The most defining moment of the last decade at Old Trafford came in May 2013 as the great Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down as Manchester United manager after 26 years in charge.
The Scot won a stunning 38 trophies during his reign at Old Trafford and etched his name into football folklore as perhaps the best British manager of all time. His trophy haul included 13 league titles, two Champions League crowns, five FA Cups and four League Cups.
Whilst it was never going to be easy to replace Ferguson given his stature at the club, the United hierarchy had hoped the transition could have been as untroubled as possible and that the club could have continued their recent dominance both domestically and in Europe.
Unfortunately as we approach the closing stages of this decade, United have yet to lift another Premier League crown since Ferguson’s departure and now look a shadow of the side they once were under their best ever manager.
Manchester United End of Decade Series
This week the Manchester Evening News are running a special series of articles looking back at the key moments from the last decade for Manchester United.
Each day, there will be three new articles; one in the morning, one at lunchtime and one in the evening.
Here are some of the best bits so far…
Multiple managers with their own ideas and philosophies have tried but failed to continue the success of the Scot, but what were the fundamentals of each, how did they all impact the Manchester United we see today, and more importantly, can United under their current regime return to the top?
The Moyes era
In 2013, David Moyes left Everton to join United after the Scot impressed Sir Alex Ferguson enough for him to persuade the United board that his fellow countryman was the right candidate to continue to carry the torch of his success.
Moyes had received plenty of plaudits for his structured and organised style of management that had often seen Everton punching above their weight, reaching the latter stages of cup competitions and regularly finishing in and around the Premier League top six.
He had worked with a tight budget for the bulk of his career on Merseyside but had still managed to assemble an impressive side. There was an opinion that with a bigger transfer kitty to work with at Old Trafford, he could recruit the right personnel to sustain United’s dominance at the top.
At Everton, Moyes was often a reactive manager who diligently scouted the opposition, keen to adapt his sides approach and tactics depending on the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition – this proved problematic at United.
The Reds were at the time reigning Champions of England and therefore expected to dominate and deploy an adventurous game, imposing themselves on the opposition with their own philosophies, irrespective of the opposing sides strengths and weaknesses.
He predominantly relied upon a 4-2-3-1 during his time at Old Trafford. Whilst United’s defence had been solid for a number of years, the stars within the same were beginning to age.
Nemanja Vidic was 32 and lacked the prowess he once boasted meaning he required a quicker defensive partner which came in the form of Jonny Evans. Whilst a decent defender, Evans was still young and hadn’t quite matured into the level of player we now see today at Leicester.
To the right of the two centre-backs was Rafael who was decent, whilst on the left, Patrice Evra was on the wrong side of 30 and approaching the twilight of his career.
Moyes favoured his wing-backs making overlapping runs to support wide players in attack and he therefore tried to bring Everton’s Leighton Baines with him in order to replace Evra, however the Merseysiders refused to sell the then England international.
Ahead of them, Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley sat in the double-pivot. Carrick proved the more defensive-minded of the two, protecting the defence and acting at the key cog in possession whilst Cleverley featured more as a box-to-box midfielder, aiding in attack when required.
Wayne Rooney was deployed in the no.10 role, to varying success. He still produced fleeting moments of brilliance but often lacked the ability to dart back and forth between midfield and attack to find pockets of space to pick up the ball and drive.
When required to go more direct, Moyes would sometimes use new arrival Marouane Fellaini in the no.10 role to add physicality and aerial presence – just like he did at Everton.
In the wide areas, Moyes fluctuated between using out and out wingers such as Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia and using more centre focused players who favoured drifting into central positions to open gaps for wing-backs to exploit, such as Juan Mata who signed in the winter transfer window.
The line was led by Robin van Persie who proved the perfect targetman in United’s last title winning season under Ferguson, but failed to replicate the same sort of form for Moyes.
Over the course of Moyes’ ten months in charge , United lost six league games at home, were beaten in the FA Cup by Swansea at Old Trafford and were unable to prevent Sunderland defeating them in the League Cup semi-finals.
Sitting seventh in the league table, the confirmation that the Old Trafford side were guaranteed to record their lowest points’ tally in the Premier League with four games to go was enough to persuade the club to relieve Moyes of his duties in April.
The chosen one failed to see out one full year at the club.
The Van Gaal era
A big criticism of Moyes was that he lacked that star quality to be a United manager. He wasn’t a renowned name across the continent and wouldn’t have a host of stars lining up to play for him.
The same couldn’t be said for his replacement, Louis van Gaal. The Dutchman boasted a managerial CV including the likes of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and the Netherlands national team. He had won multiple trophies across Europe and was considered the calibre of manager United required to reaffirm their position as top dogs post-Ferguson.
Initially, Van Gaal wanted to replicate his 3-5-2 formation that he had used with the Dutch national team. The idea was to control the middle of the pitch and implement his favoured philosophy of dominating possession of the ball.
Whilst Van Gaal’s side tended to control the ball in the first two thirds of the pitch, they struggled in the attacking third and lacked the pace and dynamism to press the opposition to win the ball back when it was turned over – mostly due to playing slow players such as Carrick, Mata and Rooney through the centre of the midfield.
As a result, he soon switched to a 4-1-4-1 which allowed a more coordinated press should the ball be lost. The same consisted of a flat back four with Phil Jones and Chris Smalling occupying the centre-back positions whilst Luke Shaw was brought in to replace Evra and Valencia was converted into a decent wing-back.
Another new recruit Daley Blind was slowly eased into the deep lying midfielder role, dislodging Carrick to act as the sides main possession cog. Ahead of him, Ander Herrera would play a box-to-box role whilst Fellaini would often support Rooney as a secondary striker in attack whilst also dropping into midfield when United were without the ball to maintain defensive rigidity.
Whilst United did tend to control possession in most of their fixtures, they were often frustratingly slow in using the ball, with passes lacking any real intent. Teams soon realised they could sit in a low block, frustrate the Reds and then look to explode in transition and score on the counter.
United limped into the top four in Van Gaal’s first season but he had notably lacked the imposing impact many had expected.
In his second season, there was more of a reliance on a 4-2-3-1, which although traditionally was considered more of a defensive tactic, did have the potential to provide United with more penetrative ability in the final third – particularly with the arrival of the highly regarded Memphis Depay.
However, key to the success of the same would usually hang on deploying a deep-lying forward behind the main striker. Van Gaal, however, often favoured deploying a three man midfield including players such as Morgan Schneiderlin, Schweinsteiger and Herrera, meaning possession dominance was always assured, but attacking threat was stifled. Notably, 21 of United’s 38 Premier League games in his second season had two goals or fewer.
Despite lifting the FA Cup in May, United’s failure to both qualify out of their Champions League group and finish back inside the top four was enough to see the club sack the Dutchman after just two seasons in charge.
The Mourinho era
Jose Mourinho’s arrival was deemed as the second coming of United as a force on the pitch.
The principles that had previously been established during Ferguson’s tenure gradually seemed to have been lost, particularly under Van Gaal who evidently preferred slow possession-play as opposed to full throttle attacking.
Rather than reinvigorating United’s identity on the pitch, though, Mourinho was introduced to restore the winning culture of the club.
No Premier League titles had been won since Ferguson’s final season, and it was deemed as imperative that United re-establish their claim as England’s best.
In virtually every role he’s assumed at various clubs in different countries, Mourinho had secured a league title. He was a proven winner with charisma and status, and he’d been introduced to win by any means necessary.
The United boss had previously been labelled as a defensive coach, but was that entirely true?
The Portuguese is perhaps more accurately described as strategic in his approach to football. He isn’t bound by specific idealistic principles in the mould of Pep Guardiola, for example, and instead prefers to apply the most suitable game-plan based mostly on the opposing team’s strengths and weaknesses.
Mourinho was on punditry duty when Tottenham Hotspur beat Ajax in the Champions League semi-finals last season, and he epitomised his perception of football when describing the result by stating: “The philosophy lost against the strategy.”
One constant for Mourinho throughout his career has been his preference for players that are mature and physical. His thinking is relatively short-term, and he desires immediate results rather than long-term stability.
The likes of Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic and Romelu Lukaku were signed for big-money to execute his game, with each of those being 6-foot-3 or more. Those players had already experienced the majority of their development, and had enough quality to deliver instantly.
4-2-3-1 was Mourinho’s primary formation, with the likes of Lukaku and Henrikh Mkhitaryan ahead of Matic and Pogba in central midfield, which would later be understood to be a problematic pairing due to the latter’s lack of tactical discipline.
United dominated the ball and their opponents at their best when tasked with facing low-quality opposition, but that changed somewhat against rival teams.
Mourinho was inclined to relinquish possession more often than not against teams such as Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Chelsea. He instead preferred to force those rivals into mistakes which made a degree of sense but eventually became ineffectual.
The 56 year-old supposedly has seven winning principles regarding big matches that aren’t commonly held, with the first of those being ‘the game is won by the team who commits fewer errors’, and the second being ‘football favours whoever provokes more errors in the opposition’.
There was some logic to such an approach, but once facing Guardiola’s City after 18 months in charge, it became evident that Mourinho’s game – and squad – was lacking in comparison to the Catalan’s.
City won 2-1 at Old Trafford having dominated 64.4% of the possession, as well as taking 14 shots in comparison to only eight amassed by the home side. There was an evident gap in standard between the two Manchester clubs despite both managers taking charge at the same time.
Mourinho managed to finish second in the Premier League in one season which was a good achievement considering the capability of his squad, but that campaign ended with a 19-point gap between United and City.
The Reds had finished as runners-up, but scored only the fifth-most goals as Mourinho became increasingly pragmatic towards the end of the season.
In the summer before his departure, the Portuguese wanted specific reinforcements signed with a central defender being deemed as a priority, but that failed to materialise.
Mourinho entered the new season knowing the limitations of his team, and because of his short-term, results-orientated outlook on football, United approached virtually every match with a different plan. The team, formation and playing style was changing weekly as a means of adapting to the opposition.
United were sacrificing their long-term health to gain short-term results and eventually, once the negativity grew to be too much, Mourinho was dismissed after a 3-1 loss to Liverpool at Anfield.
The team had scored 29 and conceded 29 in the Premier League when he departed. No dominance had been established over opposing teams and the club were arguably in a more concerning position than before he was appointed.
The Solskjaer era
Enter Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the club legend who was chosen to restore the identity of United rather than simply prioritising results and winning.
Solskjaer is still in charge to the present day and requires time, but already it’s clear that lessons seem to have been learnt from Mourinho’s tenure.
The club now appear more committed to long-term health and are making decisions that don’t involve quick fixes, with Solskjaer aiming to revive the essence of United’s game under Ferguson.
It’s early days, but the team are currently highly suited to swift, counter-attacking football. Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and new signing, Daniel James, all have speed in abundance and are able to thrive when there is space to dart into.
United combine quickly in small spaces and attack in a mostly narrow manner, progressing from A to B as quickly as possible rather than building slowly. 4-2-3-1 seems to have been retained, but the team are now more youthful and energetic in comparison to before.
The overriding problem at the moment is United’s capability when afforded possession. Many opposing teams are willing to defend and allow United to have the ball, and the team tend to struggle when that is the case due to the lack of ideas and inventiveness in deeper areas.
Pogba’s presence would assist greatly in that regard, but he’s been injured for much of Solskjaer’s permanent time at the helm. Key attackers such as Rashford and Martial are unable to contribute significantly when required to break down a set defence because they’re required to stay close to goal where the space is clogged, as the emphasis is placed on United’s defenders and midfielders to showcase their creativity.
However, this is a sacrifice that has to be made in order to build gradually. Certain playmaking types such as Christian Eriksen could have been potentially signed in the summer, but that would have been a short-term solution.
The tactical make-up of United at the moment revolves around speed, which isn’t a negative but that won’t always have such an impact on proceedings. If Solskjaer can progressively improve the team’s imagination in possession while signing players that are youthful and offensive-minded on the ball, particularly in midfield, then it’s likely that the team’s major flaw will be eradicated.
Solskjaer’s version of United is a work in progress, but the patience shown is certainly encouraging and should foster gradual improvement rather than permanent short-termism.
Ferguson’s United at their best were highly adaptable on the pitch, having showcased an ability to cope regardless of the opponent or the match scenario because of their wide variety of skills. If Solskjaer can renew those qualities, then the Manchester club’s ambition to return to the top may be realised.