There was something in Sir Alex Ferguson’s answer that was instructive to the fiasco Manchester United now has on its hands, in the first days of the post-Jose Mourinho era.
A fair few years ago, when the Scot was already the dean of soccer managers but still a ways from retiring, he was asked the secret to his longevity. And of the longevity of his success, as he’d just wrapped up a 12th Premier League title in two decades.
The longevity was its secret to success, Ferguson argued. He and his staff, which saw remarkably little turnover during his 27 years at the helm of the club, from 1986 through 2013, had been through so much that nothing could really stump them anymore. To every possible problem, they’d already found a solution that could be re-applied now.
And that may well have been true. The results certainly suggest that it was. Under Ferguson, United became a powerhouse on the field while learning how to monetize all that silverware off it and building a seemingly insurmountable lead over its rivals.
But in a lot of ways, that longevity is also the catalyst to the club’s inexorable downward spiral since Ferguson’s retirement. In the post-Ferguson era, United has finished seventh, fourth, fifth, sixth and second in the Premier League, while never getting further in the Champions League than the quarterfinals. The last time United had placed outside the top three under Ferguson was 1990-91.
The trouble is, during all that success, United forgot to calibrate the soccer side of its business to the advances of the modern game. In that way, the Red Devils very much remained a one-man club. Ferguson handled it all, eventually delegating the actual day-to-day coaching while still maintaining control over the big decisions. Ferguson did the transfers deals. Or chief executive David Gill did them on his behalf, on Ferguson’s instruction.
It all worked so well that nobody stopped to ask if United should move with the times and build a more elaborate player recruitment apparatus. Its rivals certainly did, albeit in fits and starts. It was slow going at Arsenal, also under the sway of a longtime manager with no interest in ceding control in Arsene Wenger. Liverpool’s infamous transfer committee flopped, before it finally got things right in the last few years. It took Manchester City a long while to figure out how to spend its new riches properly. They all got there in the end.
When Ferguson retired, so did Gill. He was replaced by Ed Woodward, an investment banker still fairly new to the game – let alone handling transfers.
United now had a massive void, both in its locker room and on the player market. It filled it with David Moyes, who had outperformed his means at Everton for a decade but had no experience at a big club. He became manager because Ferguson picked him. Because, well, there was really nobody else to make the decision. There were a lot of similarities between Ferguson and Moyes, seemingly a younger version of his fellow Scotsman, only without, you know, the trophies.
Moyes signed a six-year contract and lasted not quite nine months. Woodward struggled to get him the players he asked for, to rejuvenate the aging squad Ferguson had coaxed to a final – yet comfortable – league title.
Louis van Gaal was then recruited, on the back of a surprising run with the Netherlands to the World Cup semifinals. But the imperious Dutchman was well-known to do much better with young talent than arrived stars, and his recruitment record is checkered at best. His two seasons delivered no improvement as the squad, under Woodward’s supervision and with the input of a now-revolving cast of managers, became a muddled mess.
Finally, Mourinho. He was hired in the summer of 2016 and fired on Monday, fully 19 points behind arch rivals Liverpool and with a goal difference of exactly zero through 17 league games.
Mourinho had coveted the job for a decade. But he was, in a lot of ways, the worst kind of manager for the club. For starters, his crashing hubris rankled at a club that had built a global brand out of an understated sort of dominance, even as a fiery Ferguson was himself capable of undermining the regal air that he cultivated around his team.
What’s more, Mourinho thrives in squads that are mostly assembled by others and on the verge of their peaks. At United, he got a grab-bag of young and old players; perhaps too much control over the transfer budget; and a team desperately in need of direction and identity. He provided neither. And while he sanctioned four of the club’s five most expensive transfers ever, he oversaw the startling decline of Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku while hardly ever using his big summer signing, Fred.
There was nobody there to correct the course. There was no structure above Mourinho to oversee and check and guide him. In the year 2018, when soccer clubs have ballooned into corporations, Mourinho was left to his own devices, answering only to an executive whose record in the game begs questions about his suitability.
Mourinho had little help and he didn’t help himself. The roaring blaze he left behind in Manchester likely makes him unemployable to most every big club. But the destruction is mutual. Because United will have difficulty in convincing one of the few truly qualified managers to take on a rebuilding project of this task, and one with the expectation of immediate results at that.
Because the root causes for the Mourinho debacle – and the van Gaal debacle, and the Moyes debacle – are still untreated. United is club without a framework. Without protocols and systems. Without a philosophy.
Manchester United just has problems. And a lot of money. But quite possibly not enough of the latter to fix all of the former.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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