December 5, 2021

Manchester United. From Moscow to misery…

By Luke McFarlane

It’s 21st May 2008 at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs celebrate among a host of great players as Edwin van der Sar’s penalty save wins Manchester United their third European Cup (Champions League). The opposing Chelsea players fall to their knees as United add European silverware to an already collected 17th league title. “The newly crowned champions of England are the new Champions of Europe” remarks the great Clive Tyldesley.

Credit - The Guardian

With the “Ronaldo to Madrid” rumours beginning to circulate, it was clear United’s grip on English and European football may be loosening. In the following season, however, they showed no signs of slowing down and would be crowned World Champions, added with an 18th league title to an ever-growing trophy cabinet. They would, however, fail to replicate their European success of the previous season. United knocked out Italian giants, Inter Milan- managed then by Jose Mourinho, a strong FC Porto side and make easy work of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal with a 4-1 win on aggregate. 

They went on to face an emerging European powerhouse in FC Barcelona in the final. Managed by a young Pep Guardiola, Barcelona boasted arguably the best group of players in the world at this point in time. Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta were just some of the players that would later be regarded by Barcelona fans as the “Golden Generation”. United at this time were the strongest counter-attacking side in Europe which had worked so well in helping them brush aside Arsenal in the Semi Final and beating Barcelona the year before on the road to winning the competition.

Sir Alex Ferguson and his coaching staff thought this would work wonders again, against a Barcelona team who relied heavily on being on the front foot and having the ball. This would backfire in the final. United would start strong in the opening minutes, however Samuel Eto’o quickly settled his team’s nerves by putting Barcelona 1-0 up in the 10th minute. From there Barcelona seemed to be in control and Lionel Messi would give his team daylight in the 70th minute by heading home with an exquisite header to confirm a 2-0 victory in the final and get his hands on his first European crown.

Matters would be made worse that summer for United. Ballon d’Or winner, Cristiano Ronaldo went on to leave in a, then world record, £80 million deal to Real Madrid. United would also lose Argentine star, Carlos Tevez to rivals Manchester City. City up to this point were nowhere near the same pedigree as United, but had been bought by ambitious and wealthy businessmen who were keen to start investing heavily in the team. This is something that United fans could not say for their owners. 

That summer United would sign Gabriel Obertan, Michael Owen and Antonio Valencia. Out of these players, Valencia would be the biggest success, eventually becoming club captain and stay at the club for 10 years. Obertan would never be able to live up to the hype and was eventually sold to Newcastle United after just two seasons. Owen most notably scored the “Fergie time” winner in a cup tie against Man City and being a free transfer, you could argue he provided bang for his buck. However, it’s fair to say none of these players reached the levels of the departing Ronaldo or Tevez. This signified the start of a slow and seemingly never ending decline for Man Utd under the Glazer ownership.

In the coming seasons, United still managed to compete at the top end of European and League football. They would always be there or there abouts in the League, winning their 19th English title in the 2010/11 season, where they again met Barcelona in the Champions league final, this time losing 3-1. Then in 2012/13 they would win a record-breaking 20th league title. That year they looked strong in Europe, however, a loss to Real Madrid after a controversial Luis Nani red card would end their Champions League reunion early. 

Despite this, there was real positivity around the red side of Manchester, not only after their league success but rumours seemed to be heating up for a “Ronaldo Return”. The former United star had scored 2 goals in the Madrid tie, but showed a great deal of respect to United with his muted celebrations. This seemed to add to the idea that a reunion might be on the cards for Sir Alex and Ronaldo, who notably had a father-son like relationship.

Unfortunately, this was not to happen. Sir Alex Ferguson announced he would retire that year, bringing an end to these rumours and sparking an unforeseeable downturn in form and success for United in the coming seasons.

Replacing arguably United’s greatest manager of all time was no easy task and United would go through an array of different managers in the years to come. David Moyes would be recommended by Sir Alex and was made his immediate replacement. Moyes failed to last the season, being replaced by club legend, Ryan Giggs until the end of the campaign. Dutchman, Louis van Gaal would be next in the hot seat. The former Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager would last 2 years, guiding United to a Champions League place in his first season and winning the FA Cup in his final year, the first major trophy since Sir Alex’s departure. Van Gaal was sacked not long after this due to his team’s poor finish in the league. 

“The special one” Jose Mourinho was announced to take over in the summer of 2016 from Van Gaal. Mourinho would end up being the longest serving manager since Sir Alex’s 27-year tenure. There would be spells of positivity and signs of improvement. United would break the world record transfer fee, signing Paul Pogba, showing possibly a bit more ambition on the club’s side. Big name signings would follow with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Romelu Lukaku all coming in the door in the following 12 months. Despite these players having some impressive stats in their time with United, Mourinho would never muster better than a Europa League trophy with United and a 2nd place league finish, something he went on to label one of his “top achievements”.

Mourinho was ultimately sacked just months into his third season in charge, not long after signing a new deal with the United board to keep him at the club until 2020. Due to this, the Glazers would fork out millions to get rid of Mourinho, again begging the question to fans. Who is making these football decisions? The answer, Ed Woodward.

Credit- Goal.com

Woodward decided to hire former United player, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, on a temporary basis from his parent role at Molde, before the Norwegian impressed enough to earn himself a 3-year contract. Solskjaer has had some minor success, guiding United to a 3rd place finish in his first season, but not being able to pass the semi final stages of the FA Cup or Europa League. It might be fair to say that United fans are starting to view Solskjaer’s management ability as “limited” at times.  

Many are sick of the chopping and changing of managers, at times the United job seems an impossible task. Some of football’s greatest managers have been given the chance in recent years and all have fallen short of filling the shoes left by the great Sir Alex Ferguson. Many feel that until new ownership comes in, whoever is managing the team will be not be able to succeed at the level fans expect, especially if it continues to be Ed Woodward making decisions behind the scenes…

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