Manchester United is, strangely enough, going through a major rebuilding process now. It’s a process that was necessary a few seasons ago but somehow they got away with it.
Faces are changing both on the pitch and off, with the official retirement of Ryan Giggs seeing the last player from the venerable “Class of ’92” hang up his boots. And, for the first time since 1986, when Alex Ferguson took charge(he wasn’t sir then), the Red Devils have seen two managers at the club in two consecutive seasons. David Moyes took charge at the start of the 2013/14 season, and Louis Van Gaal has been the face on bench since the start of the 2014/15 season.
Neither manager has made a positive impact with what was actually a weak team left by Sir Alex Ferguson. One question, with three parts, or, to make it simple we’ll break into three questions, must be asked given that outlook.
Was Sir Alex Ferguson that good of a manager that he could lead such a side to a title in his last season? If so, are his two successors not of the quality necessary to continue Manchester United’s, almost, unrivaled success? When can it be expected that Manchester United overcomes its current challenges?
Let’s take a look shall we.
Sir Alex Ferguson won the title in his last season at the club but was it all down to his managerial ability?
Some statistics tell the story during Ferguson’s last season at the club. The club won the title by 12-point margin which was thanks mainly to an attack led by newcomer, Robin van Persie. While the attack scored 86 goals, 11 more than the next highest scoring club, United’s defense let in 43. That meant they had the worst goals against average in the top four and, were it not for Tottenham, they would have had the worst in the top seven.
Such statistics point to a defense that was poor, though injuries have to be taken into account, and a midfield not able to control and dominate games.
The likes of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic were on a downward spiral, while Patrice Evra was still energetic but not as effective. The backups; Johnny Evans, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling etc, were okay at times but also not experienced enough, confident enough or consistent enough to make up for their senior counterparts.
The only real positive in midfield was the underrated consistency of Michael Carrick, who had Anderson, Tom Cleverley and an out-of-retirement, Paul Scholes for help. Had the club not signed Van Persie and gotten his league-leading 26 goals then they may have been out of the top four altogether.
But those weaknesses in defense and midfield were there a few seasons before, yet Ferguson was allowed, or commanded, that the club continued with what was available. It does seem that he was averse to making such changes given his recent comments on the clubs spending. Such stubbornness is akin to what Arsenal fans still face with Arsene Wenger despite the recent positives in London.
Ferguson persisted with the trio of Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, who were declining yearly and facing more injuries, with little attempt at top-level replacements.
Both Phil Jones and Chris Smalling arrived a year apart as potential replacements centrally but neither player has fulfilled his potential. Alex Buttner was supposed to cover for Patrice Evra but the Frenchman had a little resurgence to keep his spot. Rafael finally did solidify the right-back position but constant injuries meant that was still a problem position.
The midfield received little to no help at all, as Ferguson kept the likes of Anderson and Tom Cleverley hoping they would both finally take the next step. Neither has. He instead relied on Paul Scholes to come out of retirement to roll back the years along Michael Carrick.
And that’s where one has to consider Sir Alex Ferguson’s managerial ability. He managed to get an absolutely fantastic first season out of Robin Van Persie in 2012/13, somehow kept his midfield from being overrun on a weekly basis, and got his defense to tighten up when necessary. In essence, he used every ounce of his skills to squeeze good performances out of ageing or lesser quality players during those years.
Or was that all down to his reputation, temper, the referees(a certain Mr. Howard Webb in particular) and the infamous “Fergie time?”
One has to consider those factors helping in tight games with late winners, such as Southampton(away), Aston Villa(away), Manchester City(away) and Newcastle(home). Not to mention losses against Everton(away), Tottenham(home) and Norwich City(away) showcasing those weaknesses and dependencies in every third of the pitch.
Again, this is not to take away from Ferguson’s ability but it does offer interesting food for thought. No?
It’s not as if United had little opposition during that year either. The talent within the Manchester City and Chelsea squads should have produced more competition but those teams were also involved in other competitions for longer periods than United.
United were out of the Carling Cup early on, and were knocked out of the FA Cup by Chelsea in April.
Manchester City went on to the FA Cup final, though they were out of Europe before December and didn’t go far in the Carling Cup either. Chelsea reached the semifinals of both domestic competitions and won the Europa League so there’s evidence they were stretched a bit there.
Yet credit still has to be given where it’s due, and Ferguson did get to step down from the game while at the top. The warning signs were always there, though, and one still has to wonder whether the two managers after him, or any others, could have done what he did, or aren’t benefiting as he did due to his reputation and standing.
David Moyes wondering what he got himself into
David Moyes took charge of the club at the beginning of the 2013/14 season, and oversaw United’s worst finish in the Premier League era by coming in seventh. While Moyes was, as reported by of the BBC, Ferguson’s handpicked successor, such ineffectiveness could not be tolerated at one of the world’s biggest club.
Moyes was a surprise pick for the Manchester United job even though many expected him to move beyond Everton at some point in the near future. He was hand-picked by the golden arm of Sir Alex but did little to suggest he was ready for the task.
Despite the players smart words to the press, and the backing of the board, there was always a feeling of awkwardness at United while Moyes was in charge. It didn’t seem like he commanded the respect of his players and that began to show on the pitch, as the poor performances mounted from players old and new alike.
Moyes did make two big acquisitions during his time at the club, bringing Belgian midfielder, Marouane Fellaini, from Everton with him to help solidify the midfield, and Juan Mata to add creativity. The debate about Fellaini’s usefulness to the United cause was constant given that he spent his last season at Everton, and with Moyes, as a second striker and was quite productive in doing so.
United benefited from Jose Mourinho’s decision to discard Juan Mata as he didn’t fit into his system, and that signing was certainly a bright spot for Moyes. Aside from that, he did little to showcase any tactical flexibility or game-management those at United became so accustomed to under Ferguson and wobbled to seventh place in the Premier League.
His eventual departure was poorly handled, as news sites provided reports on the impending decision before the manager himself was notified, but almost inevitable despite his status as the Chosen One. He was literally chosen by one of the most illustrious managers in the game, Mourinho, but you weren’t.
Whether Moyes was too afraid to shake things up or unable to add the necessary talent beyond what he knew(Fellaini) and what fell into his lap(Mata), he certainly fails the litmus test in terms of managerial ability in comparison to Ferguson. One thought is that his failure to get almost an exact replica of Ferguson’s last team to perform well made the situation even more unbearable.
Is it his fault he was thrust into the limelight and expected to conjure Ferguson-like magic in the transfer market despite having little experience in dealing with the really big transfers? He also had little help from Ed Woodward, who was heading into his first season as the man to deal with transfer negotiations and salaries.
Had those personnel issues, or some of them at least, been fixed beforehand he may have done better. Or maybe not.
While it’s obvious to focus on the league performance during Moyes’ ill-fated reign, taking a look at all the competitions provide a different outlook.
Moyes actually did better than Ferguson in two competitions, reaching farther in the Carling Cup and Champions League while things got really tough in the Premier League. The return of a certain Jose Mourinho certainly made one competitor stronger in the league, not to mention Everton under Roberto Martinez, a somewhat revitalized Arsenal squad early on and the presence of a strong Manchester City side, who were eventual winners.
Moyes had to deal with all these factors during his first year in the biggest challenge of his managerial career.
So now he’s offering his expert opinion on failure, I mean football, on the television and possibly prompting a good many Red Devils fans to mute the telly at half-time.
Louis Van Gaal, the “serial winner,” is charged with turning things around at United.
Louis Van Gaal came in after leading the Netherlands to a surprise third-place finish at the 2014 World Cup, with many neutrals and Manchester United fans excited about his tactical acumen and experience.
Louis Van Gaal’s arrival was greeted with much excitement given his experience and pedigree in the game, and he wasted no time throwing Moyes under the bus by stating he received a “broken squad” from his predecessor while saying that following Ferguson would have been easier. Ouch.
If you think about it though, that was Van Gaal taking the attention away from himself and effectively stating that, “If things don’t start off wonderfully it’s because of that guy. I’m just trying to fix his mess.” He couldn’t have said that if he came after Ferguson.
Unlike the other two managers, Van Gaal has no Europe to contend with so expectations are higher on the domestic front. While he’s stated the club is not good enough to win the title, an assertion many would agree with, the Red Devils should be able to get into Europe and win a domestic cup.
One thing that does have to be considered is that the Dutch coach may never have faced such a big rebuilding process during his time at a club. Yes, that goes in line with his “broken squad” assertion but he is laying the blame on the wrong person.
When all are fit and accustomed to Van Gaal’s demands this is actually a good United side. How long that process will take is anybody’s guess. Van Gaal should be able to develop the likes of Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Adjan Jadnuzan, Luke Shaw and others while getting the best out of his experienced stars.
He has a similar aura to Ferguson, though he may not be as appreciated in Britain, and will be a commanding presence in the dressing room and on the field.
Given the activity this summer, Manchester United fans will expect to be back in Europe, meaning the Champions League, next season and challenging for the title again. That may not be too much to ask depending on how things go this season.
A look at Manchester United’s transfer activity this summer shows that there is indeed a good amount of talent now at the club. Additions in midfield and defense could still happen, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. The rating of 9/10 is still a bit high in my estimation, a seven would be more apt, as United may not be able to play Van Gaal’s preferred 3-4-1-2 with the requisite precision given the players currently available.
Van Gaal has moved further in strengthening the weak areas with both Ander Herrera and the versatile Danny Blind joining to help in midfield, as well as Angel Di Maria capable of playing further inside as you’ll see below in an analysis on Van Gaal’s tactical options.
The introduction of Luke Shaw, Marcos Rojo and, again, Blind help in the defense despite not being at the same level of Ferdinand when he joined.
ESPN FC’s Michael Cox takes a look at the tactical options available to Louis Van Gaal with the players at his disposal. Two such lineups are below, and both underline the quality available to him as well as the difficult task in selecting the best possible XI for each tactical setup.
These are rough ideas of the 4-3-1-2 and 3-4-1-2 formations most likely to be used by Van Gaal, I was a bit limited by the template I was using, and it’s certainly not the case that these specific players would play in these positions in either tactical setup.
So was Ferguson more capable than his successors?
It has to be a resounding yes in regard to Moyes even if he had been able to build a team more to his liking. He may have been ready for a bigger job but in hindsight it should not have been Manchester United. Van Gaal may not have the same stability as Ferguson but his resume certainly comes close to the Scotsman, and he’s dealt with a big club or two in his time.
Is the shell of a team that Ferguson left behind capable of regaining its former glory?
With Van Gaal in charge that is possible. Moyes needed, and maybe should have been given, more time but that’s not something you get at a club like United. Had the two arrivals been switched, Van Gaal first and Moyes second, then maybe things would be different. Maybe Manchester United would have been better off going for the marquee manager who spends little time at a club before moving on, such as Van Gaal or Jose Mourinho, then getting Moyes.
As an Arsenal fan, it’s interesting to see Manchester United in such a state but we are in a position to benefit. Well, if we had gotten a defender or two and a defensive midfielder too. The race for fourth place will be tougher than ever this year, and it’s almost as if you wish United wasn’t involved so the odds would be better.
It will be interesting to see where this United side is at the end of the season. At least we know they won’t be winning the title.
Until next time.