Progress, Process, Rebuild: What do they really mean?


“You need to knock the house down, you don’t just start with the roof. We’ve had some rainy days and wish that roof was on, but we can’t hide.”

These were the words of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the Manchester United manager in the aftermath of a 0-2 home reverse against Burnley in the 2019/20 season, arguably the club’s worst performance of that season up to that point.

It was a night where United simply looked incapable of scoring, with a severe lack of not just application, but also cutting edge quality. It was a night where the team looked soul crushingly average. They looked a million miles away from where they aspired to be.

While the above may seem to be a match plucked out of thin air, it was really a wider symptom of where the club had been heading post the retirement of their greatest manager, Sir Alex Ferguson and the gradual disintegration of his last great team. In other words, the club was heading nowhere. It would take a step forward, only to stumble and take two steps back.

Three different managers were appointed between July 2013 and December 2018, all with widely differing philosophies and notions of how the game should be played.

The first of these was David Moyes, who was prior to his appointment, the manager of Everton. He came with the approval of Ferguson himself, but there was very little else to suggest he had the credentials to succeed at a club the size of United.

And unfortunately, it did not turn out well. Moyes was often caught out like a deer in the headlights, a sort of permanently haunted look on his face as the scale of the task he had agreed to oversee threatened to swallow him up.

In that 2013/14 season, United ended up finishing seventh, the first time they had finished lower than third in the table since the 1991/92 season. Moyes did not last the entire season, and was sacked after 34 games of the league season when it became mathematically impossible for the club to qualify for the 2014/15 Champions League.

After the 2014 World Cup, Louis van Gaal was bought in for the first cycle of the club rebuild. Without any European football for the first time in two and a half decades, the club spent quite heavily, and rather haphazardly in the transfer market, leading to a rather unbalanced playing XI.

Van Gaal tried to implement a very rigid, tactically inflexible system which led to very high rates of possession but very little actual, incisive play. Despite some inconsistent results throughout the season, the club did achieve their objectives of securing Champions League football, ending fourth in the league table.

The following season was broadly similar, with the club largely struggling to score too many goals in spite of dominating possession in the majority of matches. They ended up finishing fifth in the league, though there was a somewhat bright end to the season in the form of an FA Cup trophy, the club’s first in the post Ferguson era, a memorable match where United won at Wembley with an extra time winner scored by academy graduate Jesse Lingard. Despite this, Van Gaal was sacked on account of being unable to secure Champions League football for the following season.

In came Jose Mourinho, as United hedged their bets on a proven Premier League winning manager in their quest to go back to the top. While the 2016/17 was the club’s most successful season in terms of trophies, the silverware claimed was the Europa League and the Carabao Cup, the two lowest priority trophies for a club of their standing.

As in every season post 2013, the club was nowhere near challenging for the league title. While there were brief glimmers of hope at the start of the 2017/18 season, a derby defeat against City in December left the club trailing by 11 points, and while they did end up finishing second, the gap to City was 19 points by the end of the season. 

At the start of the 2018/19 season, the wheels truly fell off Mourinho’s tenure as his relationship with some senior squad members became noticeably strained, most notably Luke Shaw and Paul Pogba. The league form suffered quite badly and after two heavy defeats against their two most bitter rivals Liverpool and Manchester City in consecutive weeks, which left them seventh in the league, the club finally pulled the plug on Mourinho in mid-December and in came Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

At first, Solskjaer’s tenure seemed to thrive on the simple fact that he was everything Mourinho wasn’t. Players played with greater freedom and United went on an impressive unbeaten run till mid-March rekindling hopes of a late charge for fourth place. However, form tailed off, the generally poor standards of fitness eventually left the players crashing and burning by the end as the club ended the season in sixth place.

It was around that time that Solskjaer talked about rebuilding the club from the bottom. He recognized that there was no quick fix, not after six years of incompetence off the pitch and inconsistency on it. He put increased focus on academy players, integrating Mason Greenwood into a first team player while providing a clear pathway from the academy to the senior squad, which has led to around 15 debuts given to academy graduates under his management.

The second thing he focused upon was a clear strategy in transfers, with the majority of his signings from Daniel James, Aaron Wan-Bissaka in his first window to Donny van de Beek and Jadon Sancho being under 23 years of age. These have been supplemented with proven players in Alex Telles and Edinson Cavani to maintain a balance between youth and experience.

Solskjaer’s recruitment process clearly aims to build a team that can challenge for the biggest trophies not just got the next one to two years, but for the next decade. The last two seasons have been the first time post Ferguson that the club has secured top three finishes in back to back seasons. And while a club of their stature should never be content with anything less than titles, there needs to be a recognition that reaching the heights they had scaled under Ferguson required time and patience too, from the backroom staff to the players. 

The third, and arguably the most important, change under Solskjaer has been the appointment of a director of football and a technical director in John Murtough and Darren Fletcher respectively. For years, United not only overpaid for players but also took inordinate amounts of time to negotiate deals often leaving things as late as deadline day to get things over the line. While it is too early to declare that Murtough and Fletcher as a success, the early signs are promising.

When Solskjaer talks about progress in interviews, what he really refers to is the gradual changes at the club from the ground up, the process which is not always apparent from the outside to the fans and pundits, but which will eventually lead to United dominating the footballing landscape of England once again.

The 2020/21 season was also notable for one other thing that the club had been missing post 2013, namely making comebacks. As Clive Tyldsley once said; “Can Manchester United score? They always score”. Even in matches where the team wasn’t playing to its potential, there was always a feeling that they would turn it around eventually. And more often than not, they did, 31 points gained from losing positions a testament of their ability and mentality to fight till the end. And even though the team fell short of winning a trophy, including a title challenge that eventually faltered, the season felt like the beginning of an era, not the end of one.

At what point however does this process need to translate to tangible, measurable results? Which are the trophies that United should be aspiring to? Can the disappointment endured by the fans be wiped away by any trophy in the upcoming season or will only a league title suffice?

With the addition of Sancho, and a couple of other players in the pipeline, the upcoming season appears to be a crossroads for Solskjaer where he needs to take the final step in his rebuilding process and lead the club to silverware.

Written by Avitaj Mitra

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