When Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down as manager of Manchester United on August 8, 2013, supporters of the Red Devils could never have imagined that their beloved team would turn from perennial powerhouse to lackluster letdown within a single year.
United’s plight has been well-documented by the British media, but no words can quite illustrate the dramatic deterioration of the club like those of Charles Dickens. Here, I will turn to his indelible opening of A Tale of Two Cities to shed some light on the rise and fall of England’s most illustrious soccer team.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
In 2012-13, the Red Devils cruised through their league campaign, sealing their league title with three weeks of BPL action to spare. They eventually finished 11 points ahead of runners-up Manchester City, becoming only the second team in a decade to claim a league title as early as the month of April. Spoiled by their successes, including winning their fifth Premier League title in seven years, United fans considered Sir Alex’s departure as a passing of the torch- the beginning of a new and promising era for England’s most decorated club. United enthusiasts anticipated that the post-Ferguson era would be a period of transition, but that the club’s culture of trophies and achievement would continue.
It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.
Only a few days after Ferguson announced his managerial retirement, the club announced that former Everton skipper David Moyes would take the reigns as United’s new manager. Constantly being measured against his predecessor proved to be a daunting task for Moyes, who found himself under scrutiny after the Red Devils lacked consistency and motivation early on in their 2013-14 league campaign. Moyes was sacked before the season’s end and United finished the season in seventh place in the BPL, 22 points behind champions Manchester City, and failed to qualify for the UEFA Champions League for the first time in nearly two decades. Though Moyes was previously hailed as a sensible successor for Sir Alex, he was mocked by players and management alike before his firing concluded his tenure at United.
It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.
In May, Manchester United announced that esteemed manager Louis van Gaal would take over at United following the conclusion of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Van Gaal had managed clubs to La Liga, Bundesliga, and Eredivisie titles, and also led Ajax to a UEFA Champions league title in 1994-95, making him one of the most well-respected and trusted coaches in European soccer. During the summer, United fans watched as van Gaal, the manager of the Dutch national team, attempted to lead his team of superstars to a World Cup run in Brazil. After the Netherlands’ first goal of the tournament- a diving header by United striker Robin van Persie- the Dutch striker ran to the half-line to celebrate with van Gaal, the man who was now his coach for club and country. United fans around the world were elated as van Gaal led the Dutch to a third place finish in the World Cup, and each fan waited to see the difference the new manager would make on their beloved Red Devils.
It was the season of light, it was the season of darkness.
Let’s fast-forward to today, as the third week of Premier League action has concluded. Van Gaal’s Red Devils have failed to win a Premier League contest, have managed to accrue just two points in three games, and have only held a lead for thirteen minutes. The team suffered a shocking home 2-1 defeat at the hands of a young Swansea City team in their opening league match, and have failed to find any rhythm or cohesiveness on the pitch early on. Many critics have said that the team has continued to look uninspired, frequently drilling long balls down the field expecting the team’s strikers to take on and beat several defenders at a time. United let Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic, and Rio Ferdinand transfer despite the fact that each player contributed to the most lucrative and prosperous run in United’s recent history. Each defender has been missed on the field and in the locker room, as the Red Devils have struggled to re-define leadership roles in the post-Ferguson era.
It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
Though several key players including Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, and Ashley Young remain from the Ferguson era, United’s reluctance to ante up money to land expensive players during transfer season has allowed them to be eclipsed by younger and more talented teams. Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal have all eagerly sought out new talent on the transfer market and have aggressively worked to upgrade their rosters, while the Red Devils have complacently expected to continue their history of excellence without pursuing superstars. The addition of Angel di Maria was an important move for United, as the team has also lacked creativity and dynamic play in the final third, but United must solidify their back line and establish reliable play through the central midfield if they are to contend for a BPL title. United fans will continue to hold their team to a very high standard. Though it is important for fans of the Red Devils to continue being ambitious, they must also be more realistic with their expectations of their club. David Moyes was no savior. Louis van Gaal is no savior. United’s current roster is not ready to contend, no matter who is manager. Sir Alex Ferguson was a brilliant soccer mind, but he had all of the pieces to build a successful team. Van Gaal doesn’t have those pieces, and until he or a new United manager has the talent to contend, dark days are ahead for the Red Devils.