The benchmark for success at Manchester United changed significantly after Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure. Today, a successful United side is not associated with the number of trophies won. Rather, the team is deemed successful if it limits the destructive impacts of post-Ferguson era.
Given Sir Alex’s decades-long reign at the club, measuring the success rate of Moyes, van Gaal and Mourinho in the light of this criteria will not be an inaccurate assessment. The reason is simple: Sir Alex’s departure marked not only a managerial change, but the ending of an era and expiration of a system. The system he built in the sense of youth development and physical facilities may still be active, but the playing mentality the club adopted for decades has come to an end. What is more is that Sir Alex Ferguson’s overarching mentality has not been associated with Manchester United, but with himself. If the system under which United was being managed has been adopted by different managers over the course of years, then the club’s recent situation might not have been this depressing for many United supporters. But because it was only Sir Alex who implemented this system, some considerable damage was inevitable following his departure.
It is not a long shot to argue that this is in contradiction with what Fergie has been proud of in his spell at United. His ‘grand project’ (for which he was given credits in his early United seasons) was building a club that can sustain its status as a title contender. Indeed, not only consistently challenging for Premier League titles but also winning them was a massive success in consideration of the point where Manchester United was before Sir Alex took over the office. As former Ajax boss George Knobel once said, it is difficult to climb the top but it is more difficult to remain there. The club’s recent status, however, suggests that Fergie’s sustainability is limited to his managerial presence since many of the things he pioneered in the tactical side of the game were gone with his retirement.
In the process following Ferguson’s departure, Premier League clubs started adopting themselves to the emerging on- and off-field dynamics. These dynamics include the taking over of clubs by wealthy businesses, softening of borders between different playing positions, as well as increasingly globalising nature of the game. Although English football as a whole has successfully promoted its product in global market, major sides such as Liverpool, Chelsea, and Manchester City have also began to change in tactical sense with the respective appointment of managers such as Klopp, Conte and Guardiola. What United did, on the other hand, was carrying on the grassroots mentality of their (and, particularly, British) football by hiring Moyes as the first post-Ferguson manager. Sir Alex’s judgement that Moyes can keep Manchester United at its current level and adopt to the abovementioned dynamics has been proven wrong. Moreover, Moyes has made a big mistake by bringing his own technical staff to replace Fergie’s assistants such as Rene Maulensteen. Keeping Giggs on the sideline was not enough, as Moyes’ trajectory shows. There was a need to have more insightful advisors, especially the ones who knew very well the intra-club dynamics. This said, I still don’t think that Moyes could have survived in such a Premier League environment for several seasons. The things he failed to do could have only delayed the downfall. Because Moyes seemed unable to realise that he was managing a worldwide club with big tasks, rather than a second-tier Premier League side.
Will a Mourinho era start at Manchester United then? This is down to whether a potential European trophy will mark the beginning of a new era for the club. Mourinho has been persistently giving the message that the Europa League final against Ajax will be the most important match in the club’s history. This is surely not because of the significance of the ‘big vase’ the players will lift in Stockholm. Rather, it is about beginning the next season with a Champions League place, one of the main arenas United have been competing for years. Mourinho’s recent statements suggest that a United victory will possibly ignite the Red Devils’ competitive spirit. The finale in Stockholm is significant for the Dutch too. If Ajax will be the winner, this will be a massive success for their home-grown squad. The Dutch football has been influential all around the globe, and it deserves a rebirth.
Bringing Manchester United back to its good old glorious days is a massively difficult task. The fact that none of the managers in the post-Sir Alex term achieved this task implies that whoever takes charge at the club needs credit and time. Personally, van Gaal was an ideal type of manager that can lay the foundations of a new system at United in the long run, but he was not given enough credit to do so. I doubt if Mourinho could, since his managerial trajectory suggests he hardly adopts a long-term vision. With the number of teams and leagues he managed since his Porto years, he is rather associated with checking the boxes in his bucket list by collecting major titles with different teams. This said, the board will likely give him the most credit.