football philosophy. Mourinho is no longer even a defensive manager that grinds out results, as United’s continued failure to keep clean sheets this season show.

6. Underperforming players

It would be unfair to absolve the players from the blame, as a number of players have failed to reach the standards expected of them at United. Phil Jones has failed to develop as the player Ferguson envisaged to be the new Duncan Edwards, and can’t shake off big mistakes from his game. After a strong start, Eric Bailly has played in an increasingly erratic style, and the under performance of those two players has led to the Smalling-Lindelof partnership at the back.

In midfield, Nemanja Matic looks out-of-sorts this season after a good season last year. Even at his best, he can be left with to much to with an inconsistent Paul Pogba. Pogba on his day is United’s best player and is one of their better performers this season, but he is an enigmatic player who can go on patches of poor form.

The biggest problem at United over the last number of years is their attack. Scoring 80 goals in the league is a general guideline if you want to be in contention to win it – United haven’t scored more than 70 goals in a season since Ferguson retired. Juan Mata has been ok, but failed to live up to the standards he set at Chelsea in terms of creativity. Romelu Lukaku played well last season but has had a horrible start to this one. Martial and Rashford remain inconsistent young players, while the less said about the monumental waste that is Alexis Sanchez at United so far, the better.

7. Behind the scenes

It seems like every few weeks that United will confirm a new sponsor or a new commercial deal of some sort, while Group Director Richard Arnold or chief executive Ed Woodward will boast about how much social media engagement a Twitter post received. As United regularly top the rankings of richest football clubs in the world, you can’t blame Woodward et al for being proud of their achievements off the pitch. But the brand and sponsors can only be happy for so long with such turmoil on it.

It is very questionable whether Woodward, a former investment banker, should be in charge of football matters given his decisions so far, and United are crying out for a director of football-type figure to guide the transfer policy and footballing matters behind the scenes. They have simply made too many mistakes over the past five years not to see the wider picture of failure. When Liverpool won the league in 1990, few could have seen them fail to win a league for 28 years. It is too reactionary to predict such a fall for United, but in the broader picture, but United must get the next few big decisions right if they are to regain their spot as kings of English football.