‘Graveyard’ – 9 flair players that have struggled at Man Utd since Ferguson

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Manchester United v Feyenoord - UEFA Europa League - Group A - Old Trafford Manchester United's Memphis Depay, 24 November, 2016

Manchester United were renowned for their flair players during the Sir Alex Ferguson era – but that has changed in recent years.

The likes of Ryan Giggs, Eric Cantona and Cristiano Ronaldo all thrived under Ferguson’s tutelage and entertained the Old Trafford faithful.

Since Ferguson decided to retire at the end of the 2012-13 season, though, creative and skilful players have often struggled to live up to expectations at United.

“Jamie Carragher said last week [Declan] Rice and [Jude] Bellingham would be mad to come and join Manchester United or words to that effect,” former United captain Gary Neville recently said on his Sky Sports podcast.

“I get what he’s saying because it has been a bit of a graveyard in the last few years for some pretty decent players and talented players. And I think if you are those players they’re going to be a struggle to attract at this moment in time.

“Not just because there’s no Champions League, but just because there is no faith in how Manchester United grow and develop players. I don’t mean develop from the academy, from when they’re signing.”

We’ve taken a look at nine flair players that joined United and struggled under Ferguson’s successors.

Wilfried Zaha

After embarrassing defenders in the Championship, Zaha agreed on a deal to join United in January 2013 and became Ferguson’s last signing.

But the winger remained at Crystal Palace until the end of the 2012-13 season and never got to play under Ferguson, who retired after winning his 13th league title.

Zaha made just four appearances in all competitions for United and never really got a chance to showcase his skills at Old Trafford.

“Under David Moyes, I had to adjust my game because certain managers want trustworthy players, someone who will keep the ball more,” Zaha said on Soccer AM in 2015.

“He’s the only one that told me to stop some of the tricks and keep the ball in certain areas so I tried to adjust my game then.”

Since returning to Palace in 2014, the Ivory Coast international has established himself as one of the most exciting forwards in the Premier League.

Juan Mata

Admittedly, it’s a bit of a stretch to say that Mata struggled at United.

He scored 51 goals in 284 appearances, won four trophies and made himself a United cult hero with that brace against Liverpool in 2015.

But the Spain international spent eight and a half years at Old Trafford and was always a shadow of the sensational player that we saw at Chelsea.

Chelsea's Juan Mata celebrates scoring his sides' third goal

READ: Celebrating Juan Mata at Chelsea: Part creator, part cold-blooded killer

Angel Di Maria

During his time at Real Madrid, Di Maria established himself as one of the best dribblers in the world and often delighted fans with a rabona cross.

He joined United in the summer of 2014 and scored three goals in his first five appearances for the club, including an audacious chip over Leicester City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.

But everything went downhill from there and the Argentina international struggled under Louis van Gaal, who publically criticised him for dribbling too much.

“My problem at Manchester was the coach,” Di Maria told TyC Sports in 2021. “Van Gaal was the worst of my career.

“I would score, assist, and the next day he would show me my misplaced passes. He displaced me from one day to the other, he didn’t like players being more than him.”

The 34-year-old joined PSG after one solitary season at Old Trafford and is no longer worrying about his passing accuracy.

Memphis Depay

Depay replaced Di Maria at Old Trafford and was tipped for a bright future, but he also struggled to express himself in Van Gaal’s system.

“It’s not like you weren’t allowed to dribble or anything,” Depay told The Sunday Times in 2018. “It was just the tasks you had. When you give some players too much information they think too much.

“Young players shouldn’t think, if they give the ball away, ‘Next ball I have to play safe’. That’s not football. That’s not me. I put risk in my game, try to be reckless but in a good way.”

Despite providing a few flashes of his quality, the Netherlands international scored just two goals in 33 Premier League appearances and was sold to Lyon in January 2017.

Anthony Martial

While Di Maria and Depay struggled with Van Gaal’s methods, Martial thrived under him and enjoyed a promising debut season at United in 2015-16.

But he struggled to replicate that form following the arrival of Jose Mourinho, who criticised his work rate and often left him out of the team.

The France international stagnated during Mourinho’s two and a half years at Old Trafford and appeared to lose his confidence.

Despite briefly rediscovering his best form at the start of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign, Martial was eventually deemed surplus to requirements.

Paul Pogba

After deciding to leave United in 2012, Pogba joined Juventus and established himself as one of the best and most skilful midfielders in the world.

He returned to Old Trafford in an £89million deal in 2016 but has since been told to prioritise defensive contributions over attacking flair.

The World Cup winner has also struggled with inconsistency and hasn’t been able to replicate his impressive France performances in a United shirt.

“It’s true that at Juve it was different from Manchester United,” Pogba told L’Equipe in 2021.

“We were already playing with three midfielders [at Juve], in 5-3-2. I had the freedom, I had to be in the box, to attack. It was an obligation. In Manchester, I have the freedom to go into the box, but the priority is to play and defend.

“We [France] play in 4-2-3-1, also a diamond. I am a little more in the transmission, in the construction. But I have more freedom than in Manchester to enter the box, to make runs forwards.”

The 29-year-old now looks set to leave Old Trafford on a free transfer at the end of the 2021-22 season.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan

Mkhitaryan starred for Borussia Dortmund and was named the Bundesliga Players’ Player of the Season after registering 15 assists and 11 goals in 2015-16. 

A move to United promptly followed, but it soon became clear that Mourinho preferred players who had a greater appetite to sacrifice their attacking game to defend.

While the Armenia international played a key role in United’s Europa League success, he struggled to hit the same heights in the Premier League and joined Arsenal in January 2018.

“Arsenal have always played offensive football,” Mkhitaryan said after leaving United. “Under Jose, the [United] team was playing a bit differently. But I’m not blaming anyone, I’m not criticising anyone, it’s just a different philosophy.”

Alexis Sanchez

While Sanchez had a brilliant goal record at Arsenal, he was also renowned for his creative flair and cheeky panenka penalties.

The forward joined United in a swap deal that saw Mkhitaryan move in the opposite direction, but he wasn’t able to replicate his Arsenal form at Old Trafford.

“Sanchez might be struggling at United because he has not been afforded the kind of freedom he got under Arsene Wenger at Arsenal,” Alan Shearer said in 2019.

“He could basically do what he wanted – go left, right or down the middle and if he lost the ball, people would cover for him.”

The Chile international didn’t suit Mourinho’s more structured system and scored just three goals in 32 Premier League appearances for United. 

United were so desperate to get his £500,000-a-week wages off the books that they allowed him to join Inter Milan on a free transfer in 2020.

Jadon Sancho

During his time at Borussia Dortmund, Sancho developed into one of the most exciting players in Europe and became known for his tendency to nutmeg opponents.

“His goals and assists records speak for themselves and he will also bring tremendous pace, flair and creativity to the team,” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said after United signed him in 2021. 

While the England international has continued embarrassing a few defenders with nutmegs, he’s struggled to adjust to life at Old Trafford and has scored just three Premier League goals in a difficult debut season.

Admittedly, it’s still early days for Sancho and the winger can turn things around, but he won’t remember 2021-22 with much fondness.


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