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The Smartest Guys In The Room

How are Manchester United slowly but surely falling behind Brighton & Hove Albion?

‘Ole’s at the wheel.’

In March of 2019, this was a call of serenity that emanated from the hearts and minds of Manchester United fans across the world. Perennial super-dub, Ole Gunnar Solskjær had finally cemented himself as the man to lead the charge for his former club. His team had completed a monumental comeback against the supposed European powerhouse Paris Saint-Germain to qualify for the next round of the Champions League.

‘Get the contract out, put it on the table, let him sign it, let him write whatever numbers he wants to.’

The once famous and now infamous words of Rio Ferdinand echoed around the BT Sports studio and of all the people in that room, he was maybe the most qualified to speak on the result. Ferdinand had experienced the immense highs of life under Sir Alex Ferguson and the relative lows of time with David Moyes. Having spent 12 years at Old Trafford, if anyone in that studio wanted to see United reclaim their spot in world football, Ferdinand was it. While Michael Owen and Owen Hargreaves are United alum, it is the image of Ferdinand eagerly rubbing his hands together that shows what a 3–1 victory against one of the tournament favourites means to the club. ‘Man United are back.’

‘Trust me. We will be back back. Trust me. Save this interview.’

Robin Van Persie coyly said this to a reported from MUTV after the final home game of the post-Fergie season. Whether he was aware of the almost imminent announcement that his compatriot Louis Van Gaal was to be announced as manager or if it was simply a subtle way of trying to get that Red Devil arrogance back up remains to be seen. Either way, by March of 2019, United appeared to be back — or at least getting back. Five years after Van Persie had promised but he never gave a time frame; for all intents and purposes, he was bang on.

It is hard to define exactly what Manchester United were supposed to be heading back to. “The glory days of Sir Alex Ferguson” is probably the best guess but Fergie was at the helm for 26 years — pinning it to this period is a little vague.

During his time in charge, there was iteration after iteration of the United team. The Treble wining 4–4–2 of 1999 was a fair distance from the 4–2–3–1 that Fergie bowed out with in his final year, not just in terms of personnel but tactical approach. Across his 26 years in charge, Fergie never shied away from growing with the sport. Where others might have been left behind, Fergie was right at the front and often the instigator of innovation. With this in mind, it could only be assumed that the “glory days of Sir Alex Ferguson” was just the reassurance of having him in the dugout. Everything would be fine: Fergie is at the wheel.

Under Sir Alex, there was an intangible aura of foreboding that swarmed the opposition arriving at Old Trafford. Several years after his retirement, this seems to have all but vanished.

Just under five years after the Van Persie interview with MUTV, and three weeks after a disappointing first leg, Manchester United were able to best Paris Saint-Germain and win 3–1 at the Parc des Princes, securing a place in the quarter finals. Within a year, this now distant memory is just that. The great run of games and results that United achieved now look more and more to have been a fluke. Ole remains “at the wheel” but it is anyone’s guess where he is heading.

The drop that occurred at Manchester United post-Sir Alex was inevitable. To sustain such a high level of performance for 5 years is impressive. Doing so for 10 is spectacular. But for 26? No one could dream of doing that. So expecting a seamless transition from a generation of dominance to simply more of the same would be foolish. No manager could have lived up to the pressure. This is maybe why David Moyes was the perfect candidate.

The unassuming Everton coach was third only to Ferguson and Arsène Wenger as the longest serving manager in the Premier League. With him in charge, there was no pretence. Safe and smart and evidently able to build and see out a long term legacy. Between him and Wenger, it could only have been one of them.

Having been sacked less than 300 days after arriving and after fairly stagnant and unmotivated football, it would be generous to suggest that David Moyes was maybe not suited to such a high profile role. It was once posited by Andy Tate of the Full Time Devils that ‘a monkey in a suit could do a better job’.

An iconic series of interviews with Tate gave birth to several stock phrases and potential fix-alls that are still bandied about all these years later with some still being relevant. ‘Give it Giggsy until the end of the season’, of course, being an exception.

But if David Moyes wasn’t the right manager, who was? Tate ‘would have gone for Pep Guardiola’. His reasoning being that he would have brought “a Barca style of play and attacking football”. But finding the right manager is much more than picking whoever has the prettiest style of football. It could even be argued that trophy hauls should not necessarily be the strongest factor in the decision. The appointment actually extends far further than the managerial office.

Guardiola’s first managerial spell after Barcelona was taking over a team that had just won the European Treble. His time at Bayern Munich, depending on who you ask, is considered to have been underwhelming by some. While many appreciate the improvement in terms of tactical intelligence and player ability, for others, not winning the Champions League tantamount to embarrassment. If taking over Jupp Heynckes was a poisoned chalice, taking over Sir Alex would have been even worse. At Manchester City, with slightly lower expectations and more freedom, Guardiola appears to have found his zone.

An evidently impatient club, one of the core differences between United and their “noisy neighbours” is that the blue side of Manchester has an infrastructure that understands the necessity for time and patience. “Chequebook manager” jibes aside, Guardiola has carte blanche with his team and a total understanding from his bosses that he is the right person to shape the City Football Group as a footballing dominion for the future. Sheikh Mansour and Khaldoon Al Mubarak understand football, but know that Guardiola understands it better. This acquiesce and trust has resulted in Guardiola signing an extension with City keeping him there longer than he stayed at his home club of Barcelona. On the red side of Manchester, it seems that even winning trophies is not enough if it doesn’t look right.

By 2016, United appeared to be getting back on track. Their appointment of Louis Van Gaal was an excellent footballing decision — potentially one that should have occurred a year prior. One of the finest footballing minds in the modern game, he had his highs in the 90s with Ajax and Barcelona but was still responsible for great things at the start of the 2010s. To that end, his brief tenure at Bayern Munich shaped the way the team has played ever since and how incoming managers are expected to play.

Save for the 2013/14 Community Shield, lifted by Moyes in his first competitive game as manager, Van Gaal brought in the first major trophy in the post Fergie period. The 2015/16 FA Cup win was the culmination of the quintessential Van Gaal outing: dynamism and transformative play mixed with a slow but necessary introduction of youth players, all playing out in his own terrifyingly unique and unpredictable way.

Two days after the FA Cup final, he was sacked.

His replacement, José Mourinho, seemed to take Manchester United to the next level without really breaking a sweat. Marquee signings of Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimović appeared to fit in effortless to help lead the Red Devils to a Europa League victory against Ajax and a second place Premier League finish behind City — Mourinho has since claimed this as his greatest achievement. What many people didn’t realise is that this was not him playing down his impressive CV but rather a back-handed compliment to a team that has struggled to replicate anything of the days of “Glory Glory Man United”.

In recruiting Zlatan and guaranteeing him the playing time that he (still quite rightly) could command, Mourinho halted the progression of the young players that Van Gaal had worked to get performing so effectively. Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial who had begun to establish themselves as reliable goal scorers were both forced out wide and away from goal (the latter was forced to change his squad number and overall branding as a result of Zlatan’s arrival). Any sense of development and progression that Van Gaal had begin to instil was scrapped.

It is in the appointment of Mourinho that the sense of impatience began to shine through. David Moyes, an established Premier League coach, was given less than a year to match up to the standard that Sir Alex had managed to cultivate over 26. Louis Van Gaal, an experienced and world renowned manager was given his marching orders in exchange for a coach quickly gaining a reputation for burning bridges. Short term planning and a lack of continuity has lead United to a position where they are so far removed from the Red Devils of old and now stand as a shell of their former selves.

All of this begs the question: what should Manchester United have done and what should they do in the future? One has to wonder if Moyes would really have done such an irreparable job had he been given more time. Football is, of course, a marathon and not a sprint. Hindsight is 20/20 but it should be a surprise that someone can handle the pressures of the Premier League for as long as he did while allegedly being unable to handle even a year at a bigger team.

The problem extends beyond tactics, youth, trophies and transfers in and out (although these all do factor in) but instead it runs to the very top of any organisation. As Van Gaal once said, at Bayern Munich, he appreciated that it was run by what he called “football men”. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Uli Hoeneß and so many more on the advisory board were former players and had a comprehensive understanding of where the modern game was heading. Manchester United’s answer to Karl-Heinz Rummenigge is Ed Woodard, an investment banker that has run the football, as Van Gaal says, ‘solely from a commercially-driven perspective.’

In order for a modern football club to even attempt replicating the successes of United under Sir Alex, those in charge of maintaining the business must relinquish the sporting decisions to those who know best. This extends beyond a three to four year plan: clubs looking for long-term successes should be hiring managers with the intention of creating dynasties akin to Fergie, Wenger and Moyes.

What United are sorely lacking right now is a sense of continuity that could see them fall even further behind the clubs that have surpassed them. The successes of local rivals Manchester United are steeped almost exclusively in modernity but are still likely to continue for a grace period once Guardiola leaves as a result of the infrastructure that he has been allowed to help create. What Guardiola has done at City is nothing short of consultancy: he is football’s answer to Bain or McKinsey. In a very similar manner, Guardiola’s former Bayern Munich Sporting Director Matthias Sammer still provides his former club, Borussia Dortmund, with the same type of “outsourced” consultancy, albeit in a less official and hands-on way.

Woodward, for all his millions, must swallow his pride and ask for help. He can still turn his legacy around by getting the right people and that starts with a manager who is capable of building a project and seeing it through. Mourinho was not it. Moyes maybe wasn’t. Van Gaal may well have been. But if those in charge at United want a sense of guidance, they should look at Brighton & Hove Albion and their appointment of Graham Potter.

A seemingly innocuous decision, the former Swansea City manager didn’t have a hugely productive time in Wales, finished 10th in Championship. Regardless, he has the much sought after trait that extends beyond trophies — he had already displayed that he had what it takes to make it in management when he took over Östersund, a team stuck in the Swedish fourth division.

There is a litany nowadays who earn their badges before setting their sights on their former clubs. There are, of course, anomalies to this; Frank Lampard has begun his second year as a senior manager at Chelsea and has already managed to over-achieve in a season that many were expecting to be something of a write-off. Pep Guardiola managed Barcelona’s B team for a season before going on to win an historic treble with the senior squad the following year.

But sometimes there is a turn-up for the books. And this is where Graham Potter comes in.

Joining Östersund in 2011 before leaving for Swansea Cityin 2018, Potter spent his years developing, honing and improving a team that were otherwise off the footballing radar. The Swedish outfit had developed a companionship with Swansea in the late 2000s, with Swansea’s assistant manager Graeme Jones, pointing his Östersund counterpart in the direction of Potter as a potential fit for their coach.

Östersund had only existed for the best part of 10 years at this point. Almost a vanity project born from three Swedish clubs vying for the top, they had so far been unable to reach the same heights that other franchises like Red Bull had been able to. It was only when Potter arrived that things started to turn around. Östersund climbed their way from the fourth division of Swedish football to the Europa League in the space of six years.

Furthering the connection held with Swansea, it was evident that Potter could develop a sense of continuity, being able to build something sustainable over a period of time. His patience and support paid off and by July 2018, Potter was manager of a team on the cusp of one of the most competitive leagues in the world.

Swansea were unable to hold on to him for as long as Östersund were, though. After one season, Potter found himself in Brighton, who had recently parted ways with, at one point, club hero Chris Hughton. He, himself, had overseen promotion, safe survival and then lucky escape — at one point Hughton looked to be a long-term fixture for Brighton, however 3 wins in his last 23 matches was simply not enough and his five year stint came to an end.

In his first season in charge, Potter’s Brighton have averaged a league standing of 13th. With the season on hiatus, there is little to deduce from the 30 plus matches he has managed other than that he is unlikely to be released by the close of the season. He has the support of the fans, the players and, most importantly, from Tony Bloom.

The Brighton & Hove chairman made his fortune from gambling — by virtue of what entrepreneurism is, taking risks was a necessity for him to get to where he is today. But his footballing decisions are by no means the same type of risks of the high-stakes Poker games Bloom is regularly a part of. Instead, his appointment of Graham Potter is a shrewd piece of footballing business that so many other clubs should have jumped at — in that regard, Swansea were perhaps the biggest losers in Brighton avoiding relegation in 2019. He was an undervalued property that could all but guarantee Brighton maintaining their position in the top flight for several seasons to come.

What’s more than this is that Bloom had been aware of Potter’s abilities and form from when he was in Swedish — the key take away from this is not that Bloom is a fan of lower league Scandinavian football but rather he knows where he can find what he needs, much in the same way that Arsène Wenger did.

While Wenger is known to have missed out on so many top players during his time at Arsenal, he was so frequently on the verge of getting these signatures that is in no way a detriment to his legacy but rather an indication of just how important his stronghold on all aspects of the Arsenal infrastructure was; it takes a footballing mind to establish a consistency and continuity. WengerOUT may have succeeded in the long run but after 836 Premier League games in charge, Wenger’s averaging placing was not the famed 4th spot but instead 3rd — almost guaranteed European football every year.

Manchester United still have some way to go to fall completely by the way side: as a business they are still run more than competently. But to compare the Manchester United of 2020 to that of 2013, there are some cracks starting to form.

While transfers are in no way a be-all end-all of player value of abilities, there is an inherent logic that dictates that the ROI on a player should include trophies and match-winning performances. From a financial standpoint (although ignoring Financial Fair Play restrictions such as those imposed on Manchester City), United can still afford to spend a lot on players and can continue to pay high fees… but why should they?

Considering the amortisation fee for player transfers in Ferguson’s last season (£42 million) compared to the start of the 2019/20 season (£129 million), a 209% increase is utterly laughable considering the regular sporting shortcomings United have experienced in the previous years. The profligacy on display is that of a club run by someone whose idea of fixing a problem is to paper it over with cash rather than strategy.

Transfers and general footballing decisions are only being made on the most superficial level. Did Manchester United need Zlatan Ibrahimović? Did they need Alexis Sánchez? Did they need Mourinho to replace a manager who had just brought in their first major trophy? Regardless of any short term promise brought, the decisions are being made because they look right.

To that end, although La Masia’s reputation has suffered and any sense of transfer strategy has gone out of the window, the concept of “Barca DNA” is clearly a real thing to those who still hold a part of the club so dear. So few people will be surprised or angry when Xavi Hernandez or Andrés Iniesta inevitably walk into the offices of their former club to take the thrones of manager of sporting director. The same can be said for when Uli Hoeneß and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge were in charge of Bayern Munich.

This is not a complex science like Moneyball — it is simply a matter of listening to the people who know what they are talking about. This does not mean that you have to search for your next manager in the depths of the Scandinavian footballing set-up but it couldn’t hurt.

Unless, of course…