Could this be Manchester United’s worst season of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era?
The Red Devils approach the final months of the campaign without any real hope or expectation.
and live on Freeview channel 276
Too often, football fans have short-term memories when it comes to the plights or triumphs of their teams, but it’s no exaggeration to say Manchester United could be on course for their worst season since Sir Alex Ferguson left the club in 2013.
It’s nearly a decade since the Premier League’s greatest-ever manager left the building, and the club have, in the main, lurched from one catastrophe to the next in that period.
Few could have believed David Moyes’s disastrous first campaign of the post-Ferguson era would set the tone for what was to come over the next few years, but in contrast to the 2021/22 season, at least United managed an extended Champions League run under the now West Ham United manager.
Louis van Gaal’s final term in charge was also tough for supporters who had to contend with a restrained and pedestrian style of play, but the Dutchman secured an FA Cup win before he was booted out in 2016.
Jose Mourinho’s first campaign at Old Trafford saw the team finish sixth, but he staved off the critics with a double cup triumph, while in his final season, where the club seemed to be imploding, the popular figure of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer resurrected some of the ill-feeling with runs in the FA Cup and Champions League after his December appointment.
The following season, the Norwegian’s tactics were widely questioned, but he guided United to a third-place finish and three cup semi-finals.
Last term, there were genuine signs of development under Solskjaer, as the Red Devils finished second and made it to the final of the Europa League.
But this campaign? United fans approach the final months void of any hope and expectation, and have to watch perhaps the most dislikable group of players ever assembled at Old Trafford.
United’s calamitous 2021/22
A Champions League exit to Atletico Madrid should not cause this level of hysteria. The Spanish champions are one of Europe’s most-competitive sides and they’ve developed a knack for bloodying the noses of the Champions League elite.
Only two years ago they knocked Liverpool out at this stage, but for United, the exit from the continent’s premier competition is a momentous landmark in their terrible season.
It means fans could approach the final weeks of the campaign with little to play for, as Arsenal have taken the ascendancy in the race for a top-four spot. Ralf Rangnick even admitted in his post-match press conference that United could potentially have to win all nine of their remaining games to pip the Gunners to a Champions League place.
The downbeat feeling around the club looks likely to result in a toxic final few weeks of the season, which restarts with a home game against Leicester City on 2 April, following the international break.
There’s no chance of silverware come May, the fifth campaign in a row that will end without a trophy, and supporters’ only real aspirations lie in overtaking an ill-disciplined Arsenal side. In simple terms, this is a squad almost incapable of winning high-stakes matches, mounting a prolonged cup run, or even playing well for 90 minutes.
How many convincingly ‘good’ performances have United had this season? Three perhaps, from their 40 games in all competitions? The opening-weekend win over Leeds United, the away win at Tottenham Hotspur in October, and the 3-1 victory against relegation-threatened Burnley over the festive period.
For such an expensively assembled squad, with so many talented stars, that’s a disgraceful record. But somehow after the positive steps made last season, the Red Devils have cobbled together a dysfunctional group, many of whom are brittle, cowardly and ultimately only concerned about their own self-interests.
Where this squad goes now is difficult to imagine and it’s entirely plausible to foresee at least half of their first-team players at different clubs by the start of next season.
That in itself presents other issues for United, who could enter a summer transfer market without the security of having Champions League finances, and may have to try and attract several key first-team figures.
It’s been commonly said that United’s team ‘needs a complete overhaul’, but the same was claimed of Moyes’s squad and the group Solskjaer inherited just over three years ago. Why should there be any belief that the club’s hierarchy are capable of constructing a squad with the capacity to regularly challenge for trophies?
Then there’s the uncertainty surrounding the managerial position, and United’s chances of attracting an elite-level manager could be significantly impacted by a lack of Champions League football.
Perhaps Mauricio Pochettino or Erik ten Hag may just decide the grass doesn’t necessarily look greener from Paris and Amsterdam.
For all the undeniable attraction that comes with managing United, who are still one of the world’s biggest clubs despite their extended trophy-less spell, there must be at least some hesitation at joining a team that habitually chew coaches up and spit them back back out for fun.
Then there’s the overall structure of the club, and while the Glazers are in charge at Old Trafford, the team’s on-field success will never be a priority. It doesn’t make for the most enticing offer.
No light at the end of the tunnel
At the boardroom level, there still remains so little joined-up thinking from a football perspective. There had seemingly been some positive steps taken with the appointment of John Murtough and Darren Fletcher as football director and technical director.
But Murtough has rarely spoken publicly since he took on the role last year, while Fletcher now seems to be operating as part of Rangnick’s coaching staff. The former midfielder was even booked from the bench on Tuesday night, during the 1-0 loss to Atletico.
As for Richard Arnold, how much belief is there that the former accountant will offer much more sophisticated football thinking than his predecessor Ed Woodward?
All of this has led to United becoming a directionless club, bypassed by their main rivals and now the laughing-stock of English and European football.
It’s why morale is so low and explains why United are on course for their worst season since Ferguson left. In fact, this the first campaign since 1992/93 that the club have failed to make at least the quarter-final stage of a major cup competition.
There’s no belief around Old Trafford that this season can finish on any sort of optimistic note, and it’s difficult to see any light at the end of the tunnel for one of football’s finest institutions.