When Sir Alex Ferguson officially retired four years ago today, only the gloomiest of pessimists or those with an almost macabre ability to predict the future could have anticipated that the success of Manchester United’s 2016/17 campaign would come down to results in the League Cup and Europa League finals, the domestic trophy the Scot won the fewest of, just four, and a continental honour he was only involved in three times during his 26 seasons in charge.
Some blowback was inevitable, thus was the uniqueness of Ferguson’s success and his entrenched involvement in almost every aspect of the club, but Manchester United were – and still are – the biggest club in England, the most affluent both on (historically, at least) and off the pitch. If any club could survive the departure of a true legend, it was United. They’d parted with Roy Keane, David Beckham, Gary Neville and Cristiano Ronaldo, yet always marched onward.
But the Red Devils’ journey since Ferguson’s resignation has been one of false dawns, capitulations, managerial upheaval and the begrudging acceptance of second-best, relying on trophies like the FA Cup and League Cup to gloss over an inability to be truly competitive in the Premier League, the prize United dominated for so many seasons under the Scot.
Indeed, four years on, United are still coming to terms with what the post-Ferguson era truly means in an increasingly competitive Premier League. Whereas United once succeeded the void left by Liverpool at the summit of the English game, the power vacuum Ferguson’s retirement created hasn’t been occupied by one single entity so much as shared by the rest of the top six. United, meanwhile, are still trying to find their feet.
In Ferguson’s farewell speech, he told the fans to stand by their next manager. But after just seven months under David Moyes, that declaration proved too tall an order for the club. The Scot will protest things could have been different if he was given enough time to truly create his own United side, but he was always trapped in Ferguson’s shadow. The best the former Everton boss could muster up was a watered-down imitation of his predecessor, but the original was too fresh off the shelf for the fans and the club to truly buy into. Thus, Moyes was relieved of his duties, and Louis van Gaal came in.
To give credit where it’s due, the Dutchman at least attempted to take the club in a different direction; the problem, however, was that the fans didn’t like it and by the end of his second season, although it ended in the first trophy of the post-Ferguson era, the results struggled to justify it. Despite a near £300million spend over two seasons, United averaged less goals per game than under Moyes, whilst van Gaal’s final win rate was just 1% better.
Yet, if there’s one aspect where van Gaal unquestionably succeeded, it was his ability to nurture and give chances to young players, something that became of increasing importance as the nostalgia of the Class of ’92 began to take hold. Van Gaal issued 13 debuts to players aged younger than 22 in the space of two seasons including Marcus Rashford – United’s most exciting academy product in a generation, seen by many as the future of the club.
If developing young players is one pillar of Manchester United’s traditional philosophy, then the other is attacking football. Whilst, on the most part, the last three managers have maintained what Ferguson left behind barring a once-in-a-lifetime cohort like the Class of ’92, their failure to replicate the scintillating attacking football of the Fergie years has probably been the fans’ biggest disappointment. Under Ferguson, it wasn’t just about success – it was about achieving it in romantic style.
In that sense, no manager naturally defies the ethos more than Mourinho, who has created a career out of painful pragmatism, perhaps epitomised best by the scoreless draw at Old Trafford earlier this season – one of the least entertaining high-profile Premier League games Manchester United have ever taken part in. Like van Gaal, his tenure has produced less goals per game than Moyes – unlike the Scot, however, Mourinho has managed to keep the wolves at the door with silverware, now preparing for the second trophy of his first season.
If Mourinho can improve upon that next season, the critics will find it tough to argue. Silverware, after all, is silverware. Yet, Manchester United still feels like a club trying to find itself; its new identity and a way back to the glory days. The painful truth of the post-Ferguson era, however, is that United will never be able to go back to the way it was before. The club has changed, the Premier League has changed, football has changed.
Nonetheless, the idea of regenerating something that at least resembles what Ferguson created and left behind will continue to linger. If United can’t produce glamorous football, they at least have to win domestic titles; likewise, if they can’t win domestic titles, they at least have to produce glamorous football. Thus far, however, all of Ferguson’s successors have fallen somewhere in between. The road back to the top is long, treacherous and winding.