Lisa Fallon: Manchester United’s lack of identity a long-term problem

Appointment of the next manager is crucial to fill the huge void not filled since Ferguson retired

They say culture eats strategy for breakfast and last Tuesday's Champions League clash between Manchester United and Atlético Madrid was a perfect case study to emphasise the point.

United, despite starting the game well, had no answers or depth in their performance compared to a defensively well-drilled, antagonistic yet dour Atlético.

In fairness to Ralf Rangnick’s side, United tried to play but they do not look aligned, the players are not on the same page and Diego Simeone’s team sensed as much.

The Argentine manager is set in his ways and is determined for his team to negate opposition teams when they attempt to be creative and then hit them on the counter-attack. It’s not pretty, but it’s effective and it’s now engrained in the culture and the identity of his club.

Everyone knows by now that Atlético are horrible to play against. They are fit, aggressive and destructive. They will manage the game and the referee, and that is how Simeone has built them to be successful.

And even though his brand of football will likely prevent him from getting a top job with a club that wants to be identified as a creative attacking side, his passion and commitment are undeniable.

Manchester United, on the other hand, seem lost at the minute.

When you watch them, you’re not really certain what to expect. We’ve seen them drop off teams and try to counter but that’s not the identity of a club like United. We’ve seen them try to be creative, which is what we expect, but they lack depth, resilience and confidence.

That stems from the club’s lack of identity and culture. Stories of dressing-room issues at Old Trafford, enhanced by no full-time manager, create the theory of a footballing institution without clear direction or vision.

Values

Since Sir Alex Ferguson's departure Manchester United have not won the Premier League. During his tenure you knew exactly how United were going to play. They had flair, talent, creativity and exceptional game management. Whether you supported them or not, they were fun to watch.

Like Liverpool in the 1980's. A team that were always fun to watch, but also a club that, to an extent, lost their way until Jürgen Klopp was appointed. In him they found a manager that is aligned to the traditional values of the club.

And this is important because Liverpool now are once again a club that knows their identity and recruits accordingly. Klopp’s personality is stamped all over his team. This always happens with a manager. How the team plays will always reflect the characteristics of the manager. For better or worse.

But more importantly for Liverpool, Klopp’s style and personality is aligned with the true identity of the Anfield club, which makes it an extremely powerful partnership.

So many clubs do not have their own identity, or know what their values are, and rely on the manager to bring one. Then when that manager leaves, they do not know who they are and therefore who they need to recruit.

This is what happened at United. Ferguson became so intertwined in the identity of the club that when he left the void was huge. Without him, the club did not know how to be who they were, and still haven’t found out.

United’s tradition tells us who they should be, and perhaps who they still want to be, but that’s why the Mourinho appointment seemed out of sync because his style, albeit successful, just never seemed to be the United way. Ultimately, this proved to be the case.

Tradition

I believe the ‘United Way’ is still there because with every manager since Ferguson, they should have learned who doesn’t fit. But the appointment of the next manager is crucial.

The next United manager’s playing style must align to the identity and the tradition of the football club. Not the other way round. If Rangnick is to move into a sporting director role, he too must be on the same page.

And it will take a bit of time. To build something creative takes longer than building something that negates. It’s harder to come up with solutions than to create problems so United fans will need to be patient, because it will take two to three seasons to rebuild this squad.

The identity of the club or organisation must always be bigger than any one personality because it has to sustain itself no matter what player or manager comes or goes.

Eric Cantona played the United way. And not the other way round. As did Roy Keane, David Beckham, Paul Scholes. we can go all the way back to George Best and Bobby Charlton.

That’s why tradition is so important. It’s those values and that culture that stands as the pillar of sustainability when change occurs or when difficulties arise.

The club must always dictate its own identity, and then it can bring in people who align to its values and tradition, who will lead them towards their vision. Sounds so simple, but we are all learning just how difficult that is to maintain in the modern game.

If the club doesn’t have its own values and identity, ultimately that culture will eat its strategy for breakfast.