Manchester United’s cautious football reflects corporate character

Same principles that helped United thrive in the boardroom, throttle them on the pitch

These days a club’s playing style increasingly reflects the corporate character of its ownership. File photograph: PA

These days a club’s playing style increasingly reflects the corporate character of its ownership. File photograph: PA

 

According to reports, the high-powered meeting between Boris Johnson and Ed Woodward at 10 Downing Street earlier this month was actually a chance encounter that occurred when the two men stumbled across each other in a corridor. Instinctively, this feels about right.

After all, these are two men for whom stumbling has been their defining professional technique: over decisions and into positions of immense and unanswerable influence.

Who knows what was discussed? Perhaps the British prime minister and the Manchester United executive vice-chairman bonded over their apparent shared indifference towards football, and the strain of having to feign otherwise. One thing we are told was certainly not on the agenda was the European Super League, which was in its late stages of gestation. Downing Street insists the prime minister was completely oblivious to the whole thing, which – given it basically took him two months to grasp the existence of a deadly pandemic – feels weirdly plausible.

Meanwhile, despite the fact that he has had a direct line to the Glazer family for almost two decades and visited Downing Street with the apparent aim of signing the government up as their new Official Turning A Blind Eye Partner, Woodward’s overworked spin department has been briefing that their man actually loathed the idea all along: his role in the breakaway recast as some sort of heroic one-man resistance cell, his resignation a spectacular act of martyrdom.

In order to fight it, you see, he had to help build it. Once it collapsed, he had to quit, just to show how much he originally hated it. Something like that, anyway. Clearly there are layers to this whole 4D chess game that only a man of Woodward’s phenomenal intellect could possibly compute.

“I am proud of the regeneration of the club’s culture and our return to the Manchester United way of playing,” Woodward wrote in his resignation statement. Ah yes, the football: that other string to the Woodward bow, one easily overlooked amid all that world-class diplomacy. Of course, ask most United fans and they will tell you that when it came to footballing matters it was less “what Woodward knew, when” and more a case of “whether Woodward knew anything, ever”. And yet here he was, taking credit for the club’s rejuvenated style of football, consisting of – well, what exactly?

Watching United toil to a 0-0 draw against Leeds United on Sunday offered an answer of sorts. Against one of the league’s leakiest defences, striving for the win that would keep the title race alive, United fashioned 16 chances of painfully meagre quality, almost invariably from set pieces. This was their 31st Premier League draw in three seasons (only Brighton have more), their seventh 0-0 this season (nobody has more). Progress in terms of results has been genuine: a Europa League semi-final this week, Champions League football all but secure, potentially the highest points total since the retirement of Alex Ferguson.

But a “return to the Manchester United way of playing”? Stylistically speaking, this part at least feels arguable.

And really this is an issue that predates this season, that predates Ole Gunnar Solskjær: United have been playing terrible football for years now. The execution may have improved, the tactical intricacies may shift from coach to coach, but the feel of the product, particularly in big games, is largely the same: cautious, risk-averse, conservative football played with a sense of trepidation, a sense of protecting something that must not be lost. (This may explain why so many of United’s recent triumphs – the 2016 FA Cup final, the 2017 Europa League run, Manchester City 2018, PSG 2019 – have come when all is lost.)

In large part this is a product of decisions taken off the pitch. We like to think of a club’s playing style as something organic and innate, hard-wired and proletarian. These days, however, it increasingly reflects the corporate character of its ownership. Barcelona are refined, entitled and fatally insecure; Bayern Munich disdainfully, imperially arrogant; Newcastle cynical, petty and desperate to pack it in. Likewise, United’s corporate priorities under the Glazers – preservation, maintaining market share, tinkering around the edges – have long been evident in its football.

An example: on a corporate level, David de Gea in goal makes perfect sense. He’s competent, reliable, a known quantity. But imagine if United had traded him in in 2015 or 2017 and rebuilt around an Ederson/Alisson-style goalkeeper instead. It might have backfired spectacularly. It might just have rebooted the whole machine. But the culture of the modern United is that it’s probably best not to find out.

Virtually every similar call (or non-call) United have made since the retirement of Ferguson has been broadly conservative. David Moyes was continuity. Louis van Gaal and José Mourinho were guarantees. So was Paul Pogba. Even Solskjær feels like a very corporate sort of gamble, a low-cost throwback to past glories rather than a genuine attempt to build something new. Most of the big signings, from Bastian Schweinsteiger to Edinson Cavani, sprang from desperation or expediency rather than any coherent recruitment plan.

And so the same principles that have helped United to thrive in the boardroom continue to throttle them on the pitch. Modern football rewards audacity and risk, ruthlessness and innovation and – yes – scorched-earth spending too. Perhaps the Super League was United’s endgame: its life raft to a stiller and staider world. Its collapse leaves them with a familiar absence of purpose, a familiar void where its heart once beat. - Guardian

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