After spending 250 Million Euros over two transfer windows, Manchester United are finally looking like a side capable of challenging on all fronts. In the midst of all the pomp, promise and parading however lies an inconvenient truth- United are losing touch of tradition. For a team that once prided itself over organic growth and club belief, is now increasingly throwing money at their problems. The new age of football has brought with it a new status quo for successful sides. Are United simply adjusting to the norm, or losing their identity?
Last summer, United were faced with a task of gargantuan proportions. After the failure of David Moyes, United found themselves bereft of confidence, leadership and most hurtingly, talent. Prospects failed to live up to promise, and quick fixes were proving increasingly ineffective.
Ridiculed only a year ago for his passive involvement in recruiting new talent, Ed Woodword took the burden solely on his shoulders. United then rolled up their sleeves, flexed their financial muscle and cracked their knuckles toward one singular purpose- Getting United back to the top.
Rebuilding United, after a quarter century of Sir Alex Ferguson, would not be accomplished overnight. What transpired in the summer of 2014 however was something few would’ve predicted. Players, both young and established, were purchased. Financial deals were made front, right and centre, and Manchester United brought in Louis Van Gaal.
The man who had won with the biggest names in Europe was about to make Manchester his home, and expectations were astronomical. The proverbial hammer however, was slowly beginning to drop as United’s performances were drawing increasing skepticism. Having clawed their way back to champions league contention, United realised that the task at hand required much more than a few big names-It needed a complete overhaul
Sir Alex’ belief in the youth and academy was a spectacle to be heralded. Since 1934, United had kept the proud tradition of having at least one player from the academy in the match day squad. David Moyes and Louis van Gaal followed suit. However, in the midst of all this heavy purchasing and rampant restructration, United’s academy and youth talent are slipping further away from the spot light, diminishing United’s once proud tradition of producing quality talent organically.
Can the fault however lie with the management? Have marquee signings and shrewd transfers effectively ended the hopes of youngsters hoping to come through United’s ranks? The problem with this supposed change in identity is however, multi faceted.
Sir Alex’ lack of transfer activity
It seems unfair to trace any negativity back to Sir Alex, but it’s difficult to deny that his last years weren’t exactly golden eras.
After he had weathered the storm that was Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, United established both their domestic and continental dominance. Assembling one of the best European sides fielded by an English team, Sir Alex’s United reached three champions league finals in four years, winning one of them.
With time however, the same core of players that had got United to such a position weren’t able to punch above their weight, falling pray to both form and injury. O’Shea and Brown were no longer deemed viable, Nani never achieved consistency, Valencia fell prey to horrid injury, and youth players weren’t getting a chance.
The problem was made explicit, when Sir Alex brought in a 36 year-old Paul Scholes, out of retirement, to bring some semblance to an incredibly makeshift midfield. While the move brought in both stability and success in the form of a premier League title, it cost United their greatest academy product. Whilst young Pogba’s demand to be a part of the first team was presumptuous, given his raw talent and tender age, he was far and a way United’s best academy product. Fast, strong and tall, Pogba was exactly what United needed, and Scholes’ return was the final nail in the veritable coffin that was Pogba’s career at Old Trafford.
It was only later that Scholes himself realised the actualities of his return, as he lamented in his own personal column that
“Paul Pogba was a bright young lad who made his debut for United at the end of January that year in a game I played in against Stoke City. He left the following summer after many genuine attempts by the club to persuade him to stay, went to Juventus on a deal that was only worth a training compensation payment to United and now is one of the hottest properties in European football”
In the face of such odds, Sir Alex still remained dogged in his principles, failing to buy a proper central midfielder to fill Scholes’ void. Michael Carrick’s glorious season lasted only one campaign, as serial under performers Anderson and Cleverley flattered to deceive. Ferguson’s indecisiveness caused Untied dearly, as a sub par midfield began to define the failings of the club after his departure.
Failure’s of Academy Prospects
While it’s easy to point fingers when things aren’t going your way, there was an inconvenient truth about United that seemed to de doggedly denied- The academy hadn’t produced any top talent
The faith shown by the club, towards many academy players was quite remarkable, given the paltry returns they were getting. Tom Cleverley, though vilified and antagonised during the ill fated Moyes era, could never accuse the club of not giving him a chance. in the 2013-14 season alone, he and the second highest appearances and starts out of any United midfielder, failing to make even one decisive mark. Whilst he was deployed slightly out of position, he didn’t even try to make himself an important part of the team.
After his groundbreaking season in 2012, many had pipped Jonny Evans to finally break through and become the defensive leader United needed after Nemanja Vidic. He had performed admirably in the Serbian’s place and had everyone convinced. By the time David Moyes arrived, Evans was categorically unable to lead, and ket bad form and poor judgement get the better of him. Given the biggest stage to perform, especially in the absence of Vidic and Ferdinand, Evans failed, and United can only hold so much patience.
Similar promise was shown by United’s youth product Rafael. Despite being tipped as the successor to Gary Neville’s spot as United’s long-term right back, Rafael’s spate of injuries came with alarming regularity. Every time Rafael was crucially needed, he was unfit to play, wearing Van Gaal’s patience paper-thin.
The decision to give Adnan Januzaj the famed 11 Jersey seemed to have an affect similar to the one the no 7 jersey had on Valencia. His attitude seems out of place, his commitment questionable and his fitness, not up to mark.
The need to add quality
United had lasted with too little for too long. During the late 2000’s, they relied heavily on players that were reaching their inevitable twilight. Both Ferdinand and Vidic were becoming slower to the turn, and susceptible to injury. Evra was unable to keep pup with the rigours of the Premier League, Kagawa just didn’t fit in, and the glorious season the van Persie enjoyed slipped into an all familiar loss in form and fitness.
United’s inability to replace stalwarts like Scholes, Keane, van Nistelrooy and Vidic have been well documented. They began to create a culture of over dependance on key members of the squad, without whom they came categorically undone. Last season alone, Michael Carrick’s absence was the sole difference between United finishing 4th and not 2nd. The system’s dependance on his situational awareness and passing accuracy made United completely dependant on a fragile, ageing star.
The summer transfers of 2015 have clearly addressed United’s main issues. The defensive midfield additions of Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger bring not only strength and stability, but also a wealth of experience. A leading figure like Schweinsteiger would serve as a priceless source of experience and inspiration for a number of youngsters who aim to come through United’s ranks. Darmian is already an Italian national, and one of his country’s highest rated full-backs. Added to his fitness record and defensive sensibilities, United have within their ranks, an established fullback close to hitting his peak.
While Memphis Depay might be the hardest to judge out of the new lot, his performances in Netherlands, and for the national team put a lot of expectation on his shoulders. The difference here, is that van Gaal has the necessary squad depth, to make sure Depay adjusts to the team in a gradual manner, instead of being thrown into the deep end and given the responsibility to create, a-la Januzaj under Moyes.
The Changing Nature of the Game
Whilst Real Madrid have been throwing money at their problems, since the early 2000’s, English clubs have been following suit. City’s and Chelsea’s multi billion dollar owners have splurged the necessary cash to reach their goals. While City haven’t tasted success in Europe, two FA Cups and Two league titles are more than United have won in the same time period.
The amount of money that’s readily involved at the highest stages of the modern game, is alarmingly high. Young prospects are overpriced, forcing them to bear the burden of a heavy price-tag and perform wonders instantaneously. Moreover, the age of bargains and getting great players, like Pirlo, for free have seemingly died out.
It’s no small secret that United needed quality reinforcements after the debacle of David Moyes, but few would’ve predicted the quantum of turnover. In both the summers combined, United have purchased 10 players, all of whom are first team quality. Whilst the experiment of Radamel Falcao, and the multi million euro gamble of Di Maria haven’t proven successful, United now have something they lacked for a good five years- Quality Depth.
After being made a laughing stock, Ed Wooward has turned United’s fortune’s remarkably. Using the club’s status as a commercial powerhouse, Woorward has been able to get United exactly the players they require. Darmian’s capture for a paltry a 12.5 Million, shows that he’s financially crafty, whilst keeping De Gea off of Florentino Perez’ prying hands is nothing short of remarkable.
The additions of players like Herrera, Schneiderlin and Darmian will add real competition for places, forcing everyone to step up their game. Furthermore, players like Young, Fellaini and Valencia have re-adjusted their playing styles, making them vital cogs in van Gaal’s machine.
Though money has been spent, and expectations are high, Louis van Gaal knows the club’s traditions quite well. In the face of adversity and pressure, he still managed to give debuts to 7 of United’s youth and academy players, fielding three of them more regularly in the first team, than most other sides would. The pre-season this time around has shown more quality and talent as players such as Andres Pereira and Sam Johnstone are fiercely making their presence felt, forcing van Gaal to cosier their names. Wether or not United will find premier league suitors for most of their youth products is yet to be seen. What can be reasonably expected, is that United will be challenging on all fronts this time around. With a full squad, filled with talent and expectation, that’s the least their fans can expect.