Looking for answers

Looking for answers

Looking for answers

Despite a change at the helm and new signings, Manchester United are still struggling to find form.

Wither Manchester United?

Champions League action is in full swing in Europe, but the United brand is missing from the tournament. Alas, United cannot even win before the national cameras. Having spent almost $300 million on big-name players during the summer transfer window, it scrambled to a 2-2 tie at West Bromwich Albion in their last match, needing a late goal to even achieve that.

Woe is United. Its sponsorship contracts with Chevrolet and Adidas are among the richest in the game, yet it plays right now in the shadows of where it needs to be.Manchester United is owned by an American family, the Glazers, and its shares are floated on the New York Stock Exchange. The laws of finance and sports may not be far removed from each other: What goes up can go down.

Way back in the 1960s, the Green Bay Packers dominated the NFL as United recently dominated English soccer. Green Bay’s spell was broken once it lost its domineering coach, Vince Lombardi. The Red Devils of Manchester are now broken after they lost their domineering coach, Alex Ferguson.

Lombardi reigned for just nine seasons, though it felt like a lifetime. Ferguson governed his club for 27 years, and winning became almost a perennial expectation throughout his span of 1,500 games.

A team, goes the cliché, is never about one man. But after Lombardi, Green Bay suffered a quarter-century of drought before being revived under Coach Mike Holmgren. After Ferguson retired, it has been two seasons with two different successors trying to emulate his style, as well as his success.

An even greater parallel once existed. Manager Matt Busby prevailed at United from the end of World War II until the late '60s. Busby, like Lombardi, built more than a club — he built an ethos that a team becomes great not just by winning, but by mastering the sport with a beautiful panache.

Style mattered to Sir Matt Busby. Style was restored, eventually, by Sir Alex Ferguson. And that requirement — also shared at the pinnacle of the sport by Barcelona and Real Madrid — is taxing Manchester United to the limits.

Is this in any way Ferguson’s fault? Does it tarnish his legacy?

In a way, yes. Ferguson had emulated Busby in that he built up a youth structure that provided the stars of his team, or at least some of them. No one personified this more than Ryan Giggs, who finally left the field of play last season and now is an assistant coach at the club.

However, Ferguson left his post rather abruptly after winning the Premier League with a team that, he surely knew, was in dire need of rebuilding. The defence was old, apart from the young Spanish goalkeeper David de Gea. The leaders of Ferguson’s last line — Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra — have moved on to new  clubs.

Ferguson’s own chosen replacement, David Moyes, lasted less than a year into his six-year contract, during which he made only two notable signings. Neither were defenders. He brought in Marouane Fellaini, a tall, ungainly Belgian midfielder, and the Spanish playmaker Juan Mata.

Moyes had the misfortune of arriving not only with Ferguson newly retired, but with the club undergoing a change at chief executive. And the CEO is the man, rather than the manager, who negotiates for new players.

United’s new chief executive, Ed Woodward, hired the Dutchman Louis van Gaal as manager and spent the kind of money this year that the club failed to spend last. It has become a middle-of-the-standings Premier League team, an outsider in Europe and a rather desperate buyer.

Among the new players, the winger Ángel Di María has excelled. Radamel Falcao, still being used sparingly after major knee surgery last February, plays only bit parts. Robin van Persie, who captained his Dutch national team (coached by van Gaal) to the World Cup semifinals in July, is not yet fresh or enthusiastic enough to score the goals that he did so often under Ferguson.

“Judge me and my team after three months,” van Gaal said three months ago.

The judgment has to be harsh. After eight games, van Gaal’s United is one point better in the Premier League than it was under Moyes last year. The team’s struggles for style, for cohesion and for results mirror what happened last year, when Woodward and the board began to lose faith in Moyes. There is a major difference. While Moyes was thrown in at the deep end, with comparisons to Ferguson’s reign still prevalent and with a brutal slate of games to open last season, United this time around has mostly played opponents from the middle or bottom of the standings.

And, of course, no opponents at all in Europe. The lack of Champions League play was meant to free up United to rehearse and adapt to the methods that van Gaal himself admits are unlike anything most of the players have experienced before.

That supposedly easy early season run is over. Next up is Chelsea on Sunday. The following Sunday, United visits its neighbor, Manchester City. Three weeks after that comes Arsenal.

So from here on, the Reds need to be Devils against the bigger teams in their league. Van Gaal can hope that his team gets some benefit from the fact that Chelsea, City and Arsenal have all that extra travel and distraction of the Champions League.

Meantime, he has to be grateful that Fellaini, with accomplished chest control and then a thumping shot, scored once for United at West Brom. And Daley Blind, a defender who followed the manager from Amsterdam to Manchester, strode forward to save the team with an equalising goal, struck sweet and low from 23 yards.

“I am happy with our playing style,” said van Gaal. “But not happy with the result.”At United, with all that history and expectations, one without the other is failure. And time is no excuse.

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