Manchester United are the most successful club in the history of English football. Since their foundation in 1878, they have won 20 first division league titles, 12 FA Cups and a record 21 Community Shields. This unrivalled domestic dominance, coupled with the lavish coverage that English football gets from an array of different broadcasting companies, has enabled United to build a global fan base, establish a successful business model and attract some of the top talents in European football. With this reputation, however, comes great expectation. A failure to deliver perfection on the pitch leads to collective finger-pointing at one man: the manager.
Ralf Rangnick is the latest coach to inherit the poison chalice at Manchester United. Unfortunately for Rangnick, while the position that he currently holds is subject to an immense amount of public scrutiny, the level of success that has previously been linked to the club is long in the rearview mirror. In fact, in the last five years, United have only won two competitive competitions -the league cup and the Europa League- struggling to even qualify for the biggest prize in club football: The Champions League. United supporters are used to seeing their team competing against Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich- famous footballing giants. It must be strange for them to watch their team in the second tier of European football, potentially playing against the likes of Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers. But that is the reality. At the moment, United simply are not the club they used to be. While their history still lures in big-name signings, clinging to former glories is actually restricting the club’s progression and placing an increased amount of pressure on the man in charge.
There is further self-inflicted psychological damage associated with the Man U job; the fact that one of their predecessors sits in the stands at every home game, worshipped by the crowd and loved by the board.
When Man United last won the premier league, it was under the guidance of Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013. Sir Alex is a man who, during his tenure at the club, won 38 trophies. He has been hailed as the greatest coach…in any sport…ever. When he retired, United erected a statue of him outside Old Trafford. It looms over his successors as a god-like figure. This is not ideal and contributes to the pressure to succeed.
Rangnick’s position isn’t helped by current football pundits either. If you’ve ever watched Super Sunday on Sky Sports, it’s likely you’ve come across Roy Keane and Gary Neville, two former Manchester United legends. They have 15 premier league titles between them. However, they use their platform to repeatedly blast the current squad, and previous managers, for not “playing the Man United way”. Neville actually claimed that United would never appoint Antonio Conte, a proven winner in the premier league, because of the style of football that he plays (Surely winning is the determining factor? but anyway). This is a problem. If you don’t allow the manager to dictate the style of play then it doesn’t matter who gets the job. It’s like owning an F1 car, paying Max Verstappen to drive it on the M50 and then complaining that he’s not going fast enough.
The pundits frequently criticise the current crop of players at the club as well. Keane is known for his outspoken, no-nonsense approach and has often singled out individual United players, including Paul Pogba. In 2021, Keane told sky sports that “he (Pogba) is a talented boy” but took aim at Pogba’s leadership abilities saying “I wouldn’t believe a word that Pogba says .” In spite of the personal dig at Pogba, Keane makes a good observation here: United have a talented squad but lack depth in terms of leadership and experience. Of the current squad, only Cristiano Ronaldo, David De Gea, Phil Jones and Jesse Lingard have premier league medals. That’s four players out of a squad of 30. For the pundits to expect these players to play free-flowing football while also challenging for the title in the toughest league in the world is very optimistic. It suggests that their demands are a bit excessive.
Managing in professional football can hardly be easy. It is a multi-million dollar industry, watched by billions of people. The pressure at any club will be enormous. But the aforementioned factors make the Man United job particularly unappealing (Although the paycheck might say otherwise). There are prevalent off the field factors that need a serious evaluation if United want to get back to the heights of the Fergie years. Maybe with a German called Ralf at the wheel, they can reinvent themselves and redefine the “Manchester United way”…whatever that means.
Stephen Black – Sports Writer