It was the Manchester United in its glory days, in its comfort zone, arguably one of their best performances in recent years with no star attraction (unlike Van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo, David Beckham) to boast of. It wasn’t a perfect symphony but it was a pleasing rhythm, a pulpy fluency and a hurried pace; the ball toiling towards its final destination -- back of the net.
On March 5, 2013, a beautiful game, a controversial red-card, a thorny finish and after 95 minutes of drudgery, United crashed out of the Champions League against Real Madrid. It was the quarterfinal and aggregate score was 3-2.
By the time Cuneyt Cakir sounded the final blow, Sir Alex Ferguson, United manager for 27 years, angrily stomped back into the red dugout while his players bellowed at the Turkish referee over what they believed was an unfair decision that might have cost them the CL.
United did not taste victory but the players walked with their heads held high and like their club song they “kept marching on”. That season, United welcomed back the glittering Premier League trophy for the 20th time. It was of course, under Sir Alex Ferguson.
Fast forward three years. It’s post-Ferguson era. United has sacked ‘the chosen one’ David Moyes in his first year and Louis Van Gaal in the second year at the helm. Hawkish and sore from Chelsea’s resounding sack, Jose Mourinho has duly accepted his next challenge to bring glory back to Old Trafford.
But criticism from pundits and former Manchester United greats has mounted for the now-silenced Devils. Paul Scholes – also part of Ferguson’s last generation – said: “For 20 years, Manchester United had an identity: Fast football, pass the ball forward, run. The last three years they’ve gone away from that, something that worked.” He went on to call United “an absolute disaster”.
This hasn’t been the only field of metamorphosis. Ferguson’s unexpected retirement has had a domino effect. The tactician left behind an ageing, under-performing team – which could not have been exploited by Moyes or Van Gaal.
There is ambiguity among players who are unsure of their functions, the team and more importantly, themselves. The confidence fostered by Ferguson is a gaping hole in the present United team and its identity crisis is threatening its seams.
Moyes’ signing Maraoune Fellaini has been inconsistent, with only a handful of games to justify his 27.5 million pound-price tag. LVG’s fluttering tactical decisions and a drab passing-the-ball game had frustrated fans enough to chant “attack, attack, attack” during matches.
The Red end of Manchester has also let go of Angel di Maria, Robin Van Persie, Patrice Evra, Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez. The club has spent 300 million pound in transfers over the last three years (excluding Mourinho’s expensive quests this transfer season) but high-profile signings such as Memphis Depay, Anthony Martial, Marcos Rojo, Matteo Darmian and Morgan Schneiderlin haven’t yielded sufficient returns.
And like a stale cherry on a bitter cake, Manchester United fans have had to ingest the news of their beloved ‘Giggsy’ leaving after 29 years of being associated with the English club. Ryan Joseph Giggs, who was on LVG’s coaching staff at United, announced in July that it is a “huge decision for me to step away from the club that has been my life since the age of 14”.
Perhaps Rene Meulensteen, formerly on Ferguson’s coaching staff, puts it in apt words: “The lifeline is the connection to Ferguson, and what Ryan (Giggs) grew up with, the DNA that Ferguson put in the club. If Giggs leaves the club, that’s it, done, gone, forget it, he’s the last one holding on to it. It would be a very sad moment,” The Telegraph reported.
Old Trafford without the familiar faces of Paul Scholes and Giggs might just be the end of United that nurtured players from its academy, the United that didn’t lose until extra time, the United that came back from behind to stun its opponents; the United you fell in love with when you first ventured into the world of football.
But there’s hope. Wayne Rooney has eased into his captain’s armband and continues to be a rock for a faltering United but his age (30) has contributed to slowing his renowned firepower. Wavering positions on the field have altered his role from a goal scorer to a provider, which might be a rite of passage for the maturing player.
Yet apprehensions persist. Will the reaction that began with Ferguson’s departure culminate with Giggs’ severance of ties? Will Mourinho with his pungent statements and flashy players be the right fit? Will United’s youth academy produce another Giggs (if that’s even possible in commercial clubs)? Will Zlatan Ibrahimovic be the answer to the Red Devil’s attacking woes? Is Paul Pogba worth the astounding record transfer fee?
But the momentous question of all remains: Will United lose itself or retain a semblance of its identity in this evolution?
DISCLAIMER: The writer confesses to being a Manchester United fan nostalgic about everything past.