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October 6, 2019

Are Manchester United set for a prolonged period of mediocrity?

Sports

October 6, 2019

Manchester United’s 0-0 draw away to AZ Alkmaar on Thursday in their Europa League clash was the English side’s 10th away match without a win. Since United’s memorable win away to Paris Saint Germaine in the Champions League last season, which virtually sealed the permanent job for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the team haven’t won a match on the road.

According to a stat shared by @utdarena on Twitter, United’s form since that away win to PSG would have resulted in the club’s relegation in four Premier League seasons and 17th place finishes in nine others.

Manchester United currently sit 10th on the Premier League table, already 12 points behind table toppers Liverpool after seven matches, after a 1-1 draw against Arsenal at home, which for many underlined the dearth of ambition at Old Trafford.

Former United striker and Liverpool legend Michael Owen remarked after the AZ Alkmaar contest that Manchester United are “now a mid-table club” with the current squad the “poorest in decades”. Owen’s sentiments are gradually becoming the general opinion about the football club that in the 90s and 2000s was a European powerhouse and the undisputed dominant force in England.

It is no coincidence that United’s decline came in the aftermath of Sir Alex Ferguson calling it a day on one of the most illustrious managerial careers in the history of all of sports. Since Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, which was also the last time United were crowned English champions, United have been in the top four twice, with the runners-up finish of 2017-18 the club’s only podium standing over the past six seasons.

Even so, where the decline after Ferguson was predicted, its extent has shocked many. Furthermore, the lack of intent to right the on-field wrongs is something that is gradually being voiced as a major concern.

After David Moyes’ takeover from Sir Alex Ferguson failed to last an entire season in 2013-14, two of the biggest names in management took over the reins at Old Trafford. Under Louis van Gaal, United finished fourth and fifth over the next two seasons, but the FA Cup win in 2016 – the highest point in the Dutchman’s tenure – wasn’t enough to save his job after the club had failed to qualify for the Champions League.

It was Jose Mourinho who took over then, with many having touted the man as Ferguson’s successor even in 2013 when the Scott preferred his compatriot Moyes. In Mourinho’s first season United finished sixth in the league, but the club progressed in the shape of the Europa League and League Cup trophies. But after a full season under his belt, Mourinho was expected to deliver in the league next year.

United finished second in the league in 2017/18 to a record breaking Manchester City side, but remained trophyless after losing the FA Cup final to Chelsea. However, given the recent seasons and indeed City’s unprecedented levels, a second place finish was largely acceptable, with many expecting a stronger title at the title next season.

After a string of mediocre results, Mourinho was sacked in December 2018. By then, the Portuguese had an unceremonious falling out with Paul Pogba and clearly had lost the dressing room.

The bigger issue, which is perhaps a major cause of the club’s ailment, was the clash between Mourinho and club’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodword, who according to the Portuguese didn’t back him in the summer transfer window the way it was needed – especially in order to compete with City.

Mourinho, a multiple times Champions League winner, and league champion in Portugal, England, Italy and Spain, maintains that finishing second in the Premier League with that United side was one of his greatest achievements as a football manager. Given the team’s deterioration since then, Mourinho might have a point.

Even so, it was only six months ago that everything appeared to have fallen perfectly in place, with Solskjaer spearheading a renaissance that had pulled the same United from the mid-table to being the frontrunners to finish in the top four by March. United were playing the best football they’d played since the Ferguson era and the same manager who is now spearheading a 10 match streak without an away win, had now led his team to an historic nine road wins on the bounce.

To put things into perspective, United’s away win in Paris was a club record ninth successive away win. Perhaps even more impressively that night Manchester United became the first team in Champions League history to win a knockout tie after having lost at home in the first leg by two or more goals.

And then it all went pear-shaped, with United expectedly losing to Barcelona in the Champions League quarterfinals, but surprisingly giving away the impetus in the league to eventually finish sixth. Now seven games into the season, many argue that United actually are worse off than they were under David Moyes.

And yet, the club generated a record revenue of £627million for the previous season. That revenue will be hampered by United not qualifying for the Champions League this season, however, the numbers are been showcased by sceptics as evidence that the owners are perhaps more interested in running Manchester United as a business, more so than a football club.

The club did break the world record for a defender’s transfer fee this summer when they purchased Harry Maguire, but that move was almost entirely funded by Romelu Lukaku’s sale to Inter Milan – whose replacement wasn’t signed. Perhaps balancing the books more so than the balance of the team is now the priority.

But that cannot continue for too long. United are a club that enjoy a passionate support around the world, and they won’t be content with a spree of mid-table finishes. An alienated fan base will never result in sufficient revenues, even if the owners eye United as a business.

The question on-field, hence, only six months the man was peddled as the long-term solution to all United problems, is if Solskjaer is the man to take the club forward. Despite his admirable penchant for giving the youngsters a run, if the club end the season where they’ve begun, the managerial musical chairs at Old Trafford might continue – at least, till there’s a tangible shift in the boardroom.