Have Manchester United finally turned the corner in Post-Sir Alex Ferguson era?

Under Sir Alex Ferguson Manchester United established themselves as the dominant force in English football and emerged as a force to be reckoned with in Europe. Central to their identity was a never say die attitude. This was typified by their penchant for turning games around after falling behind, a hallmark of which was game-winning goals in the final stages of a match, often in “Fergie” time.

Over 27 years in charge Ferguson’s teams captured 13 Premier League titles, two UEFA Champions Leagues, five FA Cups and four League Cups. He certainly strived to play attacking football to entertain, but ultimately the man was concerned with winning above all else and at all costs. The club reaped the benefits of that approach and cemented its status over the years as one of the elite clubs both on the pitch and commercially.

The good times came to a screeching halt when Ferguson announced his retirement in 2013. For nearly three decades the club’s supporters slept easy knowing that no matter what they had the security blanket of the greatest club manager in the history of the game captaining the ship. The realization of an imminent Fergie-less future was a frightening proposition.

The assumption was a strong squad fresh off of yet another league title and United’s status as the pre-eminent force in England would help see them through a period of serious transition relatively unscathed. Of course, there would be some bumps in the road, but nothing that could keep the club down for long.

How wrong of an assumption that was. In the period following his departure, United struggled to find its footing.

Ferguson’s successor, David Moyes, proved to be out of his depth. His mid-table tactics and mindset which served him well at Everton never inspired confidence from his squad and robbed them of the arrogance of belief in their own abilities Ferguson had instilled so expertly.

Under his stewardship, United tumbled down to a seventh-place finish, their lowest in the Premier League era. The never say die attitude which had been cultivated and nurtured by his predecessor over 27 years was undone in 10 months. Moyes’ failure was colossal and he was dismissed before even finishing the first year of a six-year contract.

Next up was Louis van Gaal. The Dutchman was obsessed with re-building the squad to suit his “philosophy”. Unfortunately, that philosophy was characterized by risk-averse, pointless sideways passing for 90 minutes that saw the roars of the Old Trafford faithful transformed into yawns.

Despite being handed massive funds to rebuild and reshape the squad as he saw fit, van Gaal’s squad building was poor. The club did achieve Champions League qualification with a 4th place finish in his first season, but rather than being a platform to make further progress, the club took a step back the following season. Despite victory in the FA Cup their performances in the league combined with a fifth-place finish made it clear he was not the man for the job.

Enter Jose Mourinho.

The Portuguese came to United as one of the most successful managers of his era. His credentials were beyond reproach, but would his pragmatic — some would say overly cautious — approach injects the joie de vivre which had gone missing over the last three years and help return the club to the top? After enduring three years of mostly turgid football with the results to match many supporters were not convinced.

Although he delivered League Cup and Europa League titles in his first season, the latter guaranteeing Champions League qualification, there remained question marks over his approach. Even with United muscling their way up to second in the Premier League table behind a historically rampant Manchester City squad this season, there remains an undercurrent of skepticism over United’s true quality and discontent with many performances.

Despite overseeing an overhaul of the squad, which has seen the quality at his disposal increase substantially, many of United’s performances have seemed functional rather than awe-inspiring. Shocking defeats to Newcastle and West Bromwich Albion in the league have been confounding.

An inexplicably limp performance over two legs resulted in an early exit from the Champions League against unfancied Sevilla. To many, it signified that despite the fortunes spent Mourinho was just another in a growing list of managers in the post-Ferguson era to fail to recapture glory.

It’s tempting to focus on the negatives, easy even. If you look beyond the hyperbolic negative reactions though, it’s clear that not only is tangible progress being made, but that Mourinho is reviving the fighting spirit for which the club was so famous for under Ferguson.

They have turned around 2-0 second-half deficits into 3-2 victories away to Crystal Palace and, more famously, in a stirring comeback at the Etihad in the Manchester derby. They came from behind against Chelsea at Old Trafford in February for a 2-1 victory, which was followed up with yet another 2-1 victory over Liverpool.

United also avenged their most embarrassing defeats of the season with a 2-1 victory — yet another comeback — in the FA Cup semi-final over Tottenham. In their previous meeting at Wembley, United were second best all over the pitch as they were done in by Tottenham’s pace and physicality. A redemptive performance, particularly for Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez, which saw United through to the final of the competition proved to be yet another feather in Mourinho’s cap.

There’s a reluctance to believe, a fear that this may yet be another false dawn and that United still aren’t truly on the rise. The memories of a string of successive victories over Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City in van Gaal’s first season which proved to be a springboard to nowhere aches.

A wonder goal from Patrice Evra in the Champions League the previous season which, for a brief moment, sparked belief United could run the table towards unlikely European success only to be extinguished a minute later by an Arjen Robben goal still stings.

It’s understandable, reasonable even, that supporters are skeptical in their optimism, but the results tell a different tale. Under Jose Mourinho’s watch, United have won trophies and have continued to progress rather than stagnate. Their performances in the league have been a clear improvement over anything seen in the post-Ferguson era and the never say die attitude which had petered out under Moyes and van Gaal has returned this season.

Of course, United remain a work in progress. There is still significant room for improvement in the cohesiveness of the group as well as the quality of the squad (please buy new fullbacks). However, when you take a holistic view of what Mourinho inherited and where the club is now, it’s clear the better days are coming and may have already arrived.

Written by Ashwin Ramnath

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