Dear Manchester United - Love, an Arsenal Fan
Dear Manchester United,
I’m tired of hearing how to fix your club on Football Daily. I’m tired of seeing provocatively titled Sky Sports YouTube videos using Man United's brand to get clicks. I’m tired of the constant comments from ex-United players dominating the media and punditry. I’m tired of the narrative shifting on every goal, result and press conference.
I’m tired of the circus.
So I can’t imagine how you feel.
You might think… what the f*ck has an Arsenal fan got to say on this? Aren’t you pretty much in the same situation as us? Aren’t you guys basically just UnitedLite, a red-crested former great with a smaller stadium, less fans and less titles, defined in the modern era by a game-changing, era defining, long-lasting manager who you’re still learning how to live without? What do you know?
And you know what? Fair enough. We're not where we want to be at the moment. But hear me out.
Because to me, right now, Arsenal are doing exactly what Manchester United should have done post Moyes and Van Gaal, and possibly even Ferguson. Football humility is a great asset, one the United fans that I know rarely have, having grown up on a diet of Premier League titles - and you need to listen up and learn everything you can from the teams that have gone past you since 2013. Because I believe, in some ways recently, we have too.
You've got to get over the short term thinking and settle on a direction.
From 2018-2020 (arguably a little longer), we lived our short-termism era. We had our wild teen phase. We grew out our hair and stayed out late and smoked and didn’t study and blamed our suave French Dad for not parenting us right. We lived through the trauma of Unai Emery's "Protagonists" and Lucas Torreira at no. 10 and Shkodran Mustafi and drubbings and 8th (twice) and Europa League failure and the Özil saga and Xhaka telling us to f*ck off and Raul Sanllehi and broken promises. There were short term solutions plucked from everywhere to long term, well rooted, systemic problems. Stephan Lichsteiner. David Luiz. Sokratis. It was tough, let me tell you.
Emery didn't have the authority at the club to stamp his identity. There were too many cooks in the kitchen at the top, and a rag tag, unbalanced team at the bottom. He asked for Wilfried Zaha and got Nicolas Pepe. Symbolic.
But then something changed. Turmoil at executive and club level ceased, and stability ensued. Rightly or wrongly Mikel Arteta’s grand plan, boosted by an FA Cup, was given centre stage behind a streamlined recruitment team and a new sleek board and coaching staff. The board the Kroenkes gambled on a rookie manager. There were questions, obviously. Of credibility, of direction, results. Squad turnover has been huge. Times have not always been easy under Mikel Arteta - far from it, as he ripped out those roots. We fell out of Europe for the first time in 25 years under him. But a move towards uniting the club right from the start? A sense of purpose and a one track mind, even if at times it was described as a dictatorship? Definitely.
"For me, the secret is that the people, the players and the staff, have to believe what they're trying to deliver. You have to be able to transmit it, and people will buy into that. When you do that, then you are a team and everybody's together and united you're stronger." - Mikel Arteta, first Arsenal Press Conference, 2019
And you know what? Who’s to say trauma isn’t right around the corner for us? Things are transient; it’s why I have hope for you. But as I write this things look pretty good - the direction of travel is pleasing, even if there still are going to be bumps in the road. Culture change takes time - but that gamble on a unified vision spearheaded by one man? It's paying off. We're above you, anyway.
"Ok, you have a unified vision. Well done, here's a cookie, who's a good boy. You haven't done anything yet."
Sure - but others have.
Since 2016, Manchester City have stuck with one man, Pep Guardiola. Since 2015, Liverpool have done the same with Jürgen Klopp. Txiki Begiristain, Michael Edwards, The City Group, FSG, Ferran Soriano, John Henry, all pulling in one direction in their own ways. Both employ versions of positional play, have a clear "type" of player they like for their systems and have been allowed time and considerable resource to implement their strategy and ideology. To mark their territory. And look where it's got them.
"Ok, but there's only a few world class managers. Where do we find a Jurgen Klopp?"
Good question. Maybe you will, maybe you won't, but it doesn't always have to be an era-defining manager, or lead by one charismatic leader. Other clubs, like Chelsea, run slightly differently (til now). Managers are encouraged to work a bit more with what they have, with a clear backroom ideology. Look at the Red Bull model with a pool of coaches, the Dortmund idea using young players. It's sustainable and regularly successful for the relative size of the clubs.
The crucial idea is that everyone is pulling in the same direction. That's how you get success in the modern era - it is literally undeniable.
The benefits of streamlining and clarity don't end there. It clarifies your recruitment, what you need your academy to produce and your fans get used to a style of play and can therefore understand a bit more about what's happening when things aren't going well. 90% of Arsenal fans know we need a midfielder to upgrade on Xhaka this summer. The crucial part is that we know exactly what we need, because the identity of the team is clear. Sure, players will vary slightly, but we know we need someone comfortable on the left of midfield, with more of a goal threat, ideally with two feet, between 20 and 24 (negotiable), comfortable in both a double pivot and as a left 8 with excellent technicality. Names immediately pop up.
I'd say 90% of United fans know they need a midfielder this summer. But what kind? To press? To carry? To counter? To destroy? How can you recruit if you don't know the purpose of your recruiting? How do you know this player might work under this manager but won't under the next, wasting millions?
Of course you can pick the wrong direction to go. That is definitely a worry.
But wouldn't you rather swim too far in one direction than tread water and continue to sink? And I don't mean sign Pochettino and hope for the best. I mean change. Real change, at board level & backroom level. A direction. Short termism has been going on for far, far too long at Manchester United, right back from Falcao and Schweinsteiger to Mourinho right up to your man Cristiano. Nostalgia for "The United Way" will kill you.
Laugh-a-minute Richards and Gary Neville had a debate over the weekend, and I thought they were both pulling in interesting directions. Neville advocating for long term strategy, Richards deriding it - who cares if you're not winning?
What if both could be right?
So why isn't that happening? Why tread water? Well I think that’s based on one of two possibilities: You don’t want to commit to something in case you can’t pivot quickly, or, and probably more likely, you have too many people making the decisions at the club. Let me expand.
One only has to look at United's backroom staff to see a real problem: points of failure. How on earth can a club know where they're going and how to fix it if they're not sure who's responsible and in positions of power?
Have a look at the two graphics below of Manchester United's backroom and executive staff.
That is, quite simply, mental.
If a transfer isn't right for whatever reason, whose responsibility is that? Darren Fletcher? John Murtough? Alan Dawson? The manager? The Glazers? Richard Arnold? Sir Alex? Sir Bobby? Arsene Wenger? Bill and Ben the Flower Pot Men? Vacant? Ralph Ragnick will be added to that next season as a consultant too. Another cook in the kitchen.
Compare this to Arsenal's.
"Yeah but Arsenal are rubbish."
Ok, we're not, but fine. Compare that to Man City's then instead, who just spanked you in the derby by the way so maybe there's something to learn from them.
A lot of those are City Group execs, who won't have any influence on the club too. Clear points of failure with clear roles and responsibilities for those around the club to see and understand. In a way, it wouldn't even really matter if everyone internally was absolutely necessary and clear on their roles - if you've ever worked in any kind of infrastructure with a management, you know that many people making decisions is never good.
Too many influences, including all the backroom staff of Moyes, Van Gaal, Mourinho, Solskjaer and more have led to a hodgepodge squad full of mismatches and imbalances; and therefore poor results.
Rashford thrives in a counter attacking system right now. Maguire looks best with a double pivot in front of him. The double pivot doesn't have the technical security to retain possession and control (though McTominay is underrated), so you can't do that. Shaw might be better as a wing back. Wan-Bissaka can't contribute going forward. Pogba doesn't know his best position. Bruno wants to be the star man, but can't be. Ronaldo won't press but you have to play him or he kicks off. De Gea is weak with his feet.
What can you do with that? What system do you play with that group, never mind the egos?! It's a mess.
It's no surprise that things started to look better for United when they got behind Solskjaer. Ole was no tactical wiz, but what he could do was unite the fanbase, implement a clear ideology and invest in youth. That's at least something.
And here's the thing. Your trauma might be quicker than ours to get over. You can pay for more expensive therapists. But the longer you leave it lurking, the harder it will be to shake it while patience will get thinner and thinner. And fan sentiment is creaking. Soon, unless the course is corrected it will start to affect revenue in a big way - United's saving grace.
Part of the problem too is that exact fan sentiment. Smash hits include:
"We need to get back to playing The United Way". What does that even mean? Every team plays differently dependent on coach, players, system etc. Do you mean winning? Or do you mean 4-4-2 with Giggsy and Becks? I've got some bad news if so...
"We're Manchester United, we should be challenging for big titles". No team is entitled to challenge for anything, let alone win. You get there on merit alone. 'Manchester United' is a piece of paper in Companies House. It's a unifier. It's the ground, the team, the fans, the people that make it what it is. If they aren't right, you've got a problem.
"We're a big club, everyone will want to join us." Like Trump's promise to 'Make America Great Again', some humility and perspective is required. As decline comes, fractions form. You can see it.
In a way, I feel sorry for United.
I actually used to be a fan of United. I remember cheering for Rooney on his debut against Fenerbahçe when he scored a hat trick. My late father was a United fan. They hold a special place in my heart. And it sucks to see. Of course there's some schadenfreude, but the Premier League is undeniably better with United in it, and they're a huge part of the global appeal. They're a top club, maybe the biggest in the world still, and they may even get top four this season. But to see the blood being sucked, to watch a toxic culture take over and fans turn against each other - it's never nice, no matter who you support.
You want to be a big club? No, you want to be a successful club. That’s what makes you big.
Love, an Arsenal fan.
- Alexander Moneypenny