Manchester United’s identity has been the focus of much debate but what is it and does it really matter as the club tries to find a path back to the top? Traditions are important, writes Adam Bate, but United’s identity is tricky to define and must not hinder their progress…
Speaking to Manchester United’s long-time youth coach Tony Whelan last year, there was one phrase he used to describe the club’s tradition of developing players that was particularly memorable. He referred to the ‘scarlet thread’ that runs through the club.
“I call it the scarlet thread because it goes back beyond the Busby Babes,” Whelan told Sky Sports. “The same principles applied and we are just continuing that tradition.”
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Nobody can be certain how the coming season will play out for Manchester United under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer but there is one thing worth banking on. The club will bring up 4,000 consecutive games in which the first-team squad has included a youth-team graduate.
It is a sequence that extends back over 80 years and, as Whelan suggests, takes in those iconic line-ups from the Busby Babes to the Class of ’92. It would be tempting to say this unprecedented commitment to youth development is defining, but the truth is Manchester United is a club that has always – and will always – be about so much more.
While prodigies such as Duncan Edwards, George Best and Ryan Giggs come under the category of home-grown icons, fellow all-time United greats such as Denis Law, Bryan Robson and Roy Keane were all club-record signings at the time of their purchase.
There is perhaps nobody at Old Trafford more adored than Eric Cantona but while the Frenchman became a star at United, he was hardly plucked from obscurity, arriving as a 26-year-old title winner who had just led the line for France at the European Championships.
United have a tradition of bringing through young talent, but they also have a tradition of overt displays of financial muscle in-keeping with their status as the most successful club in English football. Nailing down United’s true identity is tough.
There is a sense the club is wrestling with this concept of what defines a United player more than ever this summer. Solskjaer’s presence reinforces the link to the past and provides comfort to supporters that any new signings will embrace his idea of what representing United entails. It’s those already there that could be the bigger problem.
Gary Neville has spoken of separating the good from the bad within the United dressing room and that seems the only starting point for positive change. However, it’s a huge task – not least because Neville himself has acknowledged it’s not clear who should be on each list.
In fact, the uncertainty over who should stay and who should go strikes at the core of this notion of United’s identity and what it really means.
For example, Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford should embody it. Both are popular figures at the club. They are the academy graduates done good. Yet, their much-publicised behaviour during the summer break has annoyed some at a time when it is not so easy to pin it all on the supposedly malignant influence of World Cup winner Paul Pogba.
For some, the juxtaposition with Scott McTominay’s summer training videos was too delicious to ignore. Don’t be rusty, be ready. That was the message from the 22-year-old Scot as he was pictured putting in the hard yards. It’s the sort of stuff that supporters lap up.
Yet, even here, the problem at the heart of the United conundrum is laid bare. While everyone is impressed by McTominay’s efforts, others argue the midfielder lacks quality not character. The concern of those supporters demanding more is that pinning hopes on attitude alone is an admission of defeat rather than a route back to the top.
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The lie that is often told is that Manchester United supporters will be happy as long as they are watching a group of players who are giving their all for the shirt. But this is a half-truth at any club and is particularly disingenuous when it comes to a club the size of United.
The truth is that these fans want more and why shouldn’t they? It is what is happening elsewhere and it is what they should be striving for if they are to close the gap on their rivals. Because while hard work beats talent every time, the hard truth is that Manchester City and Liverpool have both of those qualities in abundance right now.
Significantly, something approaching a strategy seems to have been settled upon this summer. Young and hungry players of potential are the target now, signings for whom the step up to Manchester United marks the biggest challenge of their fledgling careers.
Daniel James was the first acquisition of the Solskjaer era, a 21-year-old Welshman who has just enjoyed his breakthrough season at Swansea. Aaron Wan-Bissaka was born in the same month as James, underlining United’s newfound commitment to a certain profile of player.
The style of play? That should be a secondary concern at this point.
Solskjaer has enjoyed some successes with the counter-attack but possession with real incision continues to be a problem for this Manchester United team and while some will dismiss the criticisms of Louis van Gaal, the former manager is not so wide of the mark when pointing out the current approach is not too different to that of Jose Mourinho.
Here too, though, the identity question is not straightforward. Sir Alex Ferguson’s era was not all about width and freedom but dogged away days. It was about winning with style but with the emphasis on winning over style. That he signed off with a demob happy 5-5 draw at West Brom was seen as symbolic of this joie de vivre but that was never the full story.
As well as the pragmatism in Europe, even United’s domestic success under Ferguson could be controlled when it needed to be. The famous 1995/96 season in which Newcastle were overhauled featured four consecutive 1-0 home wins in the run-in.
The third of three consecutive Premier League title wins in 2008/09 came thanks to a run of 14 consecutive clean sheets in which United scored more than once in only four of them.
The point is that attempting to pigeon-hole Ferguson’s long reign of 26 years is clearly impossible – and the same is also true when it comes to defining the identity of a club that had already been around for more than a century before the Scotsman even arrived.
James Fearon, the renowned political scientist at Stanford University, once argued that identity can be defined as the “distinguishing features that a person takes a special pride in or views as unchangeable” – and for Tony Whelan that is summed up by the scarlet thread.