Manchester United: Losing Their Identity?

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When two nations merge, as rare as that is, there is a dominant force which appears as the controlling entity.

Take for example England and Scotland as the United Kingdom, and the conglomerate flag. Or consider the hypothetical situation of Puerto Rico becoming a US state; symbolically speaking, its one star and red stripes would become absorbed within the American flag.

The flag represents something symbolic, in much the same way there are certain elements of a football club which are, or should be, sacrosanct.

In 1998, Manchester United’s crest officially changed, with the words ‘football club’ being removed, as they have been ever since.

The 2013 retirements of Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill signalled another new era, with Ed Woodward being appointed as Gill’s successor.

Whilst the on-pitch activities of the club have been turbulent to say the least ever since, the off-pitch business dealings — new tractor partners, new liquor sponsors, and, on deadline day of all days, and 2018 of all years, the launch of ‘an app’ to ‘keep up to date with news’ — all encourage and feed the schadenfreude the club’s supporters indulge in.

On a deeper level, there is a resignation that it just isn’t the same club any more and hasn’t been since either the crest change or the 2005 takeover. There is a troubling concern, which never ceases to amaze, that the powers that be do not have their finger on the pulse of the football club. Like the fresh wounds of a heartbreak, you continue to tell yourself that nothing can surprise you, and then something does.

It’s not quite cataclysmic enough to describe it as a PR disaster, but one needs only to take a look at the release of this summer’s kits to realise that the club is out of sync with its own identity.

The recently released home shirt is red with jarring black stripes and shorts, black becoming the dominant colour. It really is striking for all of the wrong reasons. Still, it has been sixty years since the Munich disaster. It was after the Munich disaster where the club’s socks changed to black, as a permanent reminder of the club’s heritage; maybe, then, this was a nod to that?

It would have stuck in the throat of some who may have thought it was in bad taste; but to a great many, it would have also been palatable, or at least made more sense than the other reference to tradition which was referenced in the advertising for the kit, that it was in fact a nod to the Newton Heath railway workers who helped to found the club. That the club had a plausible enough line and chose not to use it just speaks volumes. Everything that has gone wrong with the club since 2013 could have been avoided and not just with hindsight.

Just as the grey United kit from 1995/96 is associated with bad results despite it being a positive season in the club’s history, one imagines people will look back at this period, remember United’s striking on-pitch visual difference (in more ways than one) and automatically create a negative memory by association. The black is a reminder, and a tremendously symbolic one, of how far apart the club appears to be from its supporters and its identity.

Before all of that, the club released their new third strip for the coming season, an all blue outfit which is actually pretty smart. It was released under the advertising spiel that it was following the tradition of the club’s first European success fifty years ago, when they wore all blue at Wembley, just as we heard ten years ago. Then, a few weeks later, Juventus revealed the same change strip. So much for tradition. These are relatively minor, but laughable, points. It’s difficult to envisage this United team getting to the European Cup Final as an even more fitting tribute, like they did in 2009.

That, in no small part, is down to the club’s transfer policy this summer.

There have been no secrets in Mourinho’s very transparent plans. He wanted Toby Alderweireld, with reports going back to February stating as much. He wanted Willian from Chelsea, with reports going back to December 2017 establishing the link. He also wanted a left back, with Danny Rose heavily, publicly, linked last summer.

The Guardian reports that Ed Woodward opposed Mourinho’s wishes for a number of reasons; among them the notion that Mourinho ‘does not stay for too long at any club’.

Presumably, Woodward has gauged the mood of the support who have become dissatisfied with the team’s performance; there is undoubtedly a selection of the support who concur, who attribute the style of play exclusively to Mourinho and also feel that the manager’s transfers have largely been misses as opposed to hits.

There is an element of truth to this, but perspective is needed.

Figuring out how to get the best out of Paul Pogba is a footballing problem but a nice problem to have and a problem United wouldn’t have at all if Jose Mourinho wasn’t manager. United would not have been able to convince Pogba to arrive in 2016, with no Champions League football and a manager who wasn’t Mourinho.

Like some other players, some of the responsibility for performance ought to be attributed to Pogba. Take West Brom at home, where the team was set up to his liking so much that it might well have been described as a testimonial in his benefit, only for the French midfielder to have arguably his poorest outing of the season.

Some say the reason for that is that Mourinho is too restrictive; this cannot be true. For this to be true we would have seen a marked change in Pogba’s style of play, and the risks in his game would have been fewer. This has patently not been the case.

The strongest argument which justifies United’s pragmatic play is their sub-par defence and a midfield which did not protect them sufficiently prior to Nemanja Matic’s arrival. Some would say that Mourinho is culpable because he has spent £60m on centre-halves and has had time, and a budget, to address the issue sufficiently.

This is a fair, if flawed, argument. Manchester United have a budget bigger than most, that is true. But the Manchester United Jose Mourinho inherited had far more significant problems than just the defence. The midfield had been a mess for years, and up front United had been damaged by the regression of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie and the failed gamble on Radamel Falcao.

Just about the only area of the team which needed no addressing was goalkeeper; and this extends to the reputation of it, which was in need of a major boost after the erratic and unpredictable Louis van Goal era (well, off the pitch, in terms of transfers).

So Mourinho signed Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic to show that the club could attract the best. Ibrahimovic was a resounding success, adapting to the Premier League seamlessly and showing the standard of goalscorer required as an example for Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford.

Pogba is deemed as an underwhelming buy so far and Mourinho has received the majority of the criticism for it. Yet Pogba remains one of the league’s most creative players, and most certainly United’s. Yes there are stinkers, and it is commonly accepted we haven’t seen the best of him, but he has been a good buy.

There can be debate about the merit of some of the other signings; Matic, a success, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, certainly not, and Alexis Sanchez, who yet knows? The most pertinent point to be made — particularly so, given the high-profile failure to land a centre half this summer — is that, having spent £60m on Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof, Woodward was reticent to give Mourinho another £50m when neither of those players were trusted by the manager himself in the FA Cup Final.

Again, there is truth to this, and it will be a major factor which Mourinho will now be judged upon as he will be forced to try and make those signings his new defenders. But these are footballing issues; he couldn’t have known Eric Bailly would have been so injury prone, and he would have hoped that Lindelof would have settled more quickly.

Maybe these are errors of judgement. Mourinho might be pointing out that across town, Pep Guardiola can make such errors and be given record sums to replace players until he gets it right; but maybe that only washes so far.

United need four players and getting just one was being turned into a potential success

But it still feels like a critical misjudgement on behalf of Woodward and the board if they have genuinely withheld funds for players on this basis. It transforms the matter from a disagreement to a principled battle of control which seems so unnecessarily early in the piece; United are not at crisis point under Jose Mourinho, if anything, last season was a huge step forward in their progress despite how it may have been perceived. United finished in second place, and a comfortable second, considering how they stumbled in the last month of the season with nothing to play for.

The briefing of the club has been all about the failure to land a centre half, but this is clearly not the case. The need for investment is abundantly clear in various areas of the team but it was clear to Mourinho that he would not get the players he asked for, so, when asked to prioritise, went with the defender. United need four players and getting just one was being turned into a potential success.

It almost amounts to wilful negligence on behalf of Woodward and the board not to sanction the investment needed but this is reflective of their lack of ambition (or, perhaps even more relevantly, need) to challenge Manchester City. Champions League qualification is enough for the board.

By making this into a point of the success of the transfer window coming down to the failure to sign a defender, the pressure has been put squarely on Mourinho to improve Bailly and Lindelof; to be fair, he should still do this, but it may not be enough, as everyone can see it is clear that the defence lacks a leader. A leader in the back line to be the brains so that Nemanja Matic doesn’t always have to look over his shoulder; a calibre of defender so experienced that it would provide temporary compensation for the failure to reinforce the full-back issue adequately.

Even if United had sanctioned £50m for Alderweireld, it wouldn’t have been enough to bridge the gap to City.

It will not matter because it will be projected as Mourinho’s classic breakdown — this is what he does, after all — and, as his justified frustrations grow, those in the fanbase predisposed to dislike Mourinho will only have further evidence to support their dissatisfaction. So, when the inevitable happens — and it does feel like it is inevitable — this will all feel as if Mourinho was the cause.

It will be projected against a backdrop of the club’s style of play, ignorant of the fact that even taking into account Mourinho’s pragmatic and efficient style, United have had to compensate for their weak defence by protecting them more. Of course, even with Alderweireld, United would not become a gung-ho team, but those dismissing the effect stability brings are themselves being wilfully ignorant. They’re also forgetting that the previous three years were much worse.

Perhaps, this was all part of Mourinho’s own ploy, to stubbornly stick to his own list of targets, knowing he wouldn’t get them (as absurd as that would be, considering how relatively modest it was), and setting himself up to be the fall guy; this writer, for example, happens to feel Mourinho would be justified in feeling like he’s been held out to dry. But I can also understand that his detractors might say this is also classic Mourinho, painting himself as the villain. This time, however, it hasn’t been necessary.

Having accepted that no-one was coming in, perhaps there should have been little left (respectively) for Mourinho than to look at the sum of his parts and try and make the best of it. But he sanctioned the loan of Timothy Fosu-Mensah, a player who should now be Manchester United’s starting right back, not going down to Fulham for experience.

Mourinho’s ambitions for the club appear to be greater than the board’s; with that in mind, you would think supporters would empathise. His reputation makes that difficult, even impossible, for some. This was a big summer for United, one the club have risked allowing Liverpool to leap frog them into potentially becoming the dominant ‘red’ team in the North West for the first time in 30 years.

If that turns out to be the case Mourinho will be the fall guy. And, in that event, the club will fall back further still, continuing their emulation of Liverpool’s own fall from grace. It will be a far cry from the Manchester United supporters knew and loved, but the fingers should not be pointed at their current manager.

Wayne Barton is an author and has worked with numerous Manchester United icons. He ghost wrote the autobiographies of Brian Greenhoff, Gordon Hill, Danny Higginbotham, Mick Duxbury and Clayton Blackmore. He is the football columnist for international broadcaster eirSport.

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