For the first time since 1974, Manchester United Football Club have gone five years without a trophy.
Original article published 16 March 2022
The lengthy drought – by their standards anyway – was confirmed by Tuesday night’s dumping out of the Champions League, as the club’s fall from grace continues.
Under Sir Alex Ferguson, the club didn’t record back-to-back seasons without a trophy after 1989.
But Sir Alex Ferguson hasn’t been in the dugout for nine years. The club have now gone through four managers, Ralf Rangnick the fifth, and the summer will see a sixth, as the falling giants desperately look to find the right man to return them to the glory days. Whoever that may be will be up against it. United are 4/9 not to win a trophy next season, and 13/8 to win a trophy.
Putting the other trophies to one side for a moment, United have never come close to winning the league since Ferguson’s departure, and frankly, a 21st title looks light-years away.
Despite second-place finishes in 2018 and 2021, the highlight of the 2018 season was stopping rivals Manchester City securing the title against them, such was the inevitability of their eventual win.
Jose Mourinho described it as one of his greatest achievements. Greeted with a roll of the eyes and a wry smile – “have you heard what Mourinho’s said?” – but as time went on, the more accurate it started to seem.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer restored United to an extent. His incredible winning run at the start of his tenure saw him land the job full-time. From there, he went through severe peaks and troughs. Securing Champions League football in his first full season, while being unceremoniously eliminated from the Europa League by Sevilla in the semi-finals.
The following season saw them offer themselves up for a comical group stage Champions League exit, before – for a brief moment – looking like launching a title challenge.
That was until they realised they were in fact launching a title challenge and that that is no longer Manchester United’s role at the top of English football. A meek second half to the season allowed City to win the title at a canter.
The final game of the season saw them conquered in the Europa League by a Spanish side once again, scoring 10 penalties in the shootout and still not lifting the trophy.
The Champions League exit to Atletico wasn’t surprising, despite being favourites to qualify after the 1-1 draw in Madrid.
The surprise would be to have seen United in the hat for the quarter-final draw, as it was in 2019. But for a 94th-minute penalty from Marcus Rashford, United would’ve made precisely one quarter-final appearance since 2014, and even that came in the nadir of David Moyes’s reign – the miserable 2-0 defeat to Olympiakos before a 3-0 win in the second leg saw United through.
United have shown over the last few years they can hang with the best. They’ve had results against the likes of PSG and City, but the notion of contending for a fourth Champions League seems miles beyond them.
Even domestically, trophies look beyond them. Their last domestic success came all the way back in 2017 with the EFL Cup, and even then they had a generous run to the final. Manchester City at home was their toughest tie, when Pep Guardiola was still finding his feet in England and fielded a much-weakened side. Mourinho didn’t, got the 1-0 win, and went all the way.
These days, however, City don’t field much-weakened sides in the cups. They don’t have much-weakened sides to field. After his first season, Guardiola would go on to win the next four iterations of the EFL Cup. Chelsea also have lots of depth to call on, and even Jurgen Klopp seems to be treating them more seriously nowadays, with Liverpool winning their first domestic cup since 2012 last month. All three are so far clear of United, and stand in their way of domestic success.
Whoever Manchester United do select to take the reins from Rangnick, there’ll be renewed hope once again.
Scepticism greeted Moyes’s arrival, but optimism greeted the arrivals of Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solksjaer. Even Ralf Rangnick to an extent; a man who’d overseen two well-run clubs in Red Bull, the pioneer of Gegenpressing.
Each has been a false dawn in its own way.
The peak came with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, despite being the first manager since Moyes not to win a trophy with United. There was more of an identity, recruitment seemed to be improving, but he’d perhaps taken the Reds as far as he could.
So to the next man. It’s an appointment United simply cannot afford to get wrong. City and Liverpool are accelerating away. Tottenham have hired a world class manager in Antonio Conte and sharp recruitment in the summer should make them clear top four rivals. Even Arsenal, the butt of so many jokes for a decade, are getting their act together and look good for a first Champions League campaign since 2016-17.
Whether United even have the structure and the nous to get a managerial appointment right remains to be seen.
Recent recruitment has been better, but is still very hit and miss. Dan James was a cheap back-up option, sold for handy profit. Aaron Wan-Bissaka was a mis-step – impressing at Palace but offering nothing going forward – a bigger requirement at Old Trafford than Selhurst Park. Harry Maguire was expensive, but was solid for two seasons. Bruno Fernandes has been a revelation.
Donny van de Beek, good at Ajax, but at £40m, has been hugely underwhelming, failing to nail down a place in the United side. Alex Telles provided back-up to Luke Shaw, Edinson Cavani has been a good short-term option.
Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane were good signings, but Cristiano Ronaldo was a huge blunder, a throwback to the Alexis Sanchez days, which despite the important goals he’s scored this season, has been a clear net-negative.
Hopefully for United’s sake, Rangnick has a big influence in the transfer market. The Red Bull clubs signed low-reputation players who made big contributions, many of whom were then sold on for a sizeable profit.
Players like Dayot Upamecano, Naby Keita, Erling Haaland and Sadio Mane all cut their teeth with Salzburg.
Marcel Sabitzer, Timo Werner and Ibrahima Konate have all been bought and sold by Leipzig for a big profit.
Not that United want to become a selling club, but recruitment needs to be much sharper.
As, you feel, does the coaching setup. How many players have Manchester United had at the club who’ve significantly improved in the last decade?
Marcus Rashford burst onto the scene as a teenager, and at 24 years old is now struggling for game time. He progressed well under Solskjaer and had to play through injury for much of last season, but now finds himself on the outside at Old Trafford, with his England place in doubt and his future at the club uncertain.
Forget his age for a moment, he’s played nearly 350 senior games. The likes of Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen, who also broke through as teenagers, had already peaked at this point. Does Rashford, with 350 games to his name, have much more development in him?
Anthony Martial was signed as a teenager, and can anyone say he’s much – if at all – better now than he was then?
Scott McTominay has developed well enough to become a regular starter, but that a defensive midfielder remains a top priority suggests he’ll never become a regular starter in a title-winning United side.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka has spent three years at Old Trafford and has finally lost his place due to his limitations as an attacking full-back.
That United have signed four centre-backs in five seasons – all of whom are still at the club, speaks volumes. Are United signing the wrong players, or are they incapable of developing the right ones? Or both?
Either way, it cannot continue. The Ed Woodward era is over. Cynics suggest that his successor, Richard Arnold, is cut from the same cloth; that off-field success – marketing and sponsorship – will come before on-field success. But it doesn’t take a genius to work out that with one, the other will almost certainly follow.
The right man, with the right staff, must be in the Old Trafford dugout next season. In 10 years, United have spent more than a billion pounds and gone through four permanent managers with virtually nothing to show for it.
The fish rots from the head, and United have been rotting for far too long.