England Opinion

Manchester United – A Shadow of its former self

It has been 7 years since Sir Alex Ferguson won his last English Premier League trophy and gave his farewell speech at Old Trafford. In the years proceeding, Manchester City have won the league three times, Chelsea have done so twice, Liverpool broke their 30-year drought to win it last season and Leicester City had a fairytale run to become champions in 2016. Manchester United however have only come close once which can be deemed as an overstatement considering they finished in second place that season 19 points behind local rivals and eventual Champions Manchester City. In theory they were close but in reality they were so so far from it.

Manchester United have hired four new managers since Ferguson retired and have shelled out over a billion pounds on new signings with nothing really major to show for it. Given the investment, its hard to understand the real reason behind this but what we do know is that the one constant during these years has been the Glazer Family. According to the global market research agency Kantar, Manchester United is the most popular sports club in the world, boasting a worldwide fan and follower base of 1.1billion, an increase of over 400 million since a similar survey was conducted in 2012. It is undoubtedly the clubs rich history of winning that has drawn such a large global following. However it seems somewhat ironic then that the current strategy at Manchester United sees them moving away from the winning identity that put them in the position and has them adopting one which only sees a need to invest in the club when necessary so as to protect the value of the brand or to get Champions League football. Once achieved however the club appears to take that investment away until it struggles again, then it invests and the cycle repeats itself.

This was once a club that had Premier League winning ambitions every season but now appears happy with a top 4 finish so as it suits their current strategy. For outsiders looking in, the amount of money spent over the past seven years shouldn’t be a cause for complain but when put into context, you can see how misleading this outlay of money actually is. Firstly, none of it has come out of the Glazers’ finances. They had cleverly leveraged their debt unto the club during the acquisition using a leverage buyout plan in 2005. A LBP is a means of buying an asset by borrowing money against said future asset. This means that the Glazers have not invested a single dime of their own money into the club. Instead, the money the club has made over the period of time they have been owners has been used while also helping paying off their debt at the same time. If you take a look at the two graphics below from Transfermarket.com, it breaks United’s total spend into 3 sections which show United only being outspent by newly Roman Abramovich acquired Chelsea in the eight years before the Glazers bought the club. In the next graphic we can see Man Utd being completely outspent by Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Spurs once the Glazers takeover happened and with Sir Alex Ferguson still at the helm. The final graphic shows the state or play post Ferguson which sees Man Utd being dominated by Man City and Chelsea during these past 7 years.

Pre Glazers
Glazers ownership with Ferguson in charge
Glazers ownership after Ferguson.

In my opinion, Manchester United’s spending has been irresponsible and has been carried out by people unfit for the job as they still lack a Director of Sports at the helm. Breaking it down season by season, it has been a cycle of the same thing over the span of 7 seasons with the club hiring a new manager, backing him enough to gain entry to the Champions League, then pulling back investment and sacking the manager when Champions League is not then achieved.

Going back to the 2013/2014 season post Ferguson, David Moyes signed only Marouane Fellaini in the summer after publicly chasing a host of unattainable targets and added only Juan Mata in January with the team languishing below the Champions League places. With the fans beginning to turn on Moyes due to the boring football Manchester United were playing, he was eventually sacked. Man Utd finished 7th that year and missed out on the Champions League, change was needed and a new coach was hired in the form of Louis Van Gaal to transform its fortunes. The club backed this move with some real investment put in as the pattern will show. The club signed seven players in total, costing close to £176 million outspending everyone with Angel Di Maria being the marquee signing. The season was a success according to this model as Man Utd finished 4th and got back into the Champions League. The following summer saw a large amount of players signed but at the same time there were some players who were questionably sold including Angel Di Maria which was a key signing the season before. It was like taking one step forward and two steps back which ended up having a negative effect on the team. They finished the season as FA Cup winners but the season was deemed to be a disappointment with boring football and a lack of Champions League qualification earning Louis Van Gaal the sack immediately the FA cup final whistle was blown.

Once again a new face needed to be brought in to helm the next phase of this Manchester united evolution and the team went big by signing the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba at a world transfer fee while also bringing in Jose Mourinho as the manager to steer this ship to the right course. And to their credit, this almost worked to a tee. The team had its most successful period to date during this 2016/2017 season as they won the Community Shield, EFL Cup and the Europa League whilst also managing to qualify for the Champions League. This season is the only one where there is a break in the pattern which has been established for the past four years as Mourinho was backed again with acquisitions of Lukaku, Matic, Lindelof and Alexis Sanchez which ultimately led United to their highest finish post Ferguson. But unfortunately they weren’t good enough as they lost out on the league to Manchester City in the league which Mourinho labelled his “Greatest Achievement Ever” and ultimately lost to  Chelsea in the FA cup. It was a good season on a holistic view and the board should have backed the manager once again which could have yielded a very fruitful outcome. Sadly, the club resorted back into their old ways and failed Mourinho in the transfer market with the manager coming out publicly to criticize the lack of investment that following summer. United were the 10th biggest spenders in league which set a toxic atmosphere in the locker room which led to a doomed season under their bitter coach.

Mourinho was eventually sacked and replaced by United legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and although he ended up missing out on the top four, hope was once again brought into the Theatre of Dreams, with substantial investment being put in the following season. Ole was able to get United back into the Champions League and getting them to three cup semi finals really made it look like there was a bright future ahead of them. However the recent showings in the transfer market currently does not bode well for the current manager as his top target Jadon Sancho was not signed after being courted all summer. It seems like United have reverted back into their old ways once more and are having to make last minute signings to bolster their squad. The season may end up going better than expected but from their previous history and recent pattern it is more likely United are going to continue to fail to invest when needed. It suits their model to do so and although it might keep them ahead financial wise, the club as a football powerhouse will remain in the desolate wasteland it has come to inhabit over the past seven years. All the fans can do is hope and pray that structurally something changes to ensure their  league drought doesn’t last as long as their greatest rival Liverpool once did.

Post by Ani Chukwuebuka. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram

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