Not Playing Like Champions
November 03, 2023
In the United States, in the early 2000s, the only team you knew was Manchester United. They were the main team tapping into that market with summer preseason tours to the states. If you are in the United States, and you wanted to follow an English speaking team at that time, you only knew the Red Devils.
I played football since I could walk but you didn’t get the chance to watch live matches over here because they were not broadcast on TV. Watching online wasn’t really a thing. You could get highlights but you didn’t know the players, and it’s hard to follow when you can’t watch a match live.
You go to Barnes & Noble and sticking out in the videos section, one “Play Like Champions” DVD where you could see how the professionals trained. The entire Manchester United club would share with you how they trained, ate, prepared. Learn how to move, dribble, pass, shoot, and score. Practice like Van Nistelrooy, Ronaldo, Forlan, Solakjaer, Saha, Giggs, Scholes, Fortune, Keane, Fletcher, Butt, Silvestre, Ferdinand, O’Shea, Wes Brown, Neville, and the USA’s own Tim Howard.
That was your only exposure. I actually got an autograph from Sir Alex Ferguson on a ball, at one of those matches, without knowing who he was at the time.
In 2009, that changed when ESPN won the rights to broadcast matches on TV in the United States. Not highlights once a week, full matches live. The entire season. Culture shock, you are immediately exposed to every team and every player.
Then you enter the awkward frustrating year or so phase where you are a neutral. Learning about the teams.
You have to support someone, but I can’t root for Manchester United, that would be too boring! Everyone you grew up with is rooting for them, you need an exciting up incoming team to follow. Supporting United would be like being introduced to Baseball and then you become a Yankees fan. Yuck.
I liked Carlos Tevez quite a lot so I naturally became a Manchester City fan. That ball signed by Sir Alex has been used and abused, and sits in my garage, but I still thank them for introducing me to the English game.
Fast forward to today, I dogged a massive bullet.
All jokes aside, Manchester United are a hot mess of a club. They still find ways to win despite how bad they’re playing, but they’ve underperformed to start the season.
Is it Ten Hag? Is it Rashford? Is it Antony? Is it Fernandes? Is it Onana? Is it Maguire? Is it the amount of injuries at key positions? Is it any individual person or player? Is this a blip or a more systemic issue?
I’d argue it’s systemic and it’s the entire club. What United had in the 2000s was an identity. A personality. The entire squad had that same personality as one cohesive unit.
The base foundation is the fans they’ve marketed to for decades. That’s never going anywhere.
Then they had a vision for how they wanted to spend. Specific profiles to target, and they went and got them. No matter how much you spend, there has to be a end goal.
If you don’t have a clear vision for who you want to target and you lose that culture of squad before individual, it’s a lost cause. Worst than that, if the problem is deeper rooted in the backroom offices, you can replace manager after manager, nothing will change. In-game tactics don’t matter at that point, the match is lost before it starts.
In the summer, the recruitment was odd. Ten Hag seemed to be trying to replicate what he had at Ajax in 2021/22. They’ve built a squad without many first phase midfielders, to play more direct to players who aren’t accomplished at winning aerial duels. They might have had a vision but the squad building is suspect. After years of high quality managers coming and going, it’s hard to say who’s fault that is without being part of the behind the scenes. The scapegoat is the manager though of course.
If you have the vision, then you can take that team and elevate individual players. Look at Roberto De Zerbi and Ange Postecoglou for inspiration on how to accomplish that. They are the types of managers you need to create a culture of togetherness within the squad like that made by Sir Alex Ferguson, showcased well in the DVD from 2003.
Erik Ten Hag has begun to slowly create his own culture within the club based on his greater vision for the squad. The execution of how they have built this squad is suspect, but there has been evidence that he knows how to elevate individual players. It feels like the main issues are deeper though. At times they are a collective and other times they are individuals. The early 2000s teams never were allowed to play like individuals.