Manchester United were once the club the rest of English football aspired to be.
Dominance spanned over two decades, with United winning 13 of the first 21 Premier League titles during the reign of Sir Alex Ferguson. The haul of trophies was unrivalled.
Then the empire crumbled, slowly at first and then spectacularly. Five years have now come and gone with the honours board untouched. The season that has just finished brought dismal new depths: the club’s worst points haul in the Premier League.
New manager Erik ten Hag, recruited from Ajax, certainly has a job in store.
A dysfunctional, disjointed squad has fallen far behind rivals Manchester City and Liverpool and any notion that progress was being made under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been dispelled inside 12 muddled months that included the short and uninspiring reign of Ralf Rangnick.
Then there are the off-field problems. Protests against the Glazer family, owners since 2005, depict an ailing, unhappy club.
The rebuilding of Manchester United starts with the appointment of Ten Hag but it might need to be a patient, long-term project.
“A football club needs to have a plan and it needs to have a structure and an understanding of where it’s going,” says one Premier League executive. “You can’t go anywhere unless you put that in place.
“If you get all of that right, you have a good chance of coming back. If they keep winging it, they have no chance at all.”
The Athletic has spoken to players, employees, coaches, rivals, executives, investors and football industry experts to ascertain what United should do to get back on track in what is a pivotal summer for the men’s side of the club.
“We need a reset in the culture of the club. That’s how I feel,” says Juan Mata, who will leave the club this summer. “And if you speak with anyone they will say the same.
“The standards, what it means to represent this club to any player. What entitles you to play for Manchester United? What is expected, on the pitch and off the pitch? Many things that need to be clear — this is Manchester United and whoever doesn’t meet those standards is not up to the task and should not be here. That’s as clear as I can be.”
The logical place to begin is with a group of players patently not good enough. For all the money that has been spent, the shortcomings are stark.
At a club that did not finish outside of the top flight’s top three for 22 seasons (1991-92 to 2012-13), title challenges have become a fading memory. A 12-point deficit in 2020-21 was as good as it has got but across the last six seasons, they have, on average, been 25 points back. Manchester City ended up 35 points better off in 2021-22.
Personnel changes are inevitable this summer. Paul Pogba, once the world’s most expensive player when joining from Juventus in 2016, will depart as a free agent along with Edinson Cavani, Jesse Lingard, Nemanja Matic and Mata.
The overhaul, according to Rangnick, will require patience. Two or three transfer windows, estimates the man who has abandoned his consultancy role to manage the Austria national team. That feels optimistic.
“That’s just a classic football thing,” says a Premier League club executive. “Rangnick has been a complete disaster. I would have told them not to hire him — and that’s the problem with Manchester United. They don’t make those calls. If we were thinking about making significant changes, such as the manager, we wouldn’t do it without getting as many references as possible. They don’t seem to do that.
“They probably listen to agents too much and will think it’s a good thing they are connected to all the big agents. But they are Manchester United… surely they can make a decent signing once in a while? It’s pretty bad. They have got an awful lot wrong.”
United have often got it badly wrong when it comes to recruitment in particular. The club’s model tends to lack clarity when placed alongside that of rivals.
“As much as we don’t want to say it, Liverpool… every time they sign a player, you are thinking, ‘Wow, they look like they have done their homework’,” says former United winger Quinton Fortune.
“Take Luis Diaz. I had been watching him for the last few months and years, thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, this is the player United need to sign’. Then Liverpool sign him and you are just thinking ‘Nooo!’. How are we missing these players? Come on! Help me out here!”
Mata agrees. “When I see Liverpool and City winning many games and being closer to trophies it is very, very frustrating,” he says. “It is not only that we are not doing that, but our biggest rivals are. It is a double punishment which hurts me.
“If you take the squad name by name at the beginning of the season, from the different football clubs in the Premier League and the potential that each of us could get at our best level, I don’t see a massive difference. The problem is that out of that squad, what you try to get is the best possible level from each player and take that squad to the next level by improving that, and that hasn’t happened.
“What I know is that being at Manchester United, whether you are in any position, this club needs first-class individuals for each department. That is how I understand Manchester United. This club should be top of the class in every department, whether on pitch or off pitch.”
Avram Glazer, United co-chairman with younger brother Joel, gave the impression there would be funds for Ten Hag to use in this summer’s transfer market when giving a brief interview to Sky News at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month but there is something more intangible that also needs to be addressed.
“When I look at Liverpool and City I see discipline and focus. Liverpool have a more successful history and the players understand that,” says Brian McClair, who played under Ferguson and managed United’s academy.
“United need to have someone there outside of the coaches who makes sure that there’s discipline in the club. Someone to make sure the players, from the first team to the academy, understand the visions and values of what it means to play for Manchester United.
“They were first installed by Matt Busby and they were resurrected by Alex Ferguson but from what I can see, it has been lost. It’s often simple little things that can make a big difference. Players have to understand what it means to be a United player.”
“The style needs to be understood by everyone,” adds former United striker Louis Saha. “There can be no half a second where you have to think to play left or play right. You just know we play for the team.
“The first thing I would do is to rebuild these parameters that were strong, that were never moved. It’s about having a foundation that whoever is playing, they know what to do.”
That cultural reset has begun to feel as important as any structural alteration. United have drifted from one manager to the next, and it shows in a group that spent long spells of this season not knowing where to turn.
“With all the talent United have, if they do not work together, it has no purpose,” adds Fortune. “You can put Lionel Messi in the team but you need to work together. Hopefully now with Erik coming in, he needs to find a way for them to work together, to find happy players and get those relationships going again.”
Dwight Yorke, a treble winner in 1998-99, agrees. “Manchester United are a long way from being the team I played for,” he says. “There’s a big recovery needed: City, Liverpool and Chelsea are a long way ahead right now.
“That hurts. There are problems within the team — it’s clear to see in the way they play and the results. The team spirit is not what it should be and that needs to come back. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”
“It’s a process, I understand,” adds Javier Hernandez, who scored 59 goals during five years at United, “(but) enough is enough in a way because you’ve been waiting since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. So when you start accepting that and knowing that an evolution is coming?
“I could say that I’m a Fergie player and I feel so blessed but… I’m a believer in growth. And when you grow you don’t do the same things. So you need to accept that.”
Even if the old days are romanticised, a period that cannot be replicated, the number of listless, timid performances witnessed in the last year point to deeper problems.
“Something is not right,” adds Fortune. “They don’t look happy. The team spirit and relationships and respect we had together… it is difficult from the outside to judge… but when you see the players on the pitch, it does not look like they work together.”
“You have the right kind of budget for the transfer market,” says Saha. “New players need to have a good understanding, whatever they’ve been paid or if the transfer fee is £100 million, that they are still not bigger than the club. The institution is bigger and you may not be guaranteed a first-team spot. If they feel they are guaranteed to play, that’s not healthy at all.”
Ten Hag will hope Steve McClaren, Ferguson’s assistant between 1999 and 2001, can help piece the dressing room back together. McClaren will be a central figure in United’s backroom team, serving as assistant to Ten Hag when pre-season begins next month.
“I found Steve refreshing as a coach, like a kid on the training field full of enthusiasm and ideas,” says Yorke. “The players responded to his enthusiasm — he was very vocal and lively. He knows what Manchester United is and that’s important. He’s experienced, he knows England and English clubs, he knows the pressures. Steve can support Erik ten Hag, but equally United’s new manager has to be his own person.”
If there has been a shaft of light in the darkness of this season, it has been supplied by United’s academy. A promising under-18s side won the FA Youth Cup by beating Nottingham Forest last month, the first time they have won the prestigious trophy since 2010-11.
United continue to hold youth development central to their plans.
Nick Cox is the head of United’s academy. “I’ve been here six years and we’ve been on a journey of improvement,” he tells The Athletic. “There have been some fantastic things to happen in 80 years of developing players and unbelievable staff leaving their fingerprints. The club needed to realign itself after some significant people left in Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill (United’s former chief executive).
“We need to protect the foundations, the cornerstones of youth development that have been put in place over many years. Sometimes you can get confused between history and culture. We have a really powerful history. But culture is an evolving thing.
“You can’t celebrate what you have achieved and not address the ways you can behave today. Everyone being aligned, understanding their role, knowing it comes with accountabilities. Joined-up thinking about what players need to look like, the experiences they have. We are about helping individuals reach their full potential.”
“The issue is around structure,” says a Premier League executive. “They must know that. If they have got a plan and a structure to support what they are trying to do, they can get their success back. But they need to work out who they are, how they do it and who is going to do what. It’s too late for them to keep thinking they are the champions of England.”
For all United have collapsed as a footballing force over the last 12 months, there is an acceptance that the problems run far deeper. This, the critics argue, is a culmination of mismanagement spanning years.
If United commanded the respect of their rivals under Gill, chief executive until 2013, such a reputation has withered. No longer is this a club blazing a trail. It has begun to look profligate, confused and aimless.
Few mourned the exit of Ed Woodward after a long goodbye that concluded in February. The former executive vice-chairman was, for many, the emblem of United’s demise; the figurehead of continued failure.
Richard Arnold, Woodward’s one-time deputy, is now the man at the helm and there have been many other changes at the top.
Matt Judge stepped down from his position as director of football negotiations in April and Hemen Tseayo left as the club’s chief strategy officer a month later. Tseayo was considered a close ally of Woodward and is understood to have felt his exit would work best for all parties.
Chief scout Jim Lawlor and head of global scouting Marcel Bout have also departed in recent months but one insider believes this is not yet the “Big Bang restructure that they absolutely need” for United to come again.
Look at this diagram of United’s hierarchy from last summer to see how much change has occurred…
“Under Woodward, United was a very CEO-led organisation,” says a football industry expert. “He reported directly to the owners and everyone reported to him.
“That sounds very clear, doesn’t it? But it actually stifles decision-making. All authority is centralised and there is no delegation. Nobody is empowered to think. And if the CEO gets blindsided by the football side of the business, nothing else happens. Whole aspects of the business can be ignored. But they have got good people and a lot of those people know what’s wrong and are hoping there will be a rebuild.
“I’ve got a lot of time for John Murtough (football director) and what he’s doing. He’s putting in place some processes and structures that should bear fruit. And it looks like Richard Arnold is a lot more willing to delegate and listen than his predecessor. But I’m still not convinced they are doing the full rebuild they need.”
There are some, including those who worked at United during the greatest days, who believe the movement in the boardroom has been overplayed.
“United have been here a few times before,” says a former senior member of staff. “I remember conversations about United’s DNA, cultural resets and reboots but, in recent years, the problem has been that United mean slightly different things to different people.
“When the club was at its best, we all knew what success looked like: the first team winning trophies. Everything fed into that goal. If we just look at the recruitment in recent years, I think we’ve perhaps got too focused on signing the star name — Pogba, Angel Di Maria, Alexis Sanchez — and not thinking enough about the squad.
“It sounds stupid but it really is all about the team. When they are doing well, everything gets easier. You can see that with the various protest groups over the years. When the team struggles, momentum builds. But if they win three games 4-0, it calms down again.”
Those runs have been few and far between, though, placing United’s footballing vision constantly under the microscope. Winning football matches can hide a multitude of sins but it grows increasingly difficult to recall the last great team built at Old Trafford.
The footballing hierarchy at United effectively now revolves around Murtough. He was appointed the club’s first football director in March 2021, a role United never previously felt necessary.
It was considered a justified reward for a man who has been with United since 2014 and previously held the position of head of football development. Woodward believed Murtough had been “integral” to United’s footballing operations.
The appointment dovetailed with Darren Fletcher’s as technical director and, according to Woodward, “reinforced the progress we have been making as a club in recent years in our relentless pursuit of success”.
Those words jar 15 months later but United will not deviate from that plan — as evidenced by this week’s appointment of Andy O’Boyle as assistant football director.
The 39-year-old left his role as the head of elite performance at the Premier League and has previously coached in United’s academy. O’Boyle will assist Murtough, who says they are aiming to “strengthen leadership and strategic planning across all our football activities”.
Murtough has made other appointments too, bringing in Cox to replace former midfielder Nicky Butt in the academy and installing Justin Cochrane as the link between youth and senior groups, working as head of first-team development. Fletcher performs a similar role liaising between the first team and those “upstairs”.
The absence of continuity, though, hurts United. Ten Hag’s new backroom team, including McClaren and Mitchell van der Gaag, have arrived to clear out Rangnick and his coaches. Ewan Sharp, Sascha Lense and Chris Armas are all moving on. Mike Phelan has also been told he will not be part of Ten Hag’s group but his future is unclear.
Ten Hag will be tasked with leading recruitment in this summer’s window, working alongside existing staff to land the handful of players he feels United need to target.
“With the announcement of Erik, I see a broad alignment in the club and a bit more of a clear vision,” says Fortune. “It feels exciting because things are more clear in the direction the club wants to go.
“Some players are leaving at the end of their contracts but I find that exciting for the new manager — fresh start, clean sheet, new style of play… but also understanding Manchester United’s style of forward-thinking, attacking football.
“The most important thing — I am sure he will get it — is to restore the culture, the unity, that relationship between staff, players, togetherness… that feeling with the fans and creating a positive environment.”
If the fish rots from the head, United’s problems continue to be rooted in owners that have overseen interminable decay. The Glazer family might have won a glut of trophies in the early years as the late Malcolm Glazer built up a 90 per cent shareholding but their approval rating has never been lower.
They are the maligned owners that staged a leveraged takeover, against vocal opposition, and continue to be a drain on United’s finances. Close to £900 million has been spent servicing debts in the last 17 years.
And are they going anywhere? Not any time soon.
“I think that’s right, sadly,” says Lord Jim O’Neill, formerly Goldman Sachs’ chief economist and an ex-United director, who was once part of the Red Knight group that explored buying United in 2010. “Unless there was some completely insane cash offer coming out of the blue but from what I can see there’s hardly anyone on the planet that could be.
“It seems to be the prime attraction of owning United is how much cash they can take out. The right way to own something is to adapt through time and with society, and that’s particularly true with a football club. I know what is the wrong way and that’s to treat it as a cash cow for highly indebted private equity people. That is not the right way.”
The Glazers have such a tight hold of United that a successful rebuild might well be in spite of them. Can they possibly lead it or are improved fortunes their only hope of avoiding scrutiny?
“No, I think it’s more than that,” adds O’Neill. “I would like to see, on the first day our new manager starts, Joel Glazer sitting there next to him and saying, ‘We have learnt from the endless protests that, as of today, we have a completely new purpose for Manchester United. It is x, y and z’.”
Well, that didn’t happen. Joel Glazer, co-chairman and owner of United, is loath to open himself up to supporters and that stance has not softened since he was among those pushing for the European Super League last year. Glazer was named as vice-chairman of the Super League, pledging to “open a new chapter for European football” before it all came crashing down within 48 hours.
An open letter to supporters did nothing to repair the damage but underlined Glazer remains in this for the long haul. Appearances at online fans’ forums have entrenched that view. “We got it wrong, and we want to show that we can put things right,” he wrote last April. “I am personally committed to rebuilding trust with our fans and learning from the message you delivered with such conviction.”
Messages of opposition keep on coming, with protests outside Old Trafford in the final weeks of the season, but Glazer and United are attempting to focus on long-term projects — like the stadium they call home. Although Old Trafford remains the Premier League’s biggest venue with a capacity of almost 75,000, the stadium is indicative of a club that has allowed others to overtake them.
Purpose-built stadiums owned by Arsenal and Tottenham are models of modernity when placed alongside Old Trafford, where major redevelopment has not taken place since 2006. Liverpool’s work on Anfield, with one stand rebuilt and another on its way, has shown United what is possible, as have Real Madrid, with an enormous renovation of the Bernabeu. United, meanwhile, have only known leaking roofs and cramped concourses.
The Glazers have at least accepted United finally have a problem with their historic home. Architect firm Populous and management consultants Legends International were appointed in April “with the aim of significantly enhancing the fan experience” at Old Trafford. A full rebuild is unlikely but United could feasibly increase capacity to 88,000.
“The big issue, of course, is the stadium,” says one industry insider. “Building costs have doubled over the last few years. If they had done this five years ago, when they should have done it, they could be in great shape now.
“Think about Real Madrid’s timing. OK, nobody saw COVID coming but Manchester United needed to upgrade Old Trafford then, too. And they have a unique opportunity.
“They own so much land around the ground, they could build a new stadium without needing to move anywhere and then turn the whole site into Manchester United World.
“People come to Manchester United every day, just to be there. I don’t know why they come — there is almost nothing for them to do most days — but they come. Imagine what United could do with that level of interest and the room they’ve got.”
There is undoubtedly money to be made with stadium improvements. Tottenham leapt ahead of United in the 2019-20 season for match-day income, a fanciful notion when the London club were still at White Hart Lane. Tottenham’s new home helped them to yield £95 million in match-day income for a season interrupted by COVID-19. United, meanwhile, netted only £87 million in the same period.
If there is one part of the Manchester United machine that does not require immediate remedial work it is their commercial arm. Five barren seasons have done little to diminish their off-field strength. The muscle endures.
In the Deloitte Football Money League 2022, United were credited with having an annual commercial income of £232 million. Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Barcelona all brought in more, as did Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain with the weight of Qatar behind them, but United were comfortably ahead of Liverpool on £211 million. Chelsea were the next best performing Premier League club on £155 million.
Commercial gains, such as those noodle and tractor partners in the Far East, have become a stick to beat United with but they are still what ensures money has never been at the heart of the problems. For all it was spent badly, it is always there — even if some think they could have made even more.
“A lot of it was where you are in a matter of time,” says O’Neill. “United finally winning the league (in 1992-93), just as it became the Premier League, and the growth of the European Cup and its morphing into the Champions League, was very fortuitous timing.
“When I really look to be critical of the Glazers’ ownership, United were set up then to actually be the Barcelona of the next decade, and to idiots like me, and the passion of the club, we should have done so much better than we did. It’s because the Glazers weren’t (passionate) and they’re not very thoughtful.
“The problem, it seems to me, that United have today — and mini-crises are coming out of the core problem — is there’s no purpose other than extracting cash. What they need to develop is profits — and it’s fine for them to want some profits — but with a purpose.
“The more they preside over this way, the more the brands they bring to attach themselves to it do the same. It’s horribly logical but if you want to change it, it’s got to come from the top.”
Another problem is the sheer size of United, a club with nearly 1,000 employees.
“A club like United is about 10 different businesses: media, catering, sponsorship, venue, merchandising and so on,” says an industry insider. “How do you get them working together? What you find is they often work against each other.
“So the commercial department might be incentivising its people to do as many £20 million deals as possible but they’ll create £15 million of costs for other departments, so they’re actually just £5 million deals. Or the club could be pushing shirt sales but seeing no additional profit from them because they’ve outsourced all the merchandising. There has been a lot of this at United.”
So long as they hold their enormous fanbase, both at home and overseas, United will, though, continue to be a brand to which companies are drawn.
“It’s going to take a generation before you see a marked effect because they have this huge following,” says Tim Crow, a sports marketing expert. “Although there will be people who say fans come and go and there is some truth in that, with fans following players around, United have this huge draw.
“That came in the growth of the Premier League, the Ferguson team and all the star power. The club continued to build on the back of what had come before and they undoubtedly have one of the top two or three fanbases in the world.
“That is not going to change anytime soon although it will erode if they continue not to perform at the absolute highest level. Who is getting the new fans now? That’s where United might have a problem down the road. They’re not at the top of the game so they’re not hoovering up the new fans like they used to.
“It would still take a generation before you saw any real change. It’s the same with Liverpool, who have an enormous fanbase. They had two or three generations of fans living with success, grandfathers, fathers and sons had passed it on while they won leagues and cups. That doesn’t go away.”
Contributors: Philip Buckingham, Laurie Whitwell, Matt Slater, Adam Crafton, Dan Sheldon, Felipe Cardenas, Andy Mitten, Peter Rutzler
(Design: Kris Sheasby for The Athletic)