Have United lost its soul?
After two decades of unprecedented success under the meticulous guidance of Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United quite literally stared into the abyss last season as they came to terms with the disappointments of life after the most successful football manager in British football history.
September 17th, 2014
On the face of it, United seemed to have things under control when Sir Alex seamlessly handed over the baton to his chosen successor in May 2013.
However, the problems within the club ran deeper than anyone had ever admitted despite the majority recognising some ominous signs.
During a short and somewhat disastrous spell at the club, Moyes’ United dropped out of Europe’s Elite for the first time since 1995 with Moyes blaming everything from bad luck to player harmony and commitment. (He never mentioned how the dynamic between a group of winners being led by a perennial loser worked; but that’s another story.)
Fast-forward twelve months and the real reasons for United’s demise as a force, even in its own league let alone in Europe, have been brutally exposed by lowly MK Dons in a fairly meaningless League Cup tie.
Choosing to field a team filled with players he deemed many things other than good enough, Van Gaal gave opportunities to players with a view to hanging themselves. Why? Because he knew those players were not up to the required standard to play for Manchester United and would soon be on their way out to be replaced by better players, it’s that simple and they proved him right.
There’s a grain of sympathy here for Moyes as it appears Ed Woodward and Co learned from the mistakes they made in the summer of 2013, which it could (very tenuously) be argued cost Moyes a crack at the title, rectifying them to Van Gaal’s benefit in 2014, although you have to admit Van Gaal has played the game far more cunningly than his predecessor could ever have dreamt about. But what’s the real story? Why have Manchester United had to invest nearly £200m on players in 2014 whilst allowing lifelong Academy graduates to leave through the back door at the same time?
Have United lost its soul or has it just finally entered modern day football? With the deadline-day departures of Danny Welbeck (Arsenal), Tom Cleverley (Aston Villa) and Tom Lawrence (Leicester City) – who all joined the club at circa 10yrs old – some observers suggest it has lost its soul, with Gary Neville being the most high profile of them to voice his concerns whilst brother Phil also spoke about it during his recent visit to SoccerEx.
Whatever anyone thinks about the sale of players who graduated via the clubs own system, the fact of the matter is – the quality within the squad was neglected for many, many, many years and everyone knew it. The fact the vast majority of Academy players were still unable to make their way into the first team during this time is further proof there’s work to be done to improve the infrastructure. Selling homegrown talent may go against what the club stands for, but selling players who simply are not good enough, isn’t.
However, the club need not look far to find the real culprit for the drop in standards. Itself.
In years gone by United had always pinpointed the best players and gone after them with ruthless efficiency, assisted by their ability to financially outmuscle the selling club whilst safe in the knowledge there were very few clubs who could, would or even dared to compete with them.
That was; until the emergence of rich owners changed the football landscape forever, players now had more choice than ever before. United failed to adapt to the cash revolution, instead opting to allow complacency to replace efficiency, opting to ignore the obvious signs the club was only continuing to be successful thanks to a man the football world has never seen the likes of before, and opting to cross their fingers and hope all would just…be okay and continue as normal. How wrong they were.
Ferguson was of course somewhat culpable for neglecting certain areas of the squad as he arguably lost his edge for spotting players as he approached his retirement but, and this is a very big but here, he continued to win trophies right to the end of his tenure. Why should he care what happens next? He’s handed over a squad full of winners, what more should he be expected to do?
In the summer of 2013, Manchester United and all its decision makers knew the squad needed strengthening but they hesitated, not because of the owners or a lack of available funds, but due to a reluctance to join this modern day phenomenon of investing huge swathes of cash on the one thing it prides itself on producing for itself, from within the confines of its Manchester and Salford roots.
Selling those graduates will – without doubt – have served the club a huge warning but it’s taken the necessary short-term steps into modern day football by investing heavily on Falcao, Di Maria, Blind, Mata, Herrera, Shaw and Rojo to improve its chances of re-entering European football without a second painful year outside of it, with a view to never letting it happen again in an increasingly difficult climate.
‘Relying on’ and ‘believing in’ homegrown talent has never been so risky, but, in my opinion, the club has never and will never lose its soul or its lust to produce players for United and the surrounding football world to admire and worship. Long-term however, the club’s aim MUST be to improve the quality of its graduates to ensure its reputation amongst the world’s most productive academies remains intact, or then risk jeopardising its soul by being unable to give youth a chance.