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United ‘doing an Arsenal’
I wonder if Sunday will be a watershed moment for a swathe of United fans? That they finally begin to accept that they’ve ‘been doing a late Wenger Arsenal’?
In September 2020, I wrote in to F365 with a mail about why Man United were no longer ‘top dog’. It occurs that a couple of excerpts from it may be relevant given the reaction to the Liverpool drubbing. They are as follows:
“I have been impressed with nearly all of the United mails since ‘that’ display on Saturday night. As we all expect on here, they have been mostly rational and realistic. As the only City fan in a United family, they’ve reflected the kind of reasonable viewpoints I’ve grown up with. Which is timely as I think the penny has finally dropped for some that, not only are United not ‘Top Dog’ anymore, they haven’t been for years…..”
“I don’t say that with a sneer or accompanied with a Simpson’s “Haw haw”. Quite the opposite”.
“Yesterday, Garey Vance made some typically excellent points as to why his team put on such a poor showing and I commend him for his defence of his club. With respect to him though, I believe he is a member of the last bastion of Utd fans that think all is still well and the club is still just a couple of signings away from regaining their past status. This simply isn’t going to happen.
Last Thursday or Friday Andy Goldstein (Utd fan for those not acquainted with either the radio channel or the man) was on ShoutSport drivetime. And, on this primetime slot, told an incredulous Darren Bent that, if United signed Sancho (just him btw, nobody else) they would be genuine PL title contenders this season. No, he really did”.
“Yes, I know this is the first weekend of the new season (Garey’s points apply). Yes, I know the transfer window hasn’t closed yet and, therefore, everything may change. My contention is that neither of these points are relevant.
United aren’t in a mess because they haven’t signed anybody else of the clear quality of VDB in this window (so far). And it’s not just that Woodward is a football f*ckwit (although most of it lies at his door). Nor because OGS is inept. He’s a nice guy but, as a fellow mailer pointed out, you have to dig REALLY deep to find a single player he has improved. Bluntly, he isn’t a PL title winning manager.
United are in a mess because of a seven year ‘perfect storm’ of toxicity including poor managerial appointments, a patently non-existent transfer/club ‘strategy’ other than ‘buy big & shiny’ to assure investors that Utd are still relevant, and the fact that other clubs, in their stead, have done and planned the opposite”.
To repeat, that was written 13 months ago. What, exactly, has changed since?
And why did I say they are ‘doing a late Wenger Arsenal?’
1. A Board more interested in profits than football.
2. Supporters split between the manager being given more time and those that want him sacked, with the latter growing in number and vocality.
3. Years of poor player purchases and huge sums wasted on those that, frankly, were simply not needed.
4. A fan expectation regression to the point that gaining a top four slot, but not actually winning silverware was/is acceptable. The so-called Top Four Trophy.
The thing is, is that Solskjaer is exactly what he was initially hired to be. A caretaker manager. Somebody brought in to steady the ship and inject some much-needed optimism after the Jose drudge. And he did. But it tells you all you need to know about what’s wrong at Old Trafford that it was decided to give him a permanent contract. Right there.
The entire problem with Utd now isn’t that of whether or not to sack OGS. It’s the fact that the current owners/board have consistently shown a complete inability to do anything other than ‘safe’ (by that read ‘completely wrong’) managerial appointments and buying marquee players that the club just doesn’t need. That there is no plan other than to make money. Headlines about Ronaldo shirt sales or the club share price going up at the same time anybody?
Everybody but some United fans know how that’s going to end.
Mark (Fire, hire, spend big, repeat) MCFC
Spice Boys Mk II
As an LFC fan, it would be easy to look at Sunday’s result and get in touch with all my Utd supporting friends and replay some of the pre-season boasts about how Sancho was the missing piece and Ronaldo was more than just a luxury signing. I shan’t, however and will rather mention a couple of things which have occurred to me as I reflect/bask in where LFC is now (but won’t be forever) and, by extension, how Utd have ended up where they are.
In particular, I was thinking of the journey that LFC went on following the end of Kenny Dalglish’s era at the club through to getting the appointment of Klopp and the undoubted parallels between the LFC ‘spice boys’ (which has a very different slant in 2021 than it did in 1996) who converged upon the club after approximately 5/6 years of mismanagement and decline. At the helm of the Spice Boys was boot-room legend Roy Evans – a man who understood the DNA of the club as well as anyone and who would have responsibility for correcting the mistakes of another club legend who understood the DNA of the club… Evans presided over a mix of expensively assembled British defensive talent (for AWB, Shaw and Harry Maguire, read record breaking Mark Wright John Scales and Neil Ruddock), talented but somewhat disappointing midfield options (McT/Fred/Lingard? I’ll give you Ince/Redknapp/Thomas/Leonhardsen – disappointing for different reasons) as well as a few local, homegrown prodigies (for Rashford and Greenwood there is a McManaman and a Fowler), there was even one legendary goal-scoring striker (Ronaldo versus the oft forgotten and underrated Ian Rush), a keeper who was an incredible shot-stopper but with little else to his game (Davids De Gea and James) and an expensively purchased forward player who could win a game or just be anonymous (Bruno or Pogba as Stan Collymore a bit of a stretch maybe).
I think the point I’m building to is that this is quite a dangerous mix of players in that you have a group of players some of whom feel somewhat entitled (whether by big-money paid for them/big wages or a history of success) mixed with others who probably know they aren’t good enough as well as some precocious youngsters. But the core issue is that these players all overseen by someone (Evans or Ole) with an eye on what the club used to be and a desire to get back to that but no real, understanding that going backwards won’t work in a sport that changes so constantly. Both teams had/have players capable of big moments and performances but, ultimately, the anchor of that history keeps weighing heavy.
LFC soft-landed a figure, in the much missed Gerard Houllier, free from that weight and with a clear “5 year plan” to move forward and that is exactly the type of manager that Utd need. Someone who will dispense with the ego (Ince, Ruddock etc) and make the best decisions for the direction he wants the club to go. Selling Robbie Fowler, for instance, was not a popular decision (and, given he was my hero, I’m not sure one I’ll ever forgive) but it helped move the club forward by prioritising the system (which worked better with Heskey and Owen) over the player. Signing Ronaldo was absolutely not the best decision for Utd and, arguably, hamstrings them in terms of systems that they could usefully deploy, similarly (as someone else pointed out) Varane is a quite excellent player but pairing him with Harry Maguire is an odd choice and smacks of going for the name over the system. There are even parallels with Rashford in a sense, whilst a cracking player on his day (and a frankly wonderful person every day), he seems to not quite fit a style and, to me, him being moved on could benefit player (free from trying to carry his boyhood club whilst learning the game) and club (who could actually try and play 11 players who deserve to play rather than players who Ole thinks have to play because of some baggage. When Houllier came in, he changed the ethos of the club and took us forward in every way, discarding the past with an enthusiasm that felt, at the time, almost disrespectful but ultimately proved to be the catalyst for Liverpool becoming an excellent side who challenged in the league (albeit sporadically) and could beat anyone on their day (hence all of those cup wins). I feel that Utd now need to make the decision to do this and actually try the one thing they haven’t since Fergie retired, a visionary manager with a clear playing identity and who is free to cast off the history and take the club forward.
Ultimately the Houllier time at Liverpool ended up with Gerard being moved on with the sense he had taken the club as far as he had but it should not be forgotten how far forward he took them – Ole is only looking, and only taking Utd backwards.
Tom (has never put his daughter’s feet in his mouth)
An utterly shambolic club
Today, and over the course of this week, there will be many people having a pop at Solskjaer. All of it is completely fair. He’s completely out of his depth and nowhere near the calibre of manager Man United need. However, it’s also worth reflecting on just how bad the club has been run over the last few years.
Let’s begin with one of the most important jobs for those running a club. Picking the manager. Somehow, the Man United board have made 4 spectacularly bad choices in a row (3 if we’re being generous).
Firstly Moyes. It is genuinely staggering that United let Ferguson anoint his successor. “The chosen one.” A good manager yes, but one who had never beaten the big 4 away from home, terrible in Europe, shocking in domestic cups. He’s got many qualities, but was clearly nowhere near the level to replace Fergusson.
Then Van Gaal. Who on earth picked that one? People talk of Van Gaal as if he is a hugely successful manager, who somehow failed at United. He isn’t. This is a man with no success in a major league this century, with the exception of one Bundesliga with Bayern, after which he was sacked for finishing 3rd in the table.
Then Mourinho. This one is at least forgivable. We all knew it would fall apart in the end. But at other clubs, he’d at least won the league title before the inevitable. Not at United though.
And then on to poor little Ole. One of the most ludicrous managerial appointments in the history of the Premier League. A man who was so obviously unsuited, everyone could see it. Yet he got the job. It’s borderline negligence from the people in charge of a PLC.
It”s worth noting that this isn’t hindsight. Many many people made these exact same points before every one of these appointments. Somehow your average football fan could see it. The United board couldn’t.
That’s managers. Now onto player recruitment. In the time since Ferguson left, United have spent £1.2bn on players. That’s broadly the same as City and Chelsea, although they have 6 Premier League titles and the Champions League between them, whereas United a couple of domestic cups and a second rate European trophy.
Where it gets even worse though, is net spend. I know that’s a metric that can attract ire, but it’s very relevant when talking about the business side of things. Selling players is important. Either the Chelsea model, of developing youth and selling for a profit, or selling your squad players for healthy fees, a la Liverpool. United’s net spend in the last 8 years is £850m. For comparison, Chelsea’s is £300m and Liverpool’s is £250m. It’s absolutely embarrassing how bad United have been in this department.
Part of Unit’s problem seems that the board and the ownership seem to buy into the myth of United as a special club. “The United Way” etc. I know Liverpool are equally guilty of hyping up “This Means More” etc. The difference is that you never get the impression the Liverpool board run the club with that attitude.
But look at United. How else to explain the nonsensical decision to allow Fergusson to choose Moyes? Or appointing Ole because he “knows the club” and has “United DNA”. Signing Sanchez because they didn’t want City to get him and then doing it again with Ronaldo. A signing they did not need that has in no way improved the team. An emotional, vanity signing that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
United are not just a shambles of a team, they are currently a joke of a club. Run on the belief in a myth that somehow they are special and different and better than all other clubs. Solskjaer is a problem of course, but until the board starts to run the club on logic, rather than emotion, there is genuinely no hope for them.
Mike, LFC, London
It’s a fundamental truth of football that not everyone can win. For one to win, there has to be a loser.
Liverpool fans should know that as well as anyone, and how much pain the struggle to build a good team is. So many good but not quite managers, so many players. Now they’ve got Klopp and let him spend £500m reasonably well, they’re understandably happy. 1 league in 5 years is like ambrosia when you’ve been without a sniff for 30.
Ole has actually had a rough gig from Woodward, who is the real evil. Let’s not forget his role in bringing the Glaziers in, in failing to invest for Sir Alex, for wasting money by bidding above release clauses, for appointing Jose… The list goes on and on.
He failed to bring in Sancho, deciding to wait a year (because what does it matter to him when he can save a few million of his bosses money). And this year failed to bring in the much needed CDM, instead trying to win points from the fans by bringing in Ronaldo.
Ole is nice. Too nice. But he’s a decent manager, with a vision and plan (just one that doesn’t have a convenient name for plastics to hand their replica kit on). Maybe not good enough, certainly not hard enough, to deal with likes of Pogba and the board. But for all the abuse he’s been getting, he’s improved the team year on year, vastly improved the squad and really is missing one key player. Said it a million times now but no team wins trophies without a decent CDM. Woodward failed to land his man again, but it’s not his skin getting flailed.
With a team of Rashford, Greenwood, Sancho, Bruno, Rice, McTominay, Shaw, Maguire, Varane, Wan Bissaka and DDG, you’d be hard pressed to not believe. There’s plenty of skill and talent, pace and effort, pressing and guile. But when you switch out three players for those who don’t run or don’t have the required ability, it all falls apart.
Now, maybe a better manager would be able to drive better from those players. We all believe Sir Alex would, but overlook the time of Kleberson and Djemba Djemba. The seasons when Giggs was waning and injured. Sometimes players just aren’t good enough, or aren’t available.
While I’ve been fully supporting Ole, to now believing he cannot stay after that performance, it’s fair to moderate the discontent with some balance.
Liverpool have a title winning side, as do both Chelsea and City. Other sides have good players and good managers. This is not 2019/20 with a few big rivals in flux.
Third place was a success in this context, but now it’s time for a new manager or some seriously bold changes. And please, not Conte. 5 at the back wastes our best players. It’s Zidane, Ten Hag or Ole.
What does the future under Ole look like?
The strangest thing for me about the Solskjaer’s situation is the apparent attitude of the United higher ups. As a neutral, I find it fascinating. According to reports they are considering a change others state he’s safe. So what exactly would it take for them to decide enough is enough and what exactly do they consider success?
The investment that’s taken place during Solskjaer’s tenure had been massive with little or nothing recouped yet performances have not demonstrably improved. The midfield issue is genuinely mind boggling. They clearly have an excellent core of players but seem to play under the “just fackin run around a bit” mantra.
So either they don’t have particularly ambitious objectives for the money invested or they simply don’t care because no matter what, world wide, United remain a big brand who rake in cash.
With managers like Conte and Zidane available – though who’s to say they’re actually interested – it seems to be a clear indication that United no longer harbour elite ambitions other than spending elite amounts of money on players.
Like most folks, I think Ole seems like a very nice person, but at higher levels of sport or business or whatever, sentiment is irrelevant. Make him a club ambassador or something if you want to show appreciation.
Again, fascinating stuff.
The ultimate mind game
This weekend we saw the culmination of the best ever Premier League mind game.
When City pretended they wanted to bring in Ronaldo, knowing United would have a complete meltdown if they didn’t get him, even though it would make United even more dysfunctional.
Against Liverpool, we all saw how having Ronaldo has caused an implosion. He can’t be arsed to actually run around. So United can’t press, can’t counter attack effectively, can’t defend from the front, can’t retain possession, have reduced main players like Fernandes and Pogba to bit parts in the main story.
They can’t drop Ronaldo. Even after going a man down against Liverpool, who do they bring off? Greenwood. Not Ronaldo. He stayed on the whole 90 minutes and contributed zero.
City and Pep must still be laughing.
Not that this is the first time they have done this. Sanchez anyone. Only this mind game is just sooooo much better.
More praise for fourth-placed West Ham…
Firstly, thanks as always for the fabulous work. Second, I have long lamented the fact that the letters page is forever dominated by an endless stream of Scousers and Mancs arguing about who’s bigger/better/should be sacked/is the best ever. So incredibly dull. However, as you have pointed out before, you can only print what you receive and if no one else is writing in then what can you do.
But if I may, I do think you bring it upon yourself sometimes. I support WHU. We are fourth in the league, and we were fourth in the league for at least a short period last year too. To my knowledge (having read your pages for over 15 years, but may be wrong) I don’t recall ever seeing a 16 conclusions for a west ham game. I know that we were public enemy #1 for you lefty lot for a little time for the fact that we took on the Olympic Stadium for little to no payment, and have pornographers as owners. However, the stadium move was not driven by the fans, and most of us reluctantly acknowledge that it was the only option if we were to try to break into the top 6. And whilst I am GSB Out, I have heard of worse owners….
El Gaucho did a good job today showing the eye watering cash spunking at Utd. However, having just won (again) away at Everton the week before last, I looked at amazement/horror at the hundreds of millions that that particular mid-table side had spent only to hilariously still have Iwobi (30m!) come on as first sub. The teams grinding through cash foolishly do not get enough criticism. Even Spurs seem to get a pass for the fact that they have tight owners who let Poch go, ignoring the fact that they (hilariously) gave Jose 250m to waste.
I would argue that Moyes has done more than enough to get some credit from these pages. The only stories on your pages I could find about our victory over Spuds this weekend was a long (and absolutely delightful!) story about their own demise. Nothing about what we have built over in east London. And in Winners and Losers, no mention whatsoever? Chaps, we’re fourth. And based on form from start of 2021 I think we are second. Perhaps if you gave us a couple of column inches every now again you might get more diverse comments in your letters section, which I’m sure everyone (non Utd or Pool fans) would appreciate. Hell, how about a 16 conclusions that involves the mighty Hammers one day? Or even anyone other than Utd, Pool, City, Spurs (why are they even still relevant??) and Arsenal (why are they even still relevant??). A pipe dream perhaps, but bloody hell it would be nice to see. Go on.
Regardless, keep up the good work. Best wishes.
United’s worst ever defeats
Thoroughly enjoyed the article listing Man United’s worst ever premier league defeats. Keep up the good work.
One aspect of the 1-6 vs Man City that is often missed, City and United ended that season with exactly the same points and record, except City scored 4 more goals and United conceded 4 more…if there had been no derby collapse and City won that derby narrowly the Agueroooooo moment may never have happened with both teams neck and neck on points and goal difference going into the final game of the season rather than United relying on City dropping points.
I swear you’ll never see anything like this again, so watch it, drink it in…
Tom (Though it didn’t work out too well for Liverpool when they tried to claw back goal difference that night in Crystanbul)
Gary, Gary, Gary…
It is sad to see United in such a mess, but it is almost as bad to see Gary Neville lose the run of himself too.
When he first came along as a pundit he was a total breath of fresh air. I learned more from one Monday Night Football than years listening to Alan Shearer on MOTD.
But the blindness over Ole is not good. Condemning paying supporters for having an opinion he doesn’t like. He last night tweeted that it was to be expected when we have a Johnson government, implying that it is populism.
But he is right by being wrong. It is a Johnson like reaction from him and the manager. Say anything to obscure the facts, push blame onto others, just like so many ministers that claim to have no responsibility for anything at all. Just like Johnson. Then to say that he cannot be sacked because of that goal 22 years ago?
All United fans will always have Ole in their hearts. We go to You Tube every now and again to watch it again, and again. But to use that as a reason to keep him in the job is not proper analysis.
So Gary, get a grip, look at it dispassionately. United fans want the best, for both Ole and United.