‘Life after Sir Alex’ is a four part series that analyses Manchester United in the years after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. Host of the English Football Show, Christopher Chrysostomou delves into the failings on and off the field for United in the years after the Ferguson dynasty and what needs to be done to ensure the club returns to the top of football hierarchy.
Part one of the series will recount the permanent managers that took the helm at United in the six years after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.
David Moyes 2013-14
David Moyes took the reigns at Manchester United following the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson. The Everton boss was regarded as one of the most astute managers in English football having overachieved at the Toffees, despite working with a shoestring budget.
Moyes was handpicked by Ferguson for the role and the decision was accepted with much fanfare by the Manchester United fans and wider football community.
In ‘Alex Ferguson: My Autobiography’, Ferguson said the only manager he had in mind to be his successor was David Moyes.
Ironically in his book ‘Leading’, Ferguson claimed he tried to entice Pep Guardiola to the club while he was on a year-long coaching sabbatical.
“I had dinner with Pep Guardiola in New York in 2012, but couldn’t make him any direct proposal because retirement was not on my agenda at that point. He had already won an enviable number of trophies with Barcelona – two Champions Leagues, three La Liga titles, two Copa del Reys, two UEFA Super Cups and two FIFA Club World Cups – and I admired him greatly. I asked Pep to phone me before he accepted an offer from another club, but he didn’t and wound up joining Bayern Munich in July 2013.”
In 2017, Guardiola confirmed he could have been the next Manchester United manager had he acknowledged Ferguson’s overtures.
Moyes was appointed as the new Manchester United boss on a six-year-deal. The Scotsman was taking over a team that had won the Premier League title by 11 points but required a mini rebuild, as many of United’s stars were over the age of 30.
The first cause of business for Moyes was to appoint his assistant coaches. Moyes let go of Ferguson’s assistants Mike Phelan, Rene Meulensteen and Eric Steele and replaced them with long-time right-hand-men Steve Round, Chris Woods and Jimmy Lumsden, as well as Ryan Giggs and Phil Neville.
The appointment of his assistants was arguably the first error Moyes made during his reign. It is understandable Moyes wanted to appoint men he trusted during his time at Everton, however his assistants only had experience working with a mid-table team and thus found it difficult to attain the respect from the United dressing room that had won all there is to win in European football.
If Moyes had retained Mike Phelan, who had spent over 20 years at United as first a player and then an assistant coach, he may have had a better chance of succeeding as the United manager.
Signs of issues in Moyes’ reign were evident in United’s pre-season tour of Asia and Australia. The Red Devils lost their first pre-season tour match 1-0 to the Singha All Stars in Bangkok, before bouncing back to beat the A-League All Stars 5-1. They then lost their next two games during pre-season to Yokohama F. Marinos and Sevilla, before they kicked off their season against Wigan in the Community Shield, which they won 2-0.
Pre-season may be a time for players to gain fitness, but for United there were signs that everything was not going to plan. The attacking flair that symbolised the Ferguson era was missing, while the ease that the opposition were breaking down United’s defence was something that would play havoc for the remainder of the season and arguably for the seasons post the Ferguson era.
Over the pre-season period there were plenty of rumours about potential signings. Cristiano Ronaldo, Cesc Fabregas, Mesut Ozil, Leighton Baines and Thiago Alcantara were the main rumours that persisted in the summer transfer window. The Alcantara rumour was the most likely to eventuate with endless reports claiming the Spaniard was on his way to United, until his former manager Pep Guardiola persuaded him to join Bayern Munich.
As the Premier League season got under way, the only inclusion to the Red Devils squad was 20-year-old Uruguayan fullback Guillermo Varela.
United kicked off their Premier League season with a convincing 4-1 victory over Swansea, however it did not take long for the season to begin to unravel. A dour 0-0 draw to Chelsea was backed up by a 1-0 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield.
The defeat to Liverpool occurred on the final day of the transfer window and with no marquee signings up to that point, it became obvious United needed to add to the squad.
United made a £33.9 million bid for Sami Khedira, which was rejected by Real Madrid, while a last ditch bid for Daniele De Rossi from Roma was turned down. United also tried signing Athletic Bilbao midfielder Ander Herrera, but failed in their attempt in bizarre fashion, as “imposters” tried to complete the deal.
With time running out, United completed the signing of Everton’s Marouane Fellaini for £27.5 million.
United’s season continued to spiral out of control with a 4-1 defeat to Manchester City and a 2-1 defeat to West Brom at Old Trafford.
In December, United suffered back-to-back defeats at Old Trafford for the first time since 2001-02, courtesy of defeats to Everton and Newcastle.
In January, United were knocked out of the FA Cup third round by Swansea City and lost the semi-final of the League Cup to Sunderland in a penalty shootout.
Sitting seventh on the table, United looked to the transfer window to bolster their squad and signed Juan Mata from Chelsea for £37.1 million. Despite the addition of Mata, the poor results continued and the dour football displayed by United was no more evident then in their 3-0 defeat to Liverpool at Old Trafford.
The only highlight for United during this period was their form in the Champions League. The Red Devils won four of their six games in the group stage, including a 5-0 thumping of Bayern Leverkusen to book their place in the round of 16. United lost 2-0 in the first leg of their clash against Olympiacos, before a hat-trick from Robin Van Persie inspired them to a 3-0 victory in the second leg.
The victory set up a quarter-final clash against Bayern Munich. United drew the first leg 1-1 courtesy of a goal from Nemanja Vidic, but suffered a 3-1 defeat in the second leg to bow out of the competition.
On 22 April 2014, two days after a 2-0 defeat to Everton, Manchester United announced the sacking of David Moyes. The Scotsman dubbed ‘The Chosen One’ spent 10 months in charge of United, which was the third shortest managerial stint in the clubs history. Moyes was replaced by Ryan Giggs for the final four games of the season, which ended with United finishing seventh.
At the time it seemed the right decision to sack Moyes as the results and style of football was not up to United’s lofty standards. But as the Red Devils continue to struggle in the years after his sacking, the decision seems unjust. Moyes needed time to embed his philosophies on the team and rebuild a squad that was in need of refurbishment.
Four years after his sacking, Moyes confirmed in an interview with talkSPORT, he had agreed a deal with Bayern Munich to bring Toni Kroos to the club for the 2014-15 season.
“Toni Kroos had agreed to come Manchester United with me,” Moyes told talkSPORT.
“I met him and his wife and we agreed it all when he was at Bayern Munich. But it was only going to get done at the end of the season before he joined Real Madrid.”
Coinciding with Moyes’ appointment was the appointment of Ed Woodward as the Executive Vice-Chairman, which we will discuss later in the series.
Moyes went on to unsuccessfully manage Real Sociedad, Sunderland and West Ham.
In the years after his sacking, Moyes has reiterated that he required time at United to embed his philosophies and move the club forward from the Ferguson era.
“Do I feel I should have been given more time? Of course I do,” Moyes told talkSPORT.
“To go to a club like Manchester United and follow someone like Sir Alex after the time he had been there, to stay for ten months… It couldn’t be a revolution at Manchester United, it had to be evolution. It had to take time.
“You look at the way Chelsea and Man City had been doing things and changing things along the way – Manchester United had been winning because they had a special manager and a special group of players.
“But when that all changed, it was going to take time to find its way.
“I still think they’re having difficult times at the moment.”
Louis Van Gaal 2014-16
While David Moyes was perceived to lack the on-field success to succeed at Manchester United, Louis Van Gaal entered United with a track record of winning.
Van Gaal was named Manchester United manager after guiding the Netherlands to the semi-finals at the 2014 World Cup.
The Dutchman was in talks to become the new Tottenham manager after the World Cup, but once the United job was on the table, there was only one choice for the Champions League winner.
Prior to the Dutchman’s appointment, United had already agreed to purchase Ander Herrera from Athletic Bilbao and Luke Shaw from Southampton.
The Van Gaal era got off to a brilliant start, with United winning all their pre-season games. A feature of United’s pre-season was quick, first-time passing, which allowed United to play an attractive style of football.
United entered the season as title contenders, but once the season started, it was clear the side needed bolstering to compete with the likes of Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool.
United lost their first game of the season 2-1 to Swansea at Old Trafford and were then held to draws by Sunderland and Burnley. Sandwiched between the two draws was an abysmal 4-0 defeat to MK Dons in the League Cup, which set in motion a squad overhaul.
Over the course of 2014, United released Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, Shinji Kagawa, Danny Welbeck, Darren Fletcher, Nani, Tom Cleverly, Javier Hernandez and Anderson and brought in Marcos Rojo, Daley Blind, Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria.
At the time Di Maria was considered the third best player in the world, behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi after starring in Real Madrid’s Champions League victory and Argentina’s journey to the World Cup final.
It was clear Van Gaal had an agenda to cull the United squad that had underperformed under David Moyes. However, by doing so, Van Gaal tore out the heart of the club by allowing leaders like Vidic, Ferdinand, Fletcher and Evra to leave. It was clear these players were past their prime, but to have them around the club would have been beneficial for the entire squad.
Chelsea were in a similar situation after the 2015-16 season when Antonio Conte replaced Jose Mourinho. The Blues finished 10th in the league, a year after they won the title. Conte could have made drastic changes to the squad that failed in Mourinho’s final season, but instead of making a massive cull, Conte worked on changing the system and added to the players already at his disposal, which was one of the reasons why the Blues won the title in 2016-17.
The players at Van Gaal’s disposal were not bad players, evident by the title in 2012/13. Tom Cleverly and Shinji Kagawa were not good enough to play for United, but most others were lacking confidence after an abysmal season under Moyes.
If Van Gaal added Di Maria, Falcao and Blind to the squad already at his disposal, he may have been able to prevent the culture shock that swept the Red Devils.
United returned to the top four in Van Gaal’s first season but not all was as rosy at the table position suggested. The football was dire and in need of an injection of pace.
After starting the season promisingly, Di Maria failed to find his groove and was out the door come seasons end.
Falcao, who was still recovering from a knee reconstruction never showed the form that made him one of the most lethal strikers in the world and was on his way back to Monaco.
Robin van Persie may have been one of Van Gaal’s most reliable players at the World Cup, but the pair had a falling out and the former Arsenal striker was shown the exit.
The 2015-16 season was even more dire for United who failed to make the top four for the second time in three seasons.
Van Gaal’s pragmatic approach sucked out the attacking flair from the players and made United unwatchable.
Memphis Depay was the big summer signing and like Di Maria, his attacking instincts were quickly quashed by Van Gaal.
The only highlight in Dutchman’s final season at the club was the FA Cup triumph, which was the first piece of silverware won by United after Ferguson’s departure.
Shortly after the FA Cup final, Van Gaal was sacked and replaced by Jose Mourinho.
Van Gaal tried to revolutionise the English game by playing possession based football and even deploying three at the back, three years before Antonio Conte made it a sexy at Chelsea.
The Dutchman also gave a number of academy players a chance in the first team, including Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford, who were both involved in England’s run to the semi-final at the 2018 World Cup and also unearthed Anthony Martial, who was signed from Monaco for £36 million.
But despite unearthing of young talent, Van Gaal’s style of football was not accepted by the United faithful and the decision to sack him with a year remaining on his contract had to be made.
Jose Mourinho 2016-18
Jose Mourinho and Manchester United always felt like an inevitable relationship. The Portuguese manager was a perennial winner and managed some of the biggest clubs in European football. That’s why when he was sacked by Chelsea in December 2015, it appeared a forgone conclusion he would replace Louis Van Gaal as the United manager.
Mourinho was previously discussed as a possible Manchester United manager when Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement in 2013.
In the book Prepare to Lose: the Mourinho Era, written by respected Spanish journalist Diego Torres; Torres claimed Mourinho broke down in tears at the news that David Moyes had been given the Manchester United job.
“Mourinho … thought that Ferguson was, besides his ally, also his friend and godfather. He was convinced that they were tied by a relationship of genuine trust. He thought that his fabulous collection of titles constituted an ‘endorsement’ unreachable to any other contenders. When he knew that Ferguson had chosen Moyes, the Everton coach, he was struck by a terrible disbelief. Moyes hadn’t won absolutely anything!” Torres wrote.
“His ‘interlocutors’ had heard him sob loudly and they were spreading the word. The most feared man in the company [Gestifute] was crushed.”
One of the reasons Mourinho was not in contention to be Ferguson’s successor was because there were members of the United board that did not believe his personality represented the values of the club.
In an interview with The Guardian in 2012, Manchester United legend and director Sir Bobby Charlton said Mourinho would not suit Manchester United because of his actions at previous clubs.
The interview took place months after Mourinho gouged the eye of then Barcelona manager Tito Vilanova, an action that did not sit well with Charlton.
“A United manager wouldn’t do that,” Charlton said.
“Mourinho is a really good coach but that’s as far as I would go really… He pontificates too much for my liking. He’s a good manager, though.”
Charlton’s words would be a precursor for what was to come, but in May 2016 it was clear United needed Mourinho.
The Red Devils had struggled in the three seasons after Ferguson’s retirement and with City appointing Pep Guardiola as their new manager, the Glazers and Ed Woodward needed to make a big-name appointment to match their cross-town rivals.
Mourinho and Woodward set out to revolutionise United by bringing in Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Eric Bailly.
Pogba, Ibrahimovic and Mkhitaryan were clients of football agent Mino Raiola, who Sir Alex Ferguson gave a scathing assessment of in his book Leading.
“There are one or two football agents I simply do not like and Mino Raiola, Paul Pogba’s agent, is one of them.
“I distrusted him from the moment I met him. He became Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s agent while he was playing for Ajax, and eventually he would end up representing Pogba, who was only 18 years old at the time.
“We had Paul under a three-year contract, and it had a one-year renewal option which we were eager to sign. But Raiola suddenly appeared on the scene and our first meeting was a fiasco.
“He and I were like oil and water. From then on, our goose was cooked because Raiola had been able to ingratiate himself with Paul and his family and the player signed with Juventus.”
In signing Mourinho and dealing with Raiola, Woodward went against two United immortals in the hope of fixing the mistakes made in the previous three seasons. By making these decisions, it is clear Woodward was happy to tarnish the values of the club in the quest for short-term success.
Mourinho’s first season at the club saw the Red Devils win the Charity Shield, EFL Cup and Europa League and finish sixth in the Premier League.
The off-season saw Mourinho again spend big in the transfer window, with Romelu Lukaku, Victor Lindelof and Nemanja Matic joining the club.
The season got under way with United winning their first two games of the season 4-0 to West Ham and Swansea.
However, Manchester City remained undefeated until January and marched to the title by 19 points.
There were signs of unrest in the United camp in the second half of the season, largely due to the deterioration of the relationship between Mourinho and Pogba.
In January, Mkhitaryan was shipped to Arsenal for Alexis Sanchez in a move that was expected to improve United’s attacking flair. However, Sanchez failed to hit the ground running and scored only two goals upon his arrival at United.
When United lost to Chelsea in the FA Cup Final, questions began to circulate about Moruinho’s future.
Come the start of the new campaign, it became clear the self-proclaimed ‘Special One’ would not be the Red Devils manager at the end of the 2018/19 season.
Mourinho was in a sour mood during United’s pre-season tour and often lambasted the lack of additions to the United squad.
The manager made it clear he wanted strengthen his defence, which was refuted by Woodward who did not want to spend large sums of money on the likes of Leicester’s Harry Maguire and Bayern Munich’s injury plagued centre back Jerome Boateng.
Mourinho’s frustrations spilled out in his press conference where he attacked players and refused to respond when asked if United were title contenders.
United defeated Leicester 2-1 in the first game of the season, but from there, their season took a downward spiral. The Red Devils lost successive games to Brighton and Tottenham and crashed out of the League Cup courtesy of a defeat to Championship side Derby.
United were abysmal in their 3-1 defeat to West Ham and would again suffer annihilations to Manchester City and Liverpool.
Over this period, Mourinho fought with Paul Pogba and deemed the Frenchmen “unfit” to be the second captain of the club. He also banished captain Antonio Valencia for a period of time and continued to make remarks about Woodward and the lack of investment to the squad.
After the 3-1 defeat to Liverpool, Mourinho was sacked as United manager and former club great Ole Gunner Solskjaer was appointed caretaker manager for the remainder of the season.
Like the two managers before him, Mourinho’s time at United will be deemed as a failure. The ‘Special One’ failed to embrace the United culture and created conflicts within the squad.
However the script could have been different had he been named Ferguson’s successor in 2013.
If Mourinho was able to add to the squad that clinched the title in 2012/13, instead of working with the players he inherited from Moyes and Van Gaal, he may have been able to fill the void left by Ferguson’s departure. Mourinho was also a better manager six years ago, even if he was sacked by Real Madrid manager at the time.
Mourinho’s managerial career can be depicted as a Bell Curve graph, with his time at Porto, Chelsea (first stint) and Inter Milan as his peak as a manager. His reign at Real Madrid and his second stint at Chelsea were also success but the gloss on his capabilities was beginning to diminish.
By the time Mourinho became United manager, it was clear his philosophies were old fashioned and would require tinkering to succeed in modern times.
But Mourinho failed to adjust his managerial style to cater for modern football and this led to a sad ending to his time at the ‘Theatre of Dreams’.