What I have learnt from Manchester United’s run of mediocrity.

posted on August 23, 2022

I set my alarm clock for 245AM in the morning, and when it rang, I did a double take.

The choice was clear. It was between a good nights sleep, or a night of likely misery.

Confronted as a Man Utd fan by the probable thumping by our Arch Rivals liverpool 7-0. This pundit thought it likely, and who can blame him?

The context for non fotball followers should be set.

Man Utd have been absolutely abysmal since last season. For longer, we have been mediocre, having not won the premier league for 10 years now (Yes, time does pass quickly) … but last year was so horrible, every United fan was WILLING the season to end quickly, just so their pain and misery could disappear along with it.

We had lost to Liverpool 4-0 when we last met, and had shown absolutely no desire, and in all honesty, no talent or ability either. For context, this is the biggest match in the EPL fixture.

This season began with a new manager (the 9th manager since Sir Alex Ferguson retired), and not much else.

It had been an abysmal transfer season. We only brought in 3 new players (none of them huge names), whilst everybody else had strengthened more significantly.

The only thing we had left, was HOPE.

And then, our first match to Brighton … a team that placed 16th last season came, and we lost 2-1. That flicker of hope was diminished, but not extinguished.

Brentford was our second game of the season, a team that placed 8th last season, and we literally got THUMPED 4-0 by them.

Hope had left the building.

And thus we come back to my double take. The 245AM dilemma. To sleep or not to sleep.

I lugged my body out of bed, and out into the living room. Not bound by HOPE, but by something I’ve been going by for the last 10 years. That you have to take the good with the bad.

We had enjoyed glory years, almost uninterrupted for 2 decades. And this was payback time. More than that, there is much more to learn from defeat than there is from success.

And out of nowhere … we won. 2-1.

Nobody, myself included, can quite believe it happened. You can listen to the pundits have their take here. Just watch the first few minutes, to see how surprised Gary Neville is.

The scale of this “upset” has motivated me to write out my thoughts, and what I have learnt. I feel it is crucial, not only for myself, but for my colleagues, the people who work with me, and anybody who is interested.

First things first though, I want to make several points clear.
#1. Manchester United have a LONG WAY to go. Surely they have shown what they are capable of. But, the problem is always going to be consistency and keeping that going. The league is 38 matches long, and this is just ONE game. You could win this game and still have a terrible season. And in my view, it is not going to be a walk in the park for us.

#2. Whilst it is great to have one up on our rivals Liverpool. It is clear, the quality in their squad. The quality of the manager. The quality of the team. They WILL challenge for trophies, and a game is a game, but the main aim is to win a trophy, so I’m sure they will have the last laugh for maybe 2 to 3 seasons yet! You have to respect your opponents, and Liverpool and City clearly deserve our respect at this stage.

So lets go into my analysis.

#1. The concept of a silver bullet vs Building Blocks

Humans always look for instant gratification, and a one solution fixes all scenario.

Take covid as an example.

The pandemic cost the global economy trillions of dollars, and changed our lives in ways we could not imagine. Who would have thought global travel could come to a stand-still, and we would be separated from loved ones, family and friends for 2 years?

Since the beginning of the pandemic. The focus has been on finding a silver bullet. Either therapeutics (a cure all drug), a vaccine … or even herd immunity.

This is exacerbated by media, who focus on the silver bullet. And in the same way, pundits give their two cents about a team’s performance, citing fixes here and there, that when considered collectively encompass every possible solution.

In my mind. There is NO SUCH THING.

The vaccines, ALONE, have not stopped wave after wave of infection. And for that matter, neither has infection, or achieving herd immunity.

What a vaccine does do however, is act as a building block to an eventual solution. One which will eventually lead to some sort of compromise, which we can hopefully claim as victory.

In Man Utd’s case, watching the fan forums. The amount of inconsistency I have witnessed is amazing.

When in pain, the fans have simply snatched at what they believe are “cure all” solutions. When some of these suggestions are implemented and don’t work, they have snatched at others, of course conveniently forgetting that they themselves called for that silver bullet. The blame game, and dis-unity in general is like a spiral into the abyss.

Some have called for new owners. Some have called for new managers (there was even a small group criticizing Erik Ten Hag after just 2 games), some have called for new players, some have called for new players but they wanted it earlier, some have called for current players to be dropped.

I have no doubt that many today, will take this win, and claim their cited solution was the ONE thing that helped. But you know what, there is no such thing in my mind.

To me, it IS about trial and error. But in a considered, thoughtful way. It is about carefully considering your solutions, laying one brick down, and then slowly building on it.

Things may happen midway. A tornado could sweep through and wipe out a part of the wall you have built. And it is at that stage, you need to take a step back again, consider your options and continue laying bricks again.

It sounds tedious, and it is! But thats the point of it, and I believe Erik Ten Hag feels the same way, but the question is will the owners, management and FANS give him the time to do it? Or will they buckle as soon as a tornado sweeps through?

Listen to Erik says here.

Look how quickly the journalist is getting ahead of himself. But the fact is, he is not alone. Many will take this win as a “model” for future and continued success, and there is simply no such thing.

Consistency is key, as is adaptability, to continued and lasting success.

Brick laying is a tedious, dynamic process.

#2 The boss, the team or I

They say the buck stops at the boss.

I agree with this saying. But NOT how it is commonly interpreted.

As a boss, you must accept that, ULTIMATE responsibility for any success or failure belongs to you.

BUT it is sure folly, to think that a boss is COMPLETELY responsible for a success or failure. And in my opinion, many people subscribe to this generalism.

It is a dangerous one, because responsibility for a failure or success, comes down to not just the leader, but the individual, and also their ability to work/play together (in a smaller or larger group), AND … dumb luck, or the lack of it.

I think a boss’s role is to set the overarching philosophy, to coach and bring out the best in each individual, to set the frameworks for teamwork to thrive, and to watch each of these components, and adapt as necessary.

What the boss cannot do of course, is to turn up on the pitch, AND PLAY! First of all, because most bosses are too damn old for that, and secondly because it is impossible for one man to take on 11 positions.

I think Bosses need to make this clear to their teams and the individuals, as Ten Hag has done here, after the brentford 4-0 thumping.

The team have to take the responsibility.

-Erik Ten Hag

After a match like that, all eyes are on the manager, and I’ve seen so many of them react in so many different ways, but I think one has to be consistent.

Of course, you could call out individuals, but doing so publicly in this setting, would probably not make sense (There is however a time and place for it). U need to be clear to the public (which might include your players), that the entire team is to blame, and you need to do that privately too. I do not respect managers who “shoulder” the blame themselves entirely (Thinking they are acting as a “shield”), OR fail to call out bad actors individually in private at least. Standards have to be maintained, at that is the bosses responsibility.

Moving on to the issue of “The Team OR I?”

There is a saying that goes, “There is no I in TEAM”.

Whilst one cannot argue with it linguistically, one can question its literal interpretation once again.

Talented individuals CAN make or break teams. We have seen it time and time again, in sport, and thus we are obsessed with it.

Whether Michael Jordan “Showed up” or did not, on any particular match would make the difference.

You would rather have a talented individual in your team, than NOT.

But I think the key is to figure out if the talented individual has the humility to understand that he is not alone. And as much as Jordan could take on 40 points of the game himself, firstly 60 are scored by other team mates … and secondly, somebody had to grab the rebounds, somebody had to make the defensive blocks, somebody has to provide the assists.

Manchester United has our very own Michael Jordan.

One of the greatest footballers of all time. Cristiano Ronaldo.

He has broken so many records, and the amazing thing about him is he is a living embodiment of how personal effort CAN win sheer talent.

To set the record straight, he is one of my all time favourite players, and I celebrated like millions of others when he returned to Manchester United.

And yet sadly now, I have to use him as an example of how TEAM vs I really matters when it comes to success in a team sport/enterprise.

Take note, that I admit, only he himself will know what he is thinking, feeling, and as a result acting out. And I am relying on the interpretation of public events, which may be flawed.

Ronaldo is 37 years old, 2 years younger than me (The beast has achieved so much it makes me feel small hah) … but in footballing terms it is a wonder how he is even playing at the highest levels of football at this age.

The statistic that matters most to him as a striker, is GOALS. Particularly in the champions league. He currently leads that table against his arch rival, Lionel Messi. Ronaldo has scored 141 goals in 183 appearances, and Messi, 125 goals in 156 appearances. It is a crazy record.

The story goes, that Ronaldo wants to leave Manchester United, because Manchester United failed to qualify for the champions league.

I say the “The story goes”, because that’s the state we find ourselves in. He has not clarified if this story amongst dozens of others circulating about him is true. But his actions thus far supports the story. In particular, he did not turn up for pre season tour due to “family reasons” (footballer’s equivalent of taking MC) … and took a while to rejoin training.

Frankly, in the game and a half he has played, he has also cut a frustrating figure …

I support Ronaldo’s stance on leaving the club. Because I want him to win more and become even more legendary than he already is. What I do not support are these antics. Gary Neville here sums it up.

When the I overshadows the team, takes over the agenda, then it is time to ask if the talent is worth the trouble or worth sacrificing the team.

The boss should take ultimate responsibility and choose to let him play, keep him on the bench, or sell him … but as I mentioned above, the player also has an important role to play. And right now, it isn’t cool.

If he were to stay (because no club wants him), Ronaldo may need to adapt himself, and understand he will not have it his way, and be the sole striker lying deep waiting for that perfect ball. Its just too costly to do this in today’s game.

Talent matched with humility is unstoppable.

#3. Nothing replaces hard work

We could put the richest owners (who are willing to spend billions), hire the best manager, assemble the best team of the most talent individuals … but ultimately, if people don’t want to work hard at besting a problem or coming out on top, it is all for naught.

The best laid, and communicated plans would mean absolutely ZILCH if nobody works on it.

In the shortcut generation of Tik Tok, where we yearn for instant gratification, it seems the easiest way to get it is to shock.

It may be the easiest way to achieve attention, but long lasting enduring success is built upon hard work. Lots and lots of hard work.

The biggest thing I will say about United this morning against Liverpool is they RAN their socks off. They put alot of energy into it.

It was something entirely VOID, when we lost to Liverpool last season 4-0. It was like that. There was ZERO desire. ZERO work ethic. It seemed like players on the pitch were content on doing the absolute minimal.

Listen to Rio Ferdinand, talk about the same thing.

A phrase I’ve used at Our Second Nature is to “BE AGGRESIVE”. Note Rio uses the same words.

TENACITY. HARD WORK. AGGRESSIVENESS. ENERGY. DETERMINATION. Will always trump naked talent.

Good boss. Good individuals. Good teamwork. Hard Work. And a little bit of luck is the key to “success” in life. That is what my Manchester United’s run of mediocrity in these past 10 years has taught me.