In the week Manchester United’s protracted sale saga finally came to an end, in the shape of a purchase by Jim Ratcliffe, the on-field drama returned as well.
The sale of the Red Devils was done the hard way and, so too, the 3-2 victory against Aston Villa on Tuesday was as typical a United display as could be imagined.
It was another improved performance by Erik ten Hag’s team but they trailed 2-0 at half-time. A goal disallowed after a bright start to the second period seemed to encapsulate the modern Manchester United.
But United drew level through two goals by young academy product Alejandro Garnacho. Then came the fairytale winner for another starlet – this time one that the club invested heavily in – Rasmus Hojlund with his first Premier League goal at the 15th time of asking.
The victory was claimed in the Old Trafford way, against the odds and when the chips were down.
United won the Premier League five times and the Champions League once after the Glazer takeover in 2005 but they have not won either since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013.
The Americans had been rumoured to sell up almost every year since the takeover, mainly due to the fans imploring – and protesting – for a change of ownership.
In November 2022 though, it was officially announced that the Glazers were exploring the option of selling the club.
Ratcliffe, a boyhood United fan and one of the United Kingdom’s richest people, emerged as an early contender but the bid from Qatar businessman, Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad Al Thani, appeared the favourite.
In the end, it fell to Ratcliffe and his INEOS group, who bought a 25 percent stake in the club and, crucially it would appear, assumed control of footballing operations.
The turmoil of the takeover itself encapsulated the club’s problems for Gary Neville, the former Manchester United defender and now leading pundit and co-owner of Salford City in the fourth tier of English football, League Two.
“Manchester United 2023 has been a disgrace to the end,” Neville posted on social media platform X in response to the takeover.
“The timing of this is truly awful and no functioning organisation would even think about it.
“I hope he [Ratcliffe] can somehow work out a way to get the club right again and back to being something respectable on and off the pitch.”
Manchester United 2023 has been a disgrace to the end. The timing of this is truly awful and no functioning organisation would even think about it. Anyway all the very best to Jim Radcliffe and I hope he can somehow work out a way to get the club right again and back to being…
— Gary Neville (@GNev2) December 24, 2023
When Ferguson stepped down, chief executive David Gill followed him out the Old Trafford door. Ferguson said afterwards he would never have retired that year had he known Gill was going too.
Ed Woodward was anointed by the Glazers to run footballing operations – to surmise: a decade on and United are in more desperate a need to fill Gill’s boots than they are Ferguson’s.
Sir Dave Brailsford, formerly performance director of British Cycling, is set to play a key role as he has with Ratcliffe’s other INEOS-backed sporting ventures.
This will shape United behind the scenes – the fans will hope that means a clear direction and strategy for the club moving forward and, in doing so, moving away from the scatter-gun approach that has categorised the running of footballing operations for the last decade.
In the short term, there are unlikely to be many changes. The Ratcliffe purchase must still be ratified by the Premier League, which rules out any serious investment in the January transfer market.
Moves on a grander scale will have to wait until the summer beyond the slim-line budgeting that has been in place since the announcement of the Glazers’ plans to take a step back more than a year ago.
How ten Hag would have liked the finances that may become available next summer when Declan Rice, Jude Bellingham and Harry Kane, among others, were on the move in 2023.
Old Trafford itself requires substantial investment and may be demolished for a state-of-the-art replacement – symbolic perhaps of the long-term strategy the club must now invoke. Even the Carrington training ground has been scoffed at in recent years.
There is little that does not require an overhaul if a Theatre of Dreams is to be reborn.
The coming weeks and months
United captain, Bruno Fernandes, is rarely anything other than to the point and admits the speculation surrounding the takeover is something that has been unavoidable for the dressing room.
“With social media and the newspapers, we see everything,” he told Amazon Prime after the victory against Villa.
“We know what the club is going through – it’s impossible not to see it – but it’s not going to change what we do on the pitch.
“We have to focus on ourselves and focus on the team and focus on what we can control – that is ourselves and our performance.
“It’s not going to change anything we do on the pitch, apart from if they bring money in and change a few players on the pitch but otherwise it’s not going to change anything.”
As with any walk of life, uncertainty breeds instability. The takeover has not only been unavoidable for the dressing room, but it will also have heavily hung over the manager.
In his time at United, ten Hag has had to manage the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo, the removal of the captaincy from, and near sale and subsequent revival of, Harry Maguire, Marcus Rashford’s lateness for training and public dropping as a result, Jadon Sancho’s exclusion from the squad and the debate surrounding the future of Mason Greenwood.
“The first thing he [ten Hag] said he wanted to change at Man United was the culture,” former United defender Rio Ferdinand said on his podcast Vibe with Five.
“He’s gone about that by [taking on] big, big issues head on.”
The Aston Villa result, and perhaps more so the manner of it – the Manchester United way, could not have come at a better time for ten Hag.
The TV cameras will turn to the stands to catch a glimpse of Ratcliffe or Brailsford every time United concede or underperform.
Will they want to bring in their own manager? Those rumours have already begun and that is something ten Hag, much like the United players, will have to learn to live with for now at least.
They will also have to live with the fact that all transfer activity in January will have to be run by INEOS even before the Premier League ratifies the deal.
Ratcliffe himself wrote a letter to the Manchester United Supporters Trust, stating: “I believe we can bring sport success on the pitch the compliment the undoubted commercial success that the club has enjoyed.
“It will require time and patience alongside rigour and the highest level of professional management.”
Another fan group, The 1958, posted on X stating they had met Ratcliffe but would not be “cracking open the champagne until they had some clarity about [the Glazers’] exit strategy. We have never wavered from this stance. Let us hope this is the start of a new dawn.”
If the @The__1958 are true to their word and really want the Glazers gone 100% then now is the time to organise serious protests – it’s the absolute last chance.
— Red_Devil (@ReDevil_UTD) December 24, 2023
With “noisy neighbours”, Manchester City, crowned Club World Cup champions this month with their fifth trophy of the year, a United return to the top cannot come quickly enough for the Old Trafford faithful.
Perhaps in the comeback against Villa, evoking memories of turnarounds against the likes of Sheffield on Wednesday to Bayern Munich, a glimpse of light has opened for a club beleaguered and unsettled for so long.
The man, who perhaps best summed up the current predicament of the club and its future prospects, was their opposing manager on Tuesday night at Old Trafford, Unai Emery.
When asked what went wrong for his Aston Villa side, his answer was quite simple: “They are Manchester United.
“Manchester United can come back like they did.”