There was a phrase bandied about at Manchester United in the aftermath of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in the summer of 2013, namely that his successor(s) and the club as a whole should continue to do things “the United way.”
While many have called this out as being a pseudonym for “the Ferguson way” it does give rise to the argument that Ferguson left behind him a blueprint to success at Old Trafford.
The imminent arrival of Italian defender Matteo Darmian, along with the prospective move for Southampton’s Morgan Schneiderlin, fits nicely into Ferguson’s ethos. Conversely, the rumoured deals for the likes of Sergio Ramos and Bastian Schweinsteiger represent a further departure from the former manager’s ideals, and arguably Louis van Gaal’s too.
Part of what made Man United special during the Ferguson era is that while they had a great number of top quality players at their disposal, they rarely signed those who were already at that level before their arrival.
In 2006, Ferguson claimed he had worked with five world class players at Old Trafford – Peter Schmeichel, Eric Cantona, Ryan Giggs, Roy Keane and Wayne Rooney (though if you were to ask him now he would definitely include Cristiano Ronaldo, and in all probability Paul Scholes and David de Gea also). The point is that not one of them was bought with their reputation already established – they had to be moulded into the players they became.
In the summers following Ferguson’s two Champions League titles in 1999 and 2008, with Man United theoretically the best team in Europe in those periods they could have gone after any number of superstars. Instead, they brought in players such as Mikaël Silvestre, Quinton Fortune, Dimitar Berbatov and the da Silva twins – good players in their own right but genuine top quality players they were not.
In a similar vein, they responded to the loss of £80million star player Ronaldo in 2009 by nonchalantly recruiting Antonio Valencia from Wigan. In fact, one of the very few world class signings Ferguson made was Juan Sebastián Verón in the summer of 2001, and given the relative disaster that that turned out to be nobody could blame Ferguson for not wanting to get his fingers burnt again.
With his success rate it’s easy to see why Ferguson stuck with this policy, but it might not be the only reason. Given his distaste for any player he thought was becoming too big for the club (for which David Beckham will forever be the unfortunate poster boy) it’s not such a massive leap to suggest that Ferguson believed that world class players brought with them world class egos and, as such, were more trouble than they were worth.
Of course, it helped that Ferguson was a fantastic man-manager, capable of elevating players to a level above themselves. The loss of that sort of leadership is part of the reason why everything fell apart so dramatically once he retired. David Moyes just did not have that level of charisma and motivating power, typified by a story in which he once told Rio Ferdinand, in an effort to improve his game, to study videos of Phil Jagielka.
Now with the greatest of respect to Jagielka, that’s like advising Leonardo DiCaprio to become a better actor by watching Hollyoaks.
It’s also one of the many reasons why Louis van Gaal is a much better fit for Man United. He shares a lot of the same philosophies as Ferguson (though where Ferguson was adamant that no player should be bigger than the club, van Gaal’s policy is that no player should be bigger than van Gaal). Van Gaal gets what the club was about under Ferguson, he understands that a player’s individual reputation might not necessarily correspond with what will help the team – for example there was a period where Marouane Fellaini was keeping Ángel Di María out of the side.
It’s also worth noting that of their signings last summer, the best performances tended to come from lower key arrivals Daley Blind and Ander Herrera, while the apparent star acquisitions Di María and Radamel Falcao struggled to adapt to their new surroundings.
Under van Gaal, Man United have redeveloped the sense of arrogance that was ritualistically beaten out of them under Moyes. Although they were realistically nowhere near winning the league last season, and were actually quite poor for a decent chunk of the year, the notion that one or all of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City will be automatically vanquished by next May has entered into the mindset of many of the fanbase.
And that’s not a bad mindset to have – one man’s delusion is another’s ambition.
That is precisely why this summer is so important for van Gaal and Man United. Sergio Ramos and Bastian Schweinsteiger are undoubtedly talented and are proven winners – that much is irrefutable. They have each won the World Cup, the Champions League, the World Club Cup, and a vast amount of domestic league and cup titles in their time.
That trophy haul, however, is something that could also work against them. They have won pretty much everything there is to be won – would they be minded, at 29 and 30 years old respectively, to move to a new league and have the fight to be part of what is still a work in progress? Besides which, we all know how Ramos vs. van Gaal would play out – for anyone who has seen the most recent Incredible Hulk film it’d be like that bit at the end where Hulk and Abomination are kicking lumps out of each other.
With that in mind, it is arguably better for van Gaal to focus his attention on hungrier, younger players looking and ready to make that step up – the likes of Schneiderlin, Darmian and Nicolás Otamendi.
The return of Man United’s belief they will crush everything in front of them is far more important than any new players they bring in this summer – that is, and in living memory always has been, “the United way.”