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27 Apr 2018

Manchester United: The five-year hangover

Manchester United: The five-year hangover

Jose Mourinho’s men are set to finish in their best league position since Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down. But England’s most successful club still haven’t recovered.

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A relative drought

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Less substance… and less style

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An end in sight?

(Photo credit: Reuters/John Sibley)

Five years isn’t that long to go without winning a league title. Given the mathematics, with 92 league clubs spread across just four divisions, logic dictates that most teams can expect not to win one. At least not for a while.

That is certainly the case in the Premier League. Since its inception in 1992, the division has been contested over 26 seasons. In that time, just six different clubs have won it. It is not even a phenomenon that began with Sky’s discovery of football; in the past 40 years, just 10 clubs have won English football’s top tier, and four of those only managed one victorious term within that period. Most clubs don’t win it.

But Manchester United aren’t most clubs. Under Sir Alex Ferguson, they essentially became the club. During a lean spell in late 2002, Ferguson scoffed at the idea that his side’s current troubles (they sat ninth in the table) constituted his biggest challenge. 

Rather, the United manager felt his biggest challenge had been “knocking Liverpool right off their f**king perch.” By the time he left Old Trafford the men from Anfield had been unseated, their 18 titles now surpassed by Manchester United’s 20; Ferguson oversaw 13 of them.

A relative drought

When Ferguson arrived on the red side of Manchester, he took over a team which had not won the First Division since 1967. It would take him six years to bring the title back, ending a drought which had by that point extended to 26 years.

The Manchester United of today are nowhere near that level of dearth but it remains that their lack of a Premier League title since Ferguson departed, as a champion, no less, constitutes their longest run without one in three decades.

In the five intervening years, they have watched on as Manchester City and Chelsea have shared two titles apiece, with Leicester City’s stunning victory in 2016 completing the set. Of course, few expected Manchester United to carry on the ludicrous run of titles that Ferguson brought to the club, but it is hard not to think that they are still yet to recover from the ending of his reign.

A look at their finishing positions since his departure add ballast to the theory. Under Ferguson, for the 22 seasons from 1991 onwards, Manchester United did not finish outside the top three once. Yet this season (barring a collapse in the final four games) will comprise their first return there since the great man left, burrowing themselves into second but a country mile behind their neighbours from across town.

David Moyes’ succession of Ferguson was a well-known disaster, but results since suggest that it was not just the current West Ham United manager at fault. Louis van Gaal could do no better than fifth and, while Jose Mourinho has likely managed a runners-up spot this time around, sixth place last year was hardly the reward Manchester United would have expected for their hefty summer spending.

Less substance… and less style

It seems strange to suggest Manchester United are undergoing a drought. While league titles have not been forthcoming, they have won three trophies in the last three seasons and could make it four in the FA Cup final against Chelsea next month.

But Ferguson turned them into a side for whom the league was their bread and butter and, in truth, they have been nowhere near winning it again since he left. Three 4-0 wins in the first five games of the current season had many wondering if this was the year, but the unstoppable force that is Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City soon scotched any such hopes. That ruining City’s title party earlier this month is the highlight of United’s season so far speaks volumes.

It is not just results that have suffered in the wake of Ferguson. Moyes’ one-dimensional approach was famously laid bare in a crosstastic 2-2 draw with Fulham but neither of the men to have followed him into the dugout have done much to inspire thrills on the pitch. 

Where Ferguson’s sides were known for their swashbuckling approaches and relentless willingness to attack, both van Gaal and Mourinho have presided over teams much more lethargic and cautious in their outlook. While few would complain if such styles had brought more success, the fact is that they haven’t and, troublingly, they do not really feel like the Manchester United sides to which observers had become accustomed.

Given the wealth of attacking options at his disposal, the frequency of ponderous displays under Mourinho has been worrying. Yet, save for a spell at Chelsea, where Arjen Robben was undoubtedly a key catalyst, Mourinho has never been one for attacking with vigour. 

He is a reactive manager, not a proactive one. Even the loosening of the shackles against Manchester City three weeks ago felt more like a throw of the dice than any carrying out of the manager’s wider gameplan; the crumbling of the hosts helped too.

An end in sight?

Runners-up and retention of a Champions League spot is hardly failure for Manchester United this season, and it will look even less like underachieving if they overcome Antonio Conte’s men at Wembley. Last weekend’s victory over Spurs in the semi-final was an impressive display, and one which will have Manchester United fans hoping Alexis Sanchez may finally be finding his feet in his new surroundings.

Yet the gap to Guardiola’s City side remains vast. Moreover, whilst Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool trail Manchester United in the league, few could offer the view that they prefer watching the latter play. Results are a priority in football but style is a close second at Old Trafford. Faced with these two, and a potentially resurgent Arsenal next year, it is difficult to see the post-Ferguson hangover ending anytime soon.

Following the announcement that he will step down at the end of the season, much attention has been focused upon how anyone may succeed Arsene Wenger. The Arsenal manager leaves after 22 years at the helm.

But if that casts a long shadow, save a thought for those who have been left to follow Ferguson. He loomed large over Old Trafford for 27 years and, unlike Wenger, his power remained absolute until the last. It could be a while yet before the title returns to the Red Devils.

What will it take for Manchester United to turn things around? Let us know by commenting below.