“In many respects this sport above all others has articulated certain changes in English society over the past century,” writes James Walvin in The People’s Game, a seminal work on the history and rise of football in England. From the “ritualistic free-for-all” of medieval times, to a codified game for the common people – football’s development has long matched the long arc of economic and social change. Yet, long gone too are the working class and community roots of yesteryear; today’s game is a globalised proposition, distilled with little irony into an insipid brand that proffers an “identity that acknowledges everyone who plays a part” in the Premier League’s overly-commercialised machinery. Read More
Manchester United, in fifth, travel to 13th-placed Chelsea on Sunday, with Louis van Gaal’s side seeking to mount a serious challenge for the top four. It is a sentence few would have believed if mentioned in August. Yet, mediocrity has struck at both Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge this season, with neither set of supporters enjoying the football on offer for much of the campaign. Read More
Boxing Day 2015. Manchester United, beaten 2-0 by Stoke City, left the Britannia Stadium flattered by a disappointing scoreline. Louis van Gaal marched down the touchline waving at the traveling United fans. Many saw it as an apologetic goodbye; few thought they would see Van Gaal in the dugout again. The defeat left United without a win in seven games over a period that saw the Reds crash out of the Champions League and slip down the domestic table. Read More
Relaxed. It was the dominant adjective describing Louis van Gaal’s performance in the Dutchman’s meet-the-press gathering on Friday. The Dutchman, whose propensity to last in the Manchester United job has been questioned more than once in the past two months, has cut an irritable figure of late. Little wonder – the veteran manager has built a career on surety of opinion, if nothing else, and doubts raised by pundits, supporters and the fourth estate do not sit easily with Van Gaal’s increasingly challenged worldview. Yet, victories over Swansea City, Sheffield United and Liverpool have added to Van Gaal’s confidence, and a renewed sense of momentum since the turn of the year. Read More
The modern football bubble lives week-to-week. More often than not opinion changes week-to-week as well. Take Wayne Rooney, who ended 2015 in dire form, and has begun 2016 on a scoring streak. The striker has five goals in four games, including two penalties, but some seem to have forgotten the player’s struggle throughout the previous year. Burst of form aside, the larger sample size of yesteryear has a greater bearing on our assessment of the player than four games ever could. Read More
“I can’t stand Liverpool, I can’t stand Liverpool people, I can’t stand anything to do with them,” Gary Neville once noted of Manchester United’s opponents this Sunday. It is a sentiment that resonates with many. And so often in the past this game would have been the most important on the football calendar; two North West giants toe-to-toe in another Cup final or with a League title on the line. It is a very different time for English football’s greatest clubs. Read More
“My greatest challenge is not what’s happening at the moment, my greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their fucking perch.”
It was, as ever, Sir Alex Ferguson’s defiance in the face of media criticism that elicited the Scot’s best and most memorable invective. “And you can print that,” was the appendage that inspired a thousand banners.
The year ended much as it began: with Louis van Gaal’s side languishing well behind the Premier League leaders, exiled from European competition and out of at least one domestic cup. Plus ça change, Louis. United’s run of eight matches without a victory as 2015 closed helped to end the year with a sense of crisis in the air. The new year begins with Van Gaal under pressure to turn the team around, Ed Woodward to secure the resources his heavily backed manager needs, and the fans to remain positive amid what is beginning to feel like permanent decline. Read More
“We are improving every week and we will be better in 2015, just watch” – Louis van Gaal’s words in December 2014, just after his Manchester United side had ended the year with a draw at Tottenham Hotspur. Although the veteran couldn’t know it, he could not have been further from the truth. Despite finishing fourth back in May, Van Gaal’s side has offered supporters little over the past year other than disappointment. Having not won for eight games the Reds look to start the New Year in positive fashion with victory over struggling Swansea City on Saturday. Read More
Just when you thought the crisis has hit its lowest point, Louis van Gaal’s side found a way to burrow further into the abyss. Following another comprehensive defeat at the hands of Stoke City the club has now lost four games in a row, something the Red Devils have not suffered since 1961. The side is also now winless in seven games. Can the situation get any worse?
The answer might be yes – a home clash to finish the year awaits, with Chelsea visiting Old Trafford on Monday. Optimism hasn’t been at a lower ebb at any point during the Van Gaal era, and most fans are hoping he is either given his marching orders or falls on his own sword before the end of the year.
Criticism of the Dutchman is almost certainly justified, with defence of his methods now as flimsy as the efforts of his back-four. Despite Van Gaal’s successes in rebuilding the club from the ground up, for which he deserves credit, on-field performances have at best stalled and are arguably going backwards. Patience with the process has reached a pivotal moment.
Comparison’s with David Moyes grow by the day – the two managers records are comparable, with Van Gaal’s number no longer that favourable. Yet the common thread between the two men is less the results, but the man who hired them: Edward Gareth Woodward.
Woodward was promoted to the role of executive vice-chairman when David Gill stepped aside in 2013, following Sir Alex Ferguson out the door. Whilst Woodward is clearly a marketing guru, the former banker has essentially acted as the Chief Executive Officer, Commercial Director and Director of Football for United in the past two years. It isn’t working.
The reality, of course, is that Woodward is succeeding in running United as a business, but not as a football club. The question remains as to why Woodward appears to be immune to media criticism given that he now has two managerial failures behind him. If Van Gaal is in the firing line, then Woodward should join him.
Woodward has not been clear of blame from the club’s fans since he was promoted to the top job. He is, after all, a figurehead for the Glazer’s ownership of the club – a controversial topic within itself – whilst appearing to place financial success far above on-field performance. Woodward, it appears, fails to grasp that on the pitch success also means that the dollars will follow.
Woodward’s first window in charge was underwhelming – he hired Moyes, then failed in pursuit of a string of star players, leading to a very public display of panic on transfer deadline day. Marouane Fellaini joined for £27.5 million in August 2013 when the Belgian could have been signed for four million less had he a move been completed in July.
This followed a tortuous summer, with fruitless pursuits of players that, in some cases, were never likely to join the club. It has become an unfortunate routine, with supporters teased on an almost daily basis once transfer windows open – an embarrassing turn of events for a club of United’s stature.
Woodward chased Leighton Baines through summer 2013, although the defender was never close to a move, with the vice chair leading a naïve series of low bids for both the left-back and his teammate Fellaini. The pursuit indicated a gross lack of experience in transfer negotiation and a lack of respect for the selling club, with Everton already hesitant to join negotiations.
Then, for all of United’s spending power and willing show of financial muscle, the club could not tempt Gareth Bale to stay in England and make the move from Tottenham Hotspur. Despite reportedly offering north of £100 million for the Welshman, Bale joined Real Madrid that summer for a world record transfer fee.
Cesc Fabregas also turned his back on interest from United and a year later led the Premier League in assists as Chelsea reclaimed the Premier League. Fabregas is struggling this season, but at the time the Reds Devils were in desperate need of creativity in midfield.
Fabregas’ compatriot Thiago Alcantara also seemed to be on his way from Spain before Bayern Munich’s late interest, and Moyes’ dithering, scuppered a move. The opportunity to sign Munich’s Toni Kroos was turned down a year later, which makes even less sense now than it did then as the German flourishes in Madrid.
The list goes on. Woodward’s apparent interest in Mats Hummels and Arturo Vidal approach farcical proportions, leading to accusations of amateurism in the transfer market. It was and is unacceptable given United’s stature and does not appear to happen to other European giants. The longer the club holds am interest in Cristiano Ronaldo the more it mirrors that of the ex who cannot accept their former partner has moved on.
Worse than amateur behaviour, United’s transfer policy seems to prioritise commercial interests ahead of playing needs. It led directly to United’s acquisition of Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria, neither of whom lasted 12 months in Manchester before bolting for greener pastures. The Argentine’s departure may prove to be a mistake, but Di Maria’s signature, despite his lack of fit within Van Gaal’s system, must also be questioned.
Then there is United’s chase for a central defender over the last two summers. It is, frankly, ridiculous that someone of a suitable calibre has not yet arrived at Old Trafford. Sergio Ramos used United’s interest to secure a new contract and the captaincy at Real Madrid, whilst Nicolas Otamendi now plies his trade on the other side of Manchester – and was signed at a relatively reasonable price.
Woodward might be a lifelong United fan, whose father attended the 1968 European Cup Final, but the executive apparently does not have the nous to lead United’s transfer policy. That is not to understate his genius in globalising United’s commercial operation, but what happens on the field is more important to the club’s future.
Woodward’s failings through five transfer windows and two managerial appointments is threatening to drive United into a sustained period of failure. Meanwhile, rivals at home and abroad have progressed far beyond United on the pitch, perhaps to the point that it will be hard to attract players from elite clubs, even if they are being forced out the door, as Di Maria was at Real.
The harsh reality is that even United’s English rivals are outpacing the Reds on and off the field. Pep Guardiola seems closer to the blue side of Manchester than the red, whilst United slips further down the league table with each defeat. United risks ‘doing a Liverpool’ and being left far behind. Perhaps for years to come.
And much of this regression can be traced back to decisions Woodward has personally made. It’s surely now time to start holding United’s vice chair to account if the club wants to move forward. The best scenario might that United’s future is one without its executive chairman.