As is often the case, it was Jose Mourinho who put it best. He may have been talking about Arsene Wenger during a spat with the former Arsenal manager in 2014, but he inadvertently coined a phrase which is now applicable to Manchester United: “specialist in failure”. There have been many lows for United since the Sir Alex Ferguson era ended 2013 and Tuesday’s defeat by Atletico Madrid was merely the latest of them.
The extent of the decline at Old Trafford is evidenced by the simple fact that few were surprised by Atleti’s ability to grind out a 1-0 win. Diego Simeone is an experienced Champions League campaigner and a master of doing whatever it takes to succeed.
In the home dugout was Ralf Rangnick – a manager who was plucked from Lokomotiv Moscow, where he was head of sports and development, and whose biggest single achievement in management is probably winning the German Cup with Schalke back in 2011.
Rangnick was hired as an interim manager and will make way for a new man at the end of the season. The question now is where United go from here. All the talk from chief executive Richard Arnold and director of football John Murtough of a clear plan is not particularly convincing after years of similar platitudes from Ed Woodward.
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So, as they have on several occasions since Ferguson retired in 2013, United need a new manager. But what evidence is there to suggest the club’s hierarchy will make the right decision and kickstart a new era of success?
Paris Saint-Germain boss Mauricio Pochettino and Ajax’s Erik ten Hag are understood to be the leading candidates at this stage. Like United, PSG and Ajax have been dumped out of the Champions League in the last-16 stage.
But does the man in the dugout actually matter as much as fans assume? The problem clearly runs deeper at Manchester United, who have shelled out £1.3billion on players in the past 10 years to record negative net spend of £908m, according to the CIES Football Observatory.
“I don’t necessarily think it’s about who you sign though,” former United defender Rio Ferdinand said on BT Sport’s coverage of the Atletico Madrid game. “I was screaming at the start of the season ‘oh we’ve got [Cristiano] Ronaldo, we’ve got [Raphael] Varane now’. Big players. [But] if the culture at the football club isn’t right, it doesn’t matter who you bring in. You need a manager that can guide the ship, and United don’t have that at the moment.”
Ex-United midfielder Owen Hargreaves built on the point, comparing United to their rivals. “Look at how Liverpool got [Jurgen] Klopp and how City got Pep [Guardiola]. They had a structure behind the scenes and decided ‘that’s our guy’. United now, we’re all hopeful but is it going to be [Luis] Enrique, Ten Hag, or Poch, is it [Zinedine] Zidane? We should already know who our guy is.”
United may well know who their guy is, but history suggests whoever it is will not provide the club with the golden bullet they require.