Why Successors to Sir Alex Ferguson Haven’t Worked Out

Manchester United, one of the biggest football clubs in the world, was largely defined by Sir Alex Ferguson. During his 26-year tenure, Ferguson won 38 trophies and became one of the best coaches in football history.  United have struggled to replace the legendary Scot (who stepped down in 2013), with the five successive managers achieving limited success. The current man in charge, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, is a former player for Ferguson and is on managerial loan from Molde of his native country Norway.

During his time at the Red Devils, Sir Alex Ferguson cultivated the identity with that became synonymous with the club. The “United Way” was based around attacking football that utilized the width of the pitch, talented wingers that lifted viewers off their seats, and instilled a “never-say-die” mentality that the team could beat anyone. In addition, the Scotsman instilled a sense of trust in the academy that saw the integration of academy players into the first-team. This was famously exemplified by Fergie’s iconic “Class of ‘92”, when David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Gary and Phil Neville, Nicky Butt, and Ryan Giggs among others emerged from the Academy and propelled United to English footballing dominance during the 1990s. Thanks in part to this special group of players, Fergie built United into a global superclub and won nearly every trophy imaginable. When he retired in 2013, Ferguson was responsible for winning an unprecedented thirteen league titles, two UCL titles, five FA Cups, two UCL trophies, and four league cups.

The David Moyes Era

In 2013, David Moyes was appointed as Ferguson’s replacement, after being hand-picked by Ferguson himself. Moyes was given a six-year contract as a testament to the trust in him from United and reaffirmed the club’s institutional belief in managerial patience. Despite the confidence in the former Everton manager, Moyes was sacked before the end of his first season in charge. The team fell way below expectations and ended the 2013-2014 Premier League season in seventh place, twelve months removed from winning the title.

David Moyes

A major issue was that Moyes didn’t have the right mindset for the job at hand. During his time at Everton, the club consistently punched above their weight on a limited budget. Moyes stabilized the club, and continuously finished in the upper half of the league table, and some instances, challenged for the European places.

Managing Manchester United, on the other hand, is a different beast entirely.

The club is expected to challenge for every trophy and to play with swagger and confidence. Instead of focusing on the collective strengths of the team,  Moyes often chose to highlight the strengths of the opposition, a stark contrast to Ferguson’s famous motivational tactics.  After suffering a 3-0 loss to bitter city rivals Manchester City, Moyes explained that United should model themselves after City, stating “…it’s the sort of standard and level we need to try and aspire to get ourselves to at this moment in time”.   The acceptance of dominance by a rival would have been unheard of during the Ferguson reign. Conversely, Ferguson delivered a short team talk to his players before a match against Tottenham,  famously uttering “Lads, its Tottenham”, before quickly departing the dressing room.

But, it must be said the “Chosen One” was left with an aging squad lacking in sufficient quality. Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Ryan Giggs, Anderson, Fabio, Alexander Buttner, and others were all either past their prime or weren’t able to step up enough for the new coach. Other issues, such as an overreliance on Robin Van Persie, and  Wayne Rooney’s conflicted relationship with the club all contributed to his downfall. Ryan Giggs took up the caretaker role to finish off the season, and although it went reasonably well, it was not nearly enough to be considered for the full-time position.

Louis Van Gaal and the Return to the Top Four

Instead, that was awarded to Louis Van Gaal, a Dutch coach with a proven track record. Having enjoyed success in the Netherlands, Germany, and the Dutch squad at the 2014 World Cup (where they finished in third place), Van Gaal seemed like a great manager to get Manchester United back to its best. Big-name signings such as Marcos Rojo, Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao strengthened the team, while Buttner, Ferdinand, Vidic, and more went out the door.

The team started out slow before an explosion of goals came. However, that was short-lived. In a match against newly-promoted Leicester City, United threw away a two-goal advantage and highlighted defensive frailties in the side. This brought about a change in mentality from Van Gaal, who began to favor a more pragmatic approach, as he feared that the team wasn’t strong enough defensively to handle being on the front foot. This hurt Di Maria’s form and led to his eventual transfer to Paris-Saint Germain. Yet, the club improved and finished in fourth place.

Louis van Gaal

In the following season, Manchester United failed to get out of a favorable UCL group and was demoted to the Europa League. There, they scrapped by Danish side Midtjyilland, before being knocked out by eternal rivals Liverpool. By the end of the season, the Red Devils won the FA Cup, but finished fifth in the league, and meant no return to Europe’s most prestigious club competition. Once again, the team fell below expectations of the club and the manager was sacked.

The Special One Comes to Old Trafford

During the summer of 2016,  Jose Mourinho became the next man to assume the United hot seat. Perhaps an odd choice for United, the Portuguese manager was seen as an individual who could bring immediate short-term success in order to ease the transition of a long-term successor.

In a sense, he was anti-United in a variety of ways. The self-proclaimed “Special One” prioritizes results over style and substance, relying on a sturdy backline and an organized team committed to defending and counterattacking. In addition, Mourinho’s legendary ego had often soured relationships with players, staff, and board members at previous clubs. Despite all these reasons to search for an answer elsewhere, Mourinho got the job.

Jose Mourinho

Major signings like Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic were brought in, while Van Gaal signings including Memphis Depay, were sold. Although the team struggled in the league, they did win the EFL Cup, and more importantly, the Europa League in May 2017. Despite finishing sixth in the league, the Europa League triumph granted them a coveted spot in the UCL. In the following season,  improvements were made in the league as United finished in second, but a Round of 16 elimination in the UEFA Champions League against weaker opposition in Sevilla became a concern.

Despite being the clear favorites to advance, Mourinho’s team hardly resembled as they struggled to create chances between both legs. Following their elimination, the former Chelsea manager went on an infamous rant decrying United’s recent failings in the tournament. Mourinho outlined the stages of elimination per season, league finishes, and even went as far as stating how he himself had even beaten Manchester United with his previous clubs in European competition. His ego was on show for all to see and although some argue it was to deflect from his team’s failure, it went against a sentiment created by Sir Alex Ferguson that no person is bigger than the club. Mourinho’s fiery statements maneuvered himself above the issues that riddled United and attempted to absolve himself from blame, rather than defend the club.

Third Season Syndrome Strikes Again

By the start of this season,  Mourinho’s infamous “third season syndrome”  was in full swing. After falling out with the board, Mourinho added Brazilian midfielder Fred as the lone signing of the summer. Rumors of an ongoing search for a sporting director emerged and suggested that faith in Mourinho was fading. Clashes with players such as Paul Pogba, who had become frustrated with the incessant public criticism thrown at him by Mourinho, divided the dressing room. Poor results in the league meant that United was on course for their worst Premier League finish in their history.

Mourinho’s continual displays making it appear as if everything is about him well and truly epitomizes the issue that was always going to be his downfall – his ego. After a 3-0 loss to Tottenham Hotspur in August,  Mourinho implied that the scoreline not only represents the margin of defeat, but also the number of Premier League titles he’s won, which he then proceeded to point out was greater than the number won by all the other managers in the league at the time combined. 

Later, the trend continued. Following a home win against Juventus, he signaled how he had won a treble with Inter Milan in response to abuse from the away fans. All of these problems culminated into the decision to sack Mourinho in December.  Since then, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has come and overseen an improvement in the club’s performances and results.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

Boardroom Turmoil

Ferguson’s retirement in 2013 wasn’t only key administrative departure that year. Influential chief executive David Gill also left the club, after spending nearly sixteen years at United. Gill was a central figure in handling the administrative footballing decisions (contract renewals, transfers, etc). When he left, Ed Woodward, United’s executive vice-chairman, assumed Gill’s responsibilities and continued to maintain his role in running the “business side” of the club. While his strength lies in commercial dealings (as evidenced by the number of highly profitable deals that Manchester United regularly announces), Woodward isn’t nearly as effective on the football side of operations.

Last season when Mourinho was beginning to express discontent, Woodward offered the Portuguese manager a contract extension, which in turn, handed Mourinho negotiating power over the club. Mourinho hadn’t done anything to merit a contract extension given his failures in Europe, issues with his players, and his tendency to jump to a new club after a few seasons. The contract extension would add a layer of financial difficulty to Mourinho’s firing, based on the significant payout that was owed to the manager upon his dismissal. 

Likewise,  United have struggled to attract star talent to Old Trafford, despite the constant rumor mill merry-go-round that’s been presented in the press over the past few seasons. The likes of Toni Kroos, Cesc Fabregas, and Gareth Bale have been some of the big names that have reportedly passed on joining United in recent years.

Is it Woodward’s fault?  Of course not. But it underlines the fact that the transition after Ferguson was always going to be difficult, especially with Gill departing alongside him.  Ferguson’s retirement led to decisions that weakened the team, reducing the once-mighty sway for potential new signings.

Nowadays, being pursued by Manchester United carries a larger financial motivation over the potential for winning trophies, as shown by the signing of Alexis Sanchez. Sanchez was eager to join Manchester City before United offered him more money, and that was that. Perhaps that speaks more to the player himself, or it screams transition for the current state of Manchester United, in that their enormous financial power is now a greater factor in attracting big names as opposed to the trophy-laden successes during the Ferguson era.

With Ferguson disciple Ole Gunnar Solskjaer now being linked to the permanent managerial position, things may be about to change. Regardless of whether he is chosen or not, the decision regarding the next full-time manager (and first-ever sporting director) will be crucial to reversing the fortunes of a once-elite football team. If Manchester United are to return to the pinnacle of world football, they must avoid the mistakes of their recent past.


Photo Citations, in order of appearance:

  1. By Andrea Sartorati – Manchester – Old Trafford – Manchester United vs Crawley Town, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15566438
  2. By Giovanni Batista Rodriguez from España – ., CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42548342
  3. By Louis-van-gaal2.jpg: Paul blankderivative work: kaʁstn Disk/Cat – Louis-van-gaal2.jpg, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15380398
  4. By Aleksandr Osipov from Ukraine – José Mourinho / Жозе Моуринью, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45105917
  5. By Tor Atle Kleven – Flickr: Ole Gunnar Solskjær, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15304570

 

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