Manchester United in danger of being defined by shortcomings

Under Ferguson ‘creative aggression’ was key, something Nicky Butt is looking to restore

Even inside a church, Nicky Butt was prepared to make a challenge.

It was September 2009 and beneath the towering arches of Durham Cathedral, coincidence meant that Butt and your correspondent were sitting side by side on a wooden pew amid a packed, emotional audience. All were gathered for the memorial service for Bobby Robson who, five years earlier, had signed Butt for Newcastle United.

Butt was reserved, as the occasion demanded, apart from the moment when, seeing a foreign team-mate messing with his mobile phone, Butt leaned forward and tapped him on the shoulder. It was a gentle message to put the phone away, though it was delivered firmly enough for the player to comprehend.

Butt was composed thereafter.


His irritation had been notable, and admirable. The impression of Butt as a no-nonsense, straight lad who happened to be pretty good at football is a correct one.

That Durham memory resurfaced on Tuesday when Butt was announced as Manchester United’s new academy head. Presumably it was another coincidence that this occurred around 72 hours after Louis van Gaal sat in a dugout up the road, at Sunderland, and observed that United lost to a relegation-threatened team due to a lack of “aggression”.

This was as worrying an assessment from Van Gaal as any that had come before at Old Trafford. For “aggression” read commitment, energy, tackling – the basics. United were missing these and lost 2-1.

And this was before Thursday in Denmark.

Van Gaal told the club’s station, MUTV, that his concern on Wearside began in “the warm-up”, and while the manager was polite and occasionally animated in his after-match chat, there was also a flatness and acceptance to his tone that offered another angle.

New era

It felt as if all the José Mourinho speculation, allied to an uninspired display had signalled the beginning of the end. He knows it; we all know it. There will be soon a new era. Butt is to be part of it; aggression must be.

For two decades under Alex Ferguson, Manchester United were defined by what they had more than what they hadn't and in those days Ferguson's managerial ethos was captured in a two-word phrase taken from his first autobiography: creative aggression.

Roy Keane personified that, so too Paul Scholes, and for a while Wayne Rooney.

Last Saturday Rooney spent a portion of his own average performance complaining to the referee, and that’s not creative aggression. It turns out he was also carrying a damaging injury.

One day Van Gaal may reveal his true feelings about a second-half effort against limited opponents that went beyond a ‘just-one-of-those-things’ explanation.

Hungry team

Given Manchester City’s loss to Tottenham on Sunday, had United won on Wearside they would be three points behind City and looking at a top-four finish. The season’s end would be suddenly promising. A hungry team and management would have been itching to go, even to Denmark.

However, bite, hunger, these are other missing ingredients and United are in danger of becoming defined by what they aren’t: a Champions League club, for instance. Their dwindling status was shown again in the Europa League defeat against Midtjylland, the sort of team who used to be thumped in Champions League qualifiers.

When the positives and negatives of the Van Gaal era come to be measured it will be said that at least he gave youth a chance. United finished at Sunderland with Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Donald Love at full back. Jesse Lingard had started the game, Will Keane ended it and James Weir and Andreas Pereira were on the bench.

A day later all will have watched as Danny Welbeck scored Arsenal’s dramatic late winner versus Leicester. Dramatic late winners used to help define United, as did Welbeck.

Born in Longsight in Manchester, Welbeck came through the United Academy. It was then overseen by Brian McClair until his departure last year. This is where Butt comes in, as McClair’s replacement.

It’s taken a while – and there’s something troubling about that in itself.

In terms of youth recruitment, United have ceded territory to City recently. Phil Neville, Robin van Persie and Darren Fletcher are among the former United players whose sons joined City's academy.

Andy Cole’s son Devante had done the same.

Local traffic

Butt’s role is to reverse that local traffic, among other things. This, of course, is not a one-man job. McClair would be visibly annoyed when he was asked about “becoming a manager”, replying that he was a manager. He managed an academy.

Part of the ‘Class of 92’, Butt has been through the United system and graduated with honours. There is a sense that his appointment is United going back to Fergusonian roots and as such it has symbolic power.

Nicky Butt isn’t much into symbolism, though – this is a man without a single medal or item of memorabilia on display at home. He is into reality and is quite aggressive about it. Those are qualities Manchester United need badly.