Last week, 16-year-old global warming activist Greta Thunberg was given the opportunity to take a stand against climate change in front of UN leaders in New York, something she grasped with both hands, delivering a powerful speech in which she accused those in attendance of ‘stealing her dreams and her childhood with their empty words’.
“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean, yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you?”, Thurnberg continued with indignation in her voice.
The decline of Manchester United football club may not be as dramatic and grave as the rising sea levels or warming of the ocean, but the club shares the similarity that an environmental problem has been created in which those with the power to produce change turn a blind eye.
Four managers have entered the fray on a permanent-basis at Old Trafford and whilst the length of their tenures differ, each candidate has faced identical problems that their predecessor faced. David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, José Mourinho and now Ole Gunnar Solskjær. Four managers who all share different ideas on football and have managed United in polar-opposite ways, yet, in almost seven years, not one has been able to create a side capable of regaining the Premier League title.
What’s even more thought-provoking is the managers have not had a squad on the level of Kenny Daglish’s 2011-2012 Liverpool side, where the likes of Jay Spearing, Jonjo Shelvey, Glen Johnson and Andy Carroll made up a team that finished eighth in the Premier League, behind Moyes’ Everton. United, for the majority of the time, have had big-name players who have shone elsewhere and a supply of funding that has amassed the ability of their top-six rivals. The club finished seventh under Moyes with the same squad that had won the title the year before. Ferguson leaving was always going to bring a negative effect in terms of a drop in the consistency of fighting for every title, but the Scotsman’s departure signalled a new environmental change at the club.
With 2020 fast approaching, it’s Liverpool and Manchester City who look set to dominate English football once again this season, with Solskjær’s side earning nine points from seven games, the worst start for the club for 30-years since 1989. The startling difference between United and those above them is the way the clubs are run. Both at Anfield and the Etihad, either a Director of Football or a Director of Sport is at the helm, with Liverpool’s Michael Edwards working alongside Jürgen Klopp and City’s Tixi Bergstein sitting above Pep Guardiola. Both operate with a structured plan and the manager has the freedom to create an environment at the club that each player arriving in any given transfer window will have to buy into if they wish to settle in and succeed.
At United, a new signing arrives and is either abhorrent or is the best player in the side. There’s no ‘settling in’ period because there is nothing to settle into. The club doesn’t have a definitive way they operate and decisions are reactive rather than pre-planned. A focus on commercial growth over the growth of a football team has been the priority since Ed Woodward’s arrival into the position of CEO, and not one departed manager has had a good word to say about him. The 47-year-old has created the current environment at the club. Offering high transfer fees and wage deals that other clubs can’t compete with has only brought players to the club that have sought the best life for themselves and their family.
Joining United hasn’t been about coming to play at the Theatre of Dreams, playing in front of 75,000 or wearing the badge since 2013 and it won’t be again. When the going gets tough and United fans are suffering most, the players are able to return home knowing there’s no fall for it. Their next purple patch will see them rewarded with a pay-rise, maybe a new shirt number and most likely some sort of shiny gift from a club sponsor. None of the players actively want to disappoint fans or play as poorly as they do, but they all are within an environment created for commercial gain rather than a culture created that breeds title winners and therefore they will never fee the need to give everything for the club.
Ashley Young can shout as much as he likes whilst wearing an armband, but he’s no leader. David De Gea can perform like the best goalkeeper in the world whilst named captain, but he’s not a leader. Paul Pogba, full of personality and confidence, can demand the ball under pressure and dictate play as much as he likes, but he is not a leader either. There isn’t a leader within that dressing room and that’s not a criticism of any of the players. Who needs to be a leader? What are they actually fighting for? There is no longer a culture at the club that anyone can stand up for and defend. At City, no matter how much of a superstar you are, you work as hard as the other ten players on the pitch. Riyad Mahrez’s slow introduction has shown proof of that with the Algerian not keen on tracking back before Guardiola’s influence yet his performance in City’s win over Everton was perhaps one of his best in his Premier League career and he has adjusted in Manchester.
The situation is similar with Klopp at Liverpool. Although the German rarely signs a superstar, Sadio Mané, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino are not given freedom to do things how they please whilst Andy Robertson, Jordan Henderson and the less exciting names do the hard-graft. Klopp has taken Salah off many times before should he feel the need to do so, and there is no shock around the club when he does that. There’s no story the next day saying Salah wishes to leave Anfield and there’s rarely a chance you’ll see him publicly remonstrate against his manager. And that is because of the environment and culture Klopp has created in Merseyside.
Solskjær, along with the likes of Mike Phelan, Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna, have noticeably identified the need for such change and the process of installing some form of identity has started, but the problem remains that the Norwegian has no previous example of successfully doing so. Klopp has with Borussia Dortmund and Guardiola has twice at Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Should United back Solskjær’s vision and trust him to execute it, a painful year is to be expected whilst laying down the groundwork with the hope that improvement next season will be noticeable. It then comes down to Woodward not doing a Woodward and cutting the strategy short to fulfil short-term commercial goals and secure Champions League qualification funds for the pockets of the Glazer family. Or even worse, restricting Solskjær’s ability to change the environment by handing too much power to the players. As previous has shown, relying on Woodward rarely ends well and the fear is that whilst he remains in control of football-related decision’s, the club will continue struggling to move forward and will maintain the fall from Europe’s elite.
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