On the 8 May 2013, the world of football was sent into a state of shock. Journalist rooms were sent into a state of frenzy and Manchester United fans sent into a saddened mood. Sir Alex Ferguson had announced his retirement.
Fresh on the back of winning United’s twentieth English league title, his thirteenth, Sir Alex Ferguson would leave United needing a new manager for the first time in 27 years. After keeping his promise of knocking Liverpool off their perch, it would now fall to other managers to lead United into a new period of glory.
Nearly eight years down the line and Old Trafford has seen four different managers (not including Ryan Giggs as interim manager) and success has been hard to find. Not many of the seasons that have followed that final Sir Alex Ferguson league title can truly be called successful.
For the first time in the post Sir Alex Ferguson era, United can currently consider themselves in the title race. If they can keep at that current form, then it might go down as the best season since. Let me review each season since David Moyes became the first new United manager since 1986.
7. 2013/14 Season
Ah, poor David Moyes. It just wasn’t meant to be. Much has been made of whether United should have gone in for Pep Guardiola or Jose Mourinho, in order to continue the success that Sir Alex Ferguson brought to the club. In the end the honour fell to fellow Scot, Moyes. Moyes had served a long apprenticeship at Preston and then Everton, the latter leading to many plaudits coming his way. He would leave Everton on the back of finishing in the top eight, eight seasons in a row. In the 2004/05 season, they would finish fourth in the league, however, Liverpool’s win in the Champions League, prevented a well-deserved European campaign. However, failure to win a trophy in that time, runner-up in the FA Cup would be as close as he got, was a slight worry as he made the short journey from Merseyside to Manchester.
His United tenure started well. A win in the Community Shield and an opening day 4-1 win over Swansea gave United fans optimism that it would be business as usual despite the change. You could argue, however, that would be as good as it got. A home draw against Chelsea followed and then his first Liverpool game would end in defeat. A crushing defeat to City (4-1), would leave him 0-2 in Derby games. A home defeat against West Brom, a West Brom who hadn’t won against United since 1984, left United with their worst start after six games in 24 years.
Many more of those records would be broken as the season went on and despite a seven-game unbeaten run after that West Brom defeat, inconsistency would plague the rest of the season. Four wins in a row just before the turn of year led to hopes they had turned the corner, but the rest of the season would be a tough watch. A penalty shootout defeat to Sunderland denied United a League Cup final and 3-0 home defeats to both Liverpool and Manchester City left Moyes on the brink. Hope of a shock win over Bayern Munich in the Champions League was quickly extinguished and despite back to back wins scoring four goals in both games, defeat away, cruelly ironically, to his former club Everton meant David Moyes would fail to see at his first season at the club. Ryan Giggs took the final four games and would blood in a few youngsters, a bright spark being James Wilson scoring twice on his debut.
Moyes ripped up the backroom staff that had sent many years under Sir Alex Ferguson and knew the ins and outs of the club. In hindsight, it was a bad move, but you can’t blame him too much to want to stamp his on authority at a club where one manager had led for so long. Many would point to the squad not being the best it could have been when Sir Alex Ferguson left and that United failed to get in the player’s he wanted to boost the squad. Of course, it was also a first season for new executive vice-chairman, Ed Woodward. Criticism over transfer dealings continue to this day but bringing in only Marouane Fellaini did not help the cause. Juan Mata signed in the new year, but it wasn’t enough to save Moyes from the chop and give United their worst season since Sir Alex Ferguson left the club. The emergence of Adnan Januzaj could not even paper over this shocking season.
6. 2018/19 Season
What an odd season. Finishing second the season before, hopes of Jose Mourinho being able to bridge the 19-point gap between United and winners City, were high. That would be the only thing that would be high. Performance levels were low. League positions were low. Confidence was extremely low. A 3-1 defeat to Liverpool left United sixth with just seven wins in 17 games. Dressing room discontent, a toxic environment and a manager who felt he wasn’t backed was not tenable and Mourinho would leave before Christmas.
Enter Ole Gunner Solskjaer. United legend. Scorer of the 1999 European Cup winner in THAT game against Bayern Munich. Everything he touched turned to gold. 10 wins in 12 games league games (the other two draws) including FA Cup wins over Arsenal and Chelsea, moved United into fourth place as they travelled to Paris for the second leg of the last 16 Champions League tie against Paris Saint-Germain. United had lost the first leg 2-0, the only defeat in the interim period. Incredibly a last-minute Marcus Rashford penalty sent United into the quarter-final despite being injury ravaged, missing 10 first team players, with Tahith Chong and Mason Greenwood finishing the game on the pitch as United chased a winner.
The clamour for Solskjaer to be handed the job permanently became too much for the United top brass to ignore and the confirmation was announced soon after. In almost a complete reverse of his first 17 games, the next 12 games would yield just two wins. Numerous opportunities to secure fourth place came and went, and even victories over already relegated Huddersfield and Cardiff in the final two games of the season, would have led to Champions League football again. As we all know, two shocking performances would follow. United would finish sixth, incidentally the same position United were in when Mourinho was sacked. Worries were starting to circulate that Solskjaer was the wrong man for the job and the club were too hasty in his appointment. Solskjaer believed that the tough training that he had to put his players through, due to the low level of fitness that he found when he joined, meant the players ran out of the steam at the end of the season. Whatever the reasons, the season was plain bad.
5. 2014/15 Season
As a sign of how quickly expectations had fallen since the horror show of David Moyes’ failed season at the club, United were keen to bring in an experienced winner who could get them back into the top four. Many fans wanted to see Giggs get his chance after his interim period but just before the 2014 World Cup, Louis van Gaal, then manager of the Netherlands, was announced as manager. United fans sat back to watch how the Netherlands would play in Brazil. To everyone’s delight, it was very good. In fact, it was better then very good. They made it to the semi-finals, playing some excellent football and Van Gaal seemed to know exactly how to get the best out of Robin van Persie, who wasn’t at his very best during the season before. One of the highlights that lived long in the memory of Van Persie’s diving header and his run to celebrate with his manager. The dream team that United hoped would fire them back to glory was on.
Then Van Gaal would oversee six wins from six in pre-season, including wins over Inter, Real Madrid and Liverpool. Instead of praying for the top four, United fans were dreaming a lot bigger. The signings needed to bolster a weak looking squad came thick and fast. Luke Shaw, Ander Herrera, Angel Di Maria, Marcus Rojo and Daley Blind all came in and yet the bubble quickly burst. Swansea would again be the opening day fixture, however, this time it was at home and it ended in defeat. United fans were understandably aghast. ‘Even Moyes beat Swansea’ was probably heard in every home of every United fan. Drab draws against Sunderland and then Burnley didn’t do much to allay early fears and when they lost to Leicester City, they had one win in five and were sitting twelfth. Throw in the League Cup humiliation, losing 4-0 to League One MK Dons, and United fans were wondering what had happened to their side in such a short period of time.
There were bright moments in the season. A league double over Liverpool is always celebrated as is putting four goals past Manchester City. They would only lose two league games between the 8 November and the 18 April. By then they were comfortably in the Champions League spots, but one win in the last six left a sour taste in the mouths and dampened spirits a little going into the summer break. However, being back in the Champions League will have been the minimum target when appointing the Dutchmen and it couldn’t be any worse than the debacle the season before.
4. 2015/16 Season
It is interesting to hear what is considered a successful season. Fans will likely deliberate this for the rest of time. It could probably be called the Arsenal conundrum. Arsene Wenger’s last few seasons at Arsenal would see them quality for the Champions League and that would be a success. If they could win a cup, then that would be the added bonus. However, many fans believe that the league is more important than the cup. That aiming for fourth place is not good enough. Your write has always tended to agree with that; however, I will probably contradict myself in this remaining article and that starts here. This season would see United lift their first piece of silverware in the post Sir Alex Ferguson era. (sorry Mourinho, the Community Shield doesn’t count). If there was ever a season that constituted as ‘one step forward, two steps back’ it was this one. More signings were made. Memphis Depay was exciting. Matteo Darmian, Morgan Schneiderlin and serial winner Bastian Schweinsteiger bolstered the squad and the arrival of unheralded 18-year old Anthony Martial caught everyone off guard.
In the league United would not win more than three games in a row but would complete another league double over Liverpool. The home win would see the arrival Martial, with that stunning solo goal and his form would continue to be the brightest of sparks throughout the season, finishing United’s top goal scorer. However, Liverpool would knock them out of the Europa League as United exited their return to the Champions League at the Group Stage. A group stage that should have been easy to advance from.
Whilst the signing of Martial paid off, the Depay arrival hadn’t gone as well, and Van Gaal remained under pressure throughout the season. Losing to West Ham in their final game at Upton Park, handed the initiative to rivals City in the race for fourth place and with the goal difference being so far in City’s advantage, there win on the final game of the season consigned United to another spell in the Europa League. Heading into the FA Cup final, the impression was that if United won, Van Gaal would get another year. They did win. An extra-time win over Crystal Palace, however, Van Gaal didn’t get another year. Even worse, he was sacked immediately after the cup win. It is something that Van Gaal hasn’t let go to this day, however the football that season was poor. At points the fans were booing when United passed back to David De Gea in goal. Just 49 goals were scorer in the league, and it was clear that Van Gaal was no longer the right fit. The FA Cup though did make it a slightly better season then his first, by virtue of it being United’s first silverware for three years.
3. 2019/20 Season
The last three seasons is where my contradiction kicks in. Last season was another strange season for United. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was entering the season on the back of those shocking performances against Cardiff and Huddersfield. The defence that had been so poor the season before, was bolstered by the signings of Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka. The season started so well. A 4-0 win over Chelsea with Maguire winning Man of the Match signalling hope that United were finally on the right track. As has been so often, it was a false dawn. United would only win one of their next eight games leaving them down in 14th place. After draws to newly promoted sides, Sheffield United and Aston Villa, Solskjaer was seemingly on the brink. Back to back wins over Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City gave eased the pressure once more, pressure that would be back just a month after. Four defeats in the next eight games, culminating in defeat to Burnley at Old Trafford, looked the end for Solskjaer. Enter Bruno Fernandes.
One signing transformed the side. Despite drawing with Wolves in his first game, a result that left them in seventh place, United would go undefeated for the rest of the season, either side of the break for the pandemic. They would end up finishing third, hugely important after failing the season in their quest for Champions League football. The 14 games unbeaten should have given reason for optimism heading into the new season, but failings in the semi-finals of all cups they were involved in left a sour taste in some fan’s mouths. The last being the Europa League, played over one leg because of the aforementioned pandemic, that they were expected to win. However, they looked tired as the season ended and the defeat to Sevilla meant the wait for Solskjaer first trophy would head into the next season.
Some will argue that this season isn’t much different to this season and Van Gaal’s fourth place season. Both secured Champions League football, but when you factor in the three semi-finals and second half of season form, then it warrants it’s place high on the list.
2. 2016/17 Season
The final two seasons are where the contradictions can get tricky. Jose Mourinho was a problem that the United board didn’t know how to solve. The born winner in Mourinho came out this season. In his first season he was backed. Paul Pogba returned to the club. A centre back, Eric Bailly, was signed. He was needed. Henrikh Mkhitaryan signed from Dortmund and of course Zlatan Ibrahimovic joined on a free transfer. Big statement signings. Big statement signings that saw three wins in a row to start the season. Excitement started building. Whilst Mourinho had been sacked from Chelsea, he was still seen a winner who would bring success to any club he took over. As seems to be the trend when the excitement levels build, United would win just one of their next six games, losing three. United wouldn’t lose again in the league until May. So United were surely in the title hunt? No defeat in six months? They must have been. Unfortunately, not. United could not win games. They would draw 15 times. Many against teams they should have beaten, including Stoke (twice), Burnley, Hull, West Brom and Swansea. United would finish sixth. Worse than both seasons under Van Gaal. They were in the hunt for the Champions League, but just one win in their final six games laid rest to that.
Mourinho didn’t care though. He had the back up of the Europa League. United had already won the League Cup, three wins in a row now at Wembley, including the Community Shield (sorry Mourinho, still not a trophy). However, the Europa League was a big trophy now that it was his only route into the Champions League. Of course, his United side would win. Mourinho would run onto the pitch waving three fingers, in reference to his three trophies (yes, he included the Community Shield).
This season, in league terms, wasn’t great. However, it was a return to the Champions League and a return to multiple trophy wins, and many believed that with this success, United could go on to bigger and better things, after all, Mourinho always wins the league after two seasons in charge.
1. 2017/18 Season
Alas, he wouldn’t win the title. He wouldn’t even win a trophy. So how does this rank as the best season you may ask?
Well Mourinho himself called finishing second, with the squad he had, his best achievement. Things started to sour a little. Ibrahimovic was still out injured with the serious knee injury he had sustained in the season prior, so Romelu Lukaku was brought in for £74 million. Lindelof was also brought in, in hope that he would form a title winning partnership with Eric Bailly, who had been so impressive in his debut season. Many saw Nemanja Matic as the final piece of Mourinho’s puzzle, when Chelsea let him go. In reality, despite finishing second, United never really got close to Manchester City. The signing of Alexis Sanchez at Christmas, designed to put United in position to challenge the season after, will live long in the memory of all United fans. And not for positive reasons. He was a disaster for the rest of the season and for the rest of his United career. Losing in the final of the FA Cup, led some to think that Mourinho should go the same way as Van Gaal. The football wasn’t much better, and Van Gaal only had one trophy less than Mourinho when you match up their seasons. Of course, you’re not going to sack a manager after a second-place finish.
The league should always be a priority. This is the season that United finished closest to top spot. For United fans it is a sad reality, however, it is the best season that United have had. The current United side have a chance to leapfrog all of these seasons and for United fans, the thought of title number 21 lingers on their mind almost every day.
Written by Huw Rawlings