Why Are Manchester United Not Among Europe’s Elite?
Manchester United suffered a 4-1 defeat against league leaders Manchester City in the Premier League on Sunday. The result provided two significant takeaways. One, how wide a gap there is in the quality of play between the crosstown rivals, and two, just how far away Manchester United is from the elite European clubs.
After finishing runners-up in the Premier League and Europa League last season, Manchester United supporters were optimistic that the club could build on those performances and mount a legitimate title challenge for the Premier League crown this season. These expectations were further reinforced after a strong summer transfer window that saw the arrival of Jadon Sancho, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Raphaël Varane. During the past six months, Manchester United has regressed rather than improved, making fans debate where to place blame on what’s causing this tumultuous season.
In years past, when poor results accrued, a finger has always been pointed at the manager – the individual tasked with preparing and setting up the team. Since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013 – David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and Ralph Rangnick have struggled to succeed. This continual pattern of sign, spend, then sack poses the question; are the suitable structures in place at the club to support and enable the manager’s ambitions? The answer has been no.
Manchester United has had five legitimate managers in the last nine seasons. Four of them have been sacked before their contract could finish, with the fifth and current manager signing only a six-month interim deal. These managers have come to United with proper reputations following previous successes at other clubs. Yet none of them have led Manchester United to sustained success.
There is a strong movement against the current ownership of Manchester United. However, regardless of your sentiments towards the Glazer family, they have overseen sizeable investment into the first-team squad. Manchester United has the highest net transfer spend across the world’s biggest clubs in the last decade, totaling over one billion euros spent. Where the ownership is at fault is for whom they give power. The Glazers haven’t put in place qualified individuals to lead this club forward. Sir Alex Ferguson was essentially the head of everything football-related at Manchester United during his tenure because he’s widely considered the greatest manager of all time. He was the Director of Football, the Technical Director, and the first-team head coach. When Ferguson retired, he left a gaping hole in the leadership at Manchester United, and the club didn’t look to break down his responsibilities into several positions. Ferguson was an exception to the rule, and nowadays, football clubs are operated differently. In 2022, no all-encompassing job to run the football operations is given to one individual. Instead, the most successful clubs in Europe have a hierarchical structure: with the football departments consisting of a triad leadership team including a Director of Football, a Technical Director, and a first-team manager. This modernized approach delegates responsibility and diversifies opinion.
Following Ferguson’s departure from Manchester United, all of his responsibilities (minus coaching) were assumed by Ed Woodward – an accountant by trade with no prior footballing leadership experience. Woodward was given the position of Executive Vice Chairman in 2013 due to his longstanding relationship with the Glazer family. When Woodward was at JP Morgan & Co, he helped engineer the current owners’ leveraged buyout of Manchester United in 2005. The decision made by the Glazers to place faith in an accountant to be the chief executive of Manchester United coincided with a nine-year period of turmoil and mediocrity. Woodward recently resigned after the fallout of the failed European Super League, a project he played a significant role in planning. Since then, the club has gone through a period of restructuring. While the positions of Director of Football (John Murtough) and Technical Director (Darren Fletcher) were implemented by the club in 2021, they’ve been filled by candidates with no prior experience in these roles. You would think a club of Manchester United’s size and stature in the game would have leadership deemed to be the best in class – but this just isn’t the case.
With that said, it’s important to draw positives from this restructure. The club is attempting to modernize its leadership structure in the wake of Woodward’s departure. Darren Fletcher and John Murtough have been around the club for a long time, and it’s been reported that Richard Arnold, Manchester United’s new CEO, is giving more autonomy to those involved in the footballing decisions of the club. It would appear that Manchester United is trying to enact change, however, it will take time to see if these efforts bear fruitful.
Truthfully, I’m not holding my breath. Until Manchester United places faith in the right people to make the right decisions, this club shouldn’t be considered amongst Europe’s elite.