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Manchester United: Club In Crisis?
Just over a year ago I had written a quick upcoming season preview for all twenty of the Premiership teams and what I thought they could expect from the 2013/14 season. When it came to Manchester United I pointed out that the opening few games of the season could be cause for concern with the settling in period of David Moyes. A difficult trip to away Swansea would be followed by games against Chelsea and Liverpool before a visit to Manchester City would round off the first five league games of his tenure. One of the criticisms of Moyes heading into that season was the fact that although he spent money, it was on the wrong players. Marouane Fellaini came in at almost $45 million but in truth the squad inherited from Sir Alex was an aging one, and one in need of a major overhaul.
The rumors of the removal of David Moyes started shortly after the start of the season and never really went away. Despite the signing of Juan Mata in the January transfer window there was very little to quiet the noise from certain sections of the Old Trafford stands. Certainly a mirror image was forming at United which would eventually see history repeat itself with the replacement for the 25 year stay of Ferguson removed in a shorter space of time than the equally short (18 months) stay of Matt Busby’s replacement almost four decades earlier.
As the season rolled on, and as Easter approached, I wrote that maybe the United faithful should look across to their rivals Liverpool for inspiration and the fact that the ‘Chosen One’ could very well still be the ‘Chosen One’ if only time was allowed.
It was now obvious that there was a real chance that there was to be no European football at Old Trafford the following season and that, along with the League position, was not going down well at all. Fans were calling into radio talk shows and saying all kinds of crazy things from the fact that the club is too big for Moyes, he is out of his depth and has bitten off more than he can chew and more. Based on that one season alone, with all the negativity and the rebuild needed, of course it would be hard to argue. However, I would point out that not backing the manager at this crucial time could put Manchester United’s rebuild further behind schedule, and here’s why.
You have a manager who has not won any trophies, never been really tested in Europe and has come from a series of smaller clubs, but everyone knew this when he came in. So there must have been something that was seen in him, development of youth, tactical awareness, working on a budget, that appealed to the board and said ‘This is our man’. A reasonably young manager in charge of a massive club with worldwide appeal and the most likely finishing position is 7th is not a bad return for season one. Certainly it is not what people in the red half of Manchester would like to be reminded of, especially with a big rivals, Manchester City and Liverpool battling the title but at some point reality has to feature in the thinking.
But rewind the clock a bit more than a year and you would have heard a similar chorus of disapproval from the Liverpool fans about their Manager. Back then Brendan Rodgers was accused of not having the caliber to take on a job like Liverpool and the Liverpool fans were looking at no European football and finished 7th.
The Liverpool board backed their young manager in the transfer market and now they are reaping the rewards. Champions League is guaranteed right now and the Premiership title was within their grasp. Imagine if the Fenway Group had buckled under fans pressure and fired Brendan Rodgers a year ago. The fact is that football fans are a fickle lot and the same man who was the devil last season can be the savior the next.
We know that United didn’t back their manager and didn’t give him time to do a job of the difficulty the six year contract they gave him would suggest. Yes the financial impact on the club by not getting Champions League football was immense, but sometimes you have to handle the rough along with the smooth. Some United fans my age or younger haven’t known much rough, and so last season would have been not a nice experience but is the new man doing a better job? At the moment the answer would be no.
Louis Van Gaal, in the World Cup, had a side which was easy on the eye and a pleasure to watch. United fans were upbeat about the new season and so they should have been. Luke Shaw and Angel Di Mario joined a whole host of players at Old Trafford on permanent deals while a much sought after striker, Radamel Falcao also joined on loan. In total a whopping $230 million has been spent on players, which is five times the investment from last season at this time.
And yet, on the pitch, it could be argued that things have become worse. At this point last season, after five games, David Moyes had seven points from a possible fifteen and while that isn’t great it did include away games to the two sides challenging for the title at the end, Liverpool and Manchester City. This time around United have two points less and have not faced any of the top four sides or indeed any side finishing in the top ten last season! In fact three of the sides have only just been promoted to the Premier League. Surely, considering the investment of the two managers this season can so far be considered worse.
No Champions League either this season for Van Gaal, which is something David Moyes had to navigate. In fact, his first game in that competition was a year ago this past week and resulted in a 4-2 win at home to Bayer Levekusen which is an interruption to the domestic fixture list Van Gaal didn’t have. Only five days after that game and the David Moyes United had to travel to City in the League, this time around United traveled, without Champions
League distraction, to Leicester and give up a two goal lead not once, but twice!
In eighth position and only five points behind the league leaders would probably be snapped at by fans this season who find their side in twelfth position and eight points away from the league leaders, but that was exactly what David Moyes had for them this time last season. In fact now they are closer to the bottom placed team Newcastle than they are anyone in the top six and that has to be a concern, not only for the fans, but the money men at United.
Imagine another season without Champions League football at Old Trafford, which was financially hit after slipping up just once, and you have to ponder on what next?
Yes there is a long way to go and the table in September doesn’t matter as much as the table in May but consider this, last season the fourth placed side ended up with 79 points, the season before 73. In fact in recent years the lowest the points total for the fourth placed team has been 68 which means Manchester United already have a lot of catching up to do even at this early stage. Two points per game average is what is needed and at the moment the Red Devils are averaging just the one point. All is not lost, they are out of the League Cup (something David Moyes got to the Semi Final of last season by the way) and no Champions League. I would suggest that if things are still not fixed in January then a quick exit from the FA Cup may also be in order. Another dip into the transfer market may be risky for United if there is to be no Champions League football in 2015/16 and so the purse strings may not be as loose then as they were a month ago in order to protect the heavily debt ridden club.
Consider this also, after twelve league games last season Manchester United had 21 points in the bag. In order for Van Gaal to match or beat that total he needs to accumulate sixteen points from the available twenty one on offer. These games consist of Everton and Chelsea at Old Trafford and visits to Manchester City and Arsenal which means a win against at least three of these is needed if Manchester United are not going to head into a busy December behind the David Moyes total of last season.
The fact is that whether you acknowledge it or not and whether David Moyes was still in charge or Van Gaal or any other Manager, United was still an aging side and was still in need of an overhaul. This reality has not changed and will not change until you choose a Manager, back him financially and do not throw him under the bus just because the fans get a little hostile.
I do not think lessons have been learnt and I fully expect that if Van Gaal has a mid table Manchester United team come Christmas then he may also be on his way out before the end of the season, the disapproval from some quarters of Manchester United fans has already started to ring out and it will only get louder as the side transitions.
The ironic thing is that David Moyes had the best start to a Manchester United career of most of the legends. Even Sir Alex went a season or two before he picked up his first silverware and rumors are that his neck was on the line. The board stuck by their man and reaped the rewards in a quarter of a century of almost constant success. Before that, Sir Matt Busby went through a lean spell himself before going on that great successful run. Between these two most successful of Managers is a space of seventeen years, six different managers, only three FA Cups and a relegation and all indications are that United are in danger of walking down that very path once more.