A deep dive into Manchester United's worst Premier League season
Inside the dysfunctional, cluttered world of Manchester United
Who would have thought Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Old Trafford would result in Manchester United’s worst seasons in the PL era. It all started so well. Cristiano Ronaldo scored a brace in his very first game to power his side to an emphatic 4-1 win over Newcastle. United for the first time after Ferguson's departure were harbouring hopes of challenging for the title. Nine months later, the red devils finished sixth in the table. They completed their worst season in Premier League history, registering 58 points, 35 behind league winning Manchester City. So, what went wrong for Man Utd? How did an historic club like Utd become a target of derision?
The in-fighting within the squad can be deemed as one of the key reasons behind their dismal show this show. As per sources an agent of a senior player complained to the club that Ronaldo had been given more prominence than their client in the promotional campaigns.
Ronaldo is one of the biggest international superstars of the game with around 445 million followers on Instagram and his fame extends to every corner of the globe. But while the team were heading for a sixth placed finish in the PL and a spot in next season’s Europa League, one player’s representative was more concerned with how often Ronaldo was used to promote the club’s sponsors.
Welcome to the dysfunctional, cluttered world of Manchester United
Where it all went wrong
Man Utd’s interim boss Ralf Rangnick who was appointed after the sacking of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in November, spoke last week about the lack of “team spirit and togetherness” within the squad, but with Erik Ten Hag now designated as the club’s new manager, multiple sources tell that the 2021-22 meltdown at Old Trafford extended far beyond the players.
It was a torrid season that saw the team led by three managers- Solskjaer, Carrik and Ragnick- and one in which mortification lurked in every corner. There was a 5-0 battering at home to Liverpool, exits from three cup competitions at Old Trafford and new nadirs in terms of goal conceded (57), losing sequences and points tally (58), with players left bewildered, demented and unimpressed by Solskjaer and then Rangnick
As per the sources the rot set under Solskjaer’s reign, who was considered as indecisive, weak and lacking tactical acumen. The former Man United forward had told players in preseason that he would introduce a 4-3-3 system which would allow the team to display their attacking prowess, but as soon as the season commenced, he regressed to 4-2-3-1 and was then unable to find a suitable way to fit in Ronaldo following his arrival from Juventus.
There was also incredulity, according to sources, that Solskjaer had permitted Edison Cavani to spend two weeks on holiday in Uruguay and delayed his return for the start of the season just because the Uruguayan striker had endured a difficult year during lockdown at Old Trafford and wanted time with his family.
Then the former PSG superstar was told to relinquish the No.7 jersey for Ronaldo. With his shirt number and first-team lost to Ronaldo, Cavani was interested in accepting an offer from Barcelona at the end of the transfer window, but United refused to let him go and told the 35 year old to prove his mettle and battle for his place instead.
Cavani was pissed off by that," a source told. "He did really well in a tough season during COVID-19 despite his difficulties adjusting to life in Manchester -- he couldn't believe that it got dark outside at 3 p.m. in the winter -- but he knew he wasn't going to play with Ronaldo and wanted to join Barca. He ended up starting eight games all season at United and scored just twice, so nobody benefited from him staying, least of all the club."
Anthony Martial was another player who wasn’t very pleased with Ronaldo’s arrival. The France international was largely overlooked by Solskjaer and Rangnick before joining Sevilla on loan in January. The Cavani and Martial handling was even more surprising considering Marcus Rashford’s fitness and form concerns. The England forward, who delayed shoulder surgery until August (a month after playing in the Euro 2020 final), did not return to the squad until mid-October and went on to endure his worst season for the club.
The senior figures at United tried to persuade the 24 year old to sideline his off field commitments to focus on regaining his form and fitness, but Rashford instead chose to continue to combine both. He ended the season with 5 goals in 32 appearances and has lost his place in the England squad.
With results plummeting and Solsjasker unable to stop the slide, the Norwegian was fired in November and, to many at the club, that was the moment when things aggravated.
Carrik’s three-game spell as caretaker manager brought stability and calmness within the dressing room- United secured two wins and a draw during his brief period as incharge- but despite the availability of Antonio conte as an immediate successor to Solsjasker but the management regarded the former Chelsea and Inter Milan boss as being “too demanding” of players to suit their squad. He was neglected and soon hired by Coys, who ended the season qualifying for the Champions League, 13 points ahead of United in the table.
Days after Rangnick came in as interim manager while United embarked on a rigorous process to identify a long-term appointment. Earlier this season one of the players admitted to his teammates that he “had to Google” the German, who did little to influence a sceptical squad by hiring unknown coaches Chris Armas and Euan Sharp because he was familiar with them from his time working within the Red Bull franchise at Salzburg and Leipzig.
Sources have said that Rangnick was compromised by both Carrick and Kieran McKenna deciding to leave their coaching roles and then witnessed three potential appointments ruled out by unavailability or Brexit red tape, but Armas and Sharp were nonetheless his appointments. Rangnick also set tocsins ringing within the club when he was warned that coaching United would lead to unparalleled scrutiny of his results, decision-making skills and vision in the media and among club supporters
“Ralf just smiled a little and said, 'Don't worry, I moved to a big club before when I left Hoffenheim for Schalke so I know what to expect,'" as told by a source "It's fair to say that he had no idea what to expect."
As per the sources Ronaldo had made it clear to the club that he would not stay at United if Rangnick was handed a permanent deal and the Portugal forward was not the only player unhappy with the interim boss or his management staff.
Numerous players were livid with Ragnick’s forthright comments in media and tensions within the squad began to grow , with splits exacerbated by Ragnick’s outspoken nature and his remarks on Ronaldo, skipper Harry Maguire, Rashford and Cavani
"The British players tended to stick together while many of the foreign lads took their lead from Ronaldo," quoted by a source. "There was a lot of upset when it was reported that some of the squad weren't happy with Maguire as captain, but that was the reality of the situation.”
The hostility began to grow itself to those associated with the players-families and representatives- with sources telling that the two rival groups were involved in a heated verbal spats in Madrid prior to the Champions League round of 16 first leg against Atletico in February.
There were also rumours among the club that many of the leaks coming from the dressing room were from three specific camps, with one in particular regarded as being a constant problem. The mood within the unit had become so bitter by the end of February that sources at United Carrington’s training ground described the atmosphere within the staff and players’ canteen as “awful.”
Things got from bad to worse as the season progressed. Players got frustrated and began to lash out at each other. In a 4-0 defeat at Anfield in April, United players protested during half time due to Rangnick deciding to play with three at the back, giving Phil Jones his first game in almost three months, and then replacing the veteran defender after 45 minutes. Rangnick left Phil Jones completely exposed at Anfield," a source said. "He had basically ignored him for three months and then threw him in at the deep end. Harry Maguire had a bad night at Anfield, but Rangnick made the easy decision to substitute Jones at half-time because he didn't have the bottle to take Maguire off."
A few days later, Rangnick announced he would be taking up the coaching role for Austria, despite having a two-year consultancy agreement at United beyond the end of his interim spell at Old Trafford.
"Rangnick did United a favour by taking the Austria job," a source said "It means they can move past him this summer, forget about his consultancy and draw a line under his disastrous six months at the club."
What does the future hold?
So, what happens now? Ten Hag has taken charge of United and has already fascinated his new bosses with his determination to commence work ahead of the July 1 start date.
Rangnick will be assisted into the background, while Paul Pogba, Cavani, Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata will all leave as free agents. Nemanja Matic has also served notice of his decision to leave the club this summer.
Richard Arnold is now three months into his role as chief executive, having replaced executive vice chairman Ed Woodward at the end of January, and has made a few alterations behind the scenes to the scouting network and media department. Arnold has also made an impression on the staff at United.
Richard is different to Ed," one source said. "We never saw Ed, but Richard will eat with the staff in the canteen at Old Trafford and he's approachable. There's a real mood now that the guy in charge has an idea of what he wants to do and how he will execute it.
"When he took over, he invited club legends such as Bryan Robson, Denis Irwin and Gary Neville to tell them what he wanted to do but also hear their ideas. The atmosphere has already changed for the better."
It will take much more than dining with staff and canvassing ex United players for the Red Devils to return to their glory days, but with Ten Hag promising to make significant changes and bringing a new era at Old Trafford, the club’s worst season in nearly 30 years might just be the final blow they needed. I mean things can’t get any worse, can they?
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