It’s not the lack of trophies that upsets Manchester United fans but the sheer scale of their fall from the top in the five years since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.
The three coaches to have a go at restoring United to the summit of the Premier League have taken wildly different tactical approaches, yet in each case the outcome has been the same: a strangely ambling side playing with fear, playing with the shadow of the Ferguson era looming large over Old Trafford. How they’d love to have him back.
Could Fergie sort out the mess? Would he find himself unsupported in the transfer window as Jose Mourinho claims to be, or would the board release more funds to a club legend? Would his tactics have become outdated as Arsene Wenger’s did at Arsenal, or is he still adaptive enough to lead the club back to glory? There’s only one way to find out…
We reinstated Sir Alex Ferguson as United manager using the Football Manager 2019 data editor, changing his role from “director” to “first team manager”.
All of his managerial attributes were still in the database so we didn’t have to make anything up for ourselves. We handed a Fergie five-year contract, beginning in July 2018, and left him to it.
Strangely enough, Ferguson’s only signing in the summer window was Willian from Chelsea, bought for £56million (rising to £73million). Jose Mourinho, already seething with anger at being dismissed straight after “one of my biggest achievements in the game”, must have bitterness about Ferguson signing one of his long-term targets.
The fixture list had an eye for romance. First up in the Premier League was rivals Liverpool at Old Trafford, a clash of the modern tactician and the returning old hand who came back to the dugout on a wave of media scepticism. Why was Fergie risking his legacy? What drew him to take charge of such an oddly assembled and chaotic squad?
The concerned voices would only grow louder when Liverpool emerged with a 1-0 victory from the opening day, a 26th-minute James Milner goal doing the trick on a miserable afternoon for the hosts.
United amassed just two shots on target. Alexis Sanchez was awful. Was this all a big mistake?
But the Red Devils recovered with six wins from their next seven relatively-straightforward league games, the highlight of which was a 3-1 home win over Arsenal.
They also won all three of their Champions League games having been given an easy draw (Lyon, Club Brugge and Lokomotiv Moscow) to cap a decent start to the campaign before the game everyone in English football had been waiting for. The Manchester derby – Pep Guardiola versus Sir Alex Ferguson – came at the end of October.
City won 1-0. United had four shots on target. They were terrible. Fergie had won 22 points from the first 10 games, leaving them eight adrift of Liverpool and their perfect record.
This pattern was repeated right up until Christmas; United won pretty much all of their games against lower-ranking clubs only to come unstuck in the ‘big six’ clashes, losing away at Chelsea and at home to Tottenham.
United arrived at Anfield on December 22 in low spirits on the back of successive league defeats to Spurs and West Ham that left them seven points behind Liverpool with 17 games played. Surely Ferguson was starting to have regrets.
But the 90 minutes at Anfield would prove to be the turning point for Ferguson. A Paul Pogba goal was enough to secure a 1-0 win, beginning a sequence of nine consecutive victories for United, as well as progression to the fifth round of the FA Cup after beating Middlesbrough and Liverpool again – 3-1 at Old Trafford.
Suddenly this was the ruthless Fergie of old, his team easing through Premier League matches and making solid progress in Europe, winning 2-1 at Roma to take control of their last-16 tie (United won all six group games).
But the biggest news of the winter months came in the transfer market. Clearly underwhelmed by performances in a patchy first half of the season (Mourinho had been right, it seemed) Ferguson spent big. Really big.
First in was Paulo Dybala for a club-record £143million from Juventus, and you can’t argue the Argentine isn’t a proper Fergie player. Agile and ruthless, Dybala is a footballer in the mould of the Rooney-Tevez-Ronaldo era United.
He hit 20 goals and eight assists in the second half of the season.
Fergie added central midfielder Stanislav Lobotka for £33million, the Slovakian going on to play just seven times in the second half of the season, and right-back Kevin Mbabu (of bizarre Newcastle signing fame) for £11million. The Switzerland international would prove to be a revelation.
In classic Fergie style United really kicked on in the final third of the season, ruthlessly winning 10 of the final 12 league matches.
In March they climbed to the top of the tree thanks to easy wins against Manchester City and Chelsea, among others. A home defeat to Newcastle set them back slightly, but then an undefeated April put the club in charge of their own destiny.
May, it turns out, would be a huge month in all three competitions. A 1-1 draw at home to Roma saw Ferguson’s team squeeze through to a Champions League quarter-final against Atletico Madrid, in which a stunning 3-1 win at the Wanda proved just good enough. United were beaten 2-0 at Old Trafford but went through on away goals.
April ended with a 1-0 win at the Bernebau to set up a dream scenario for the month of May, thanks to the instant impact of Dybala. The Argentine wouldn’t stop scoring and assisting goals, significantly raising the game of fellow South American Alexis Sanchez in the process.
United were one point clear at the top of the Premier League table with three games to go, and despite the hectic schedule (they beat Newcastle, Everton and West Ham to book a place in the FA Cup final) Ferguson’s side kept marching relentlessly on.
A 2-0 win at Burnley and 3-2 win at Wolves set up a final day battle with Liverpool, who they were to face in the Champions League final following a 1-1 draw with Real Madrid at Old Trafford.
Three finals in three weeks. First, United hammered Bournemouth 4-1 and lifted the title with a final tally of 92 points. Then, Arsenal were brushed aside 2-0 at Wembley courtesy of goals from the new dream team combination of Dybala and Sanchez.
And on June 1 Anthony Martial grabbed the only goal of the game to complete a famous treble exactly 20 years on from Fergie’s achievement in 1999. It’s that easy.
And just like that he retired, the master once again climbing the Old Trafford steps to watch over whoever dares to succeed him.
Had he really helped United rediscover their verve? Or had he, in one astonishing season, simply mocked the impossibility of following the club’s greatest ever manager? Ferguson had won a sarcastic treble – then shrugged his shoulders and walked away.
By Alex Keble