Losing is something a club like Manchester United cannot do. It isn’t in their DNA. Sir Matt Busby was a winner. Sir Alex Ferguson was, too.
In the words of former Manchester United Reserves boss Warren Joyce:
“At Manchester United, players that had a winning mentality had certain characteristics. They sacrificed themselves for the team. It was a way of life for them, not a job. They were not bothered about the money, they just wanted to win things. Once they won one, they wanted to win the next one, then the next one.”
Sir Alex spoke passionately about wanting to instil values in his players. More than giving them technical skills, he wanted to inspire them to strive to do better and to never give up—in other words, to make them winners.
“In a perfect world I would have filled every team-sheet with 11 men who had as much determination as talent. But life is not like that, and if I had to choose between someone who had great talent but was short on grit and desire, and another player who was good but had great determination and drive, I would always prefer the latter. Drive means a combination of a willingness to work hard, emotional fortitude, enormous powers of concentration and a refusal to admit defeat . Once you bid farewell to discipline you say goodbye to success.”
― Alex Ferguson, Leading: Lessons in leadership from the legendary Manchester United manager
Even though he was known as a disciplinarian and a very authoritative and commanding figure, it’s important to note that he wasn’t all hairdryers and split eyebrows. He was a caring man. He nurtured talent and created a team that could compete at the biggest stages in world football. He got into the players’ heads, but only to make them champions. He managed to infect his players with a winning mentality and obsession for success, whilst affirming his respect and acknowledging the maintenance of a particular standard. Sir Alex Ferguson has managed many “mentality monsters” in his 26 years in charge of Manchester United. Players like Peter Schmeichel, Bryan Robson, Steve Bruce, Gary Nevill, Jaap Stam, Nemanja Vidic, Roy Keane, Mark Hughes, Eric Cantona, Wayne Rooney, and finally, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Out of all these players, three of them stand out for their importance and Influence in three different eras under Sir Alex’s tenure.
One of the best examples of those that wore the United Badge is The King, Eric Cantona. Before joining United he was known as a rebel with comportment issues. in France, he had punched his team-mate, took out an opposing player, smashed a ball on the referee and called each individual member of the French Football disciplinary body an idiot. But under Sir Alex, he became a leader, hungry for success. And he helped pass that onto the famous Class of ’92. He was as hard as they come, and left his name in the history books of Manchester United and English football as one of, if not, the best Centre forward in Premier League history.
Another one was former United Captain, Roy Keane. He became a fan favourite because of the passion he showed on and off the pitch. One of the fiercest players in Premier league history, he demanded everything of those around him and more, driving United towards a litany of titles with unrelenting focus. Keane was a “cultural architect”, a role model for players. He was one of a kind, a brilliant captain and mouthpiece for the only manager with a temper to match.
The last one, Wayne Rooney. He had been in and out of the discipline books for elbowing opposing players and swearing into the camera, but he was one of the most intimidating players on the pitch. Controversies apart, he was a nightmare for every defender and opposing team, and his energy, like Roy Keane's fiery passion, is what helped Manchester United achieve greatness. His consistent performances defined him and made him one of the best players in English Football history.
In the modern times though, things couldn’t be any more different. Ever since Sir Alex retired back in 2013, United players have lacked that winning mentality that the former Gaffer had made a priority for every player that put on the shirt of the club.
Even the former coach, José Mourinho, had launched an attack on his Manchester United squad, accusing some of not having the temperament to play for the club. Players like Jesse Lingard, Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial seem disinterested in their footballing careers. Others like Angel Di Maria and Alexis Sanchez seem to had only signed for economical reasons while others like Marouane Fellaini, Radamel Falcao, Matteo Darmian, Morgan Schneiderlin, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Eric Bailly, Romelu Lukaku, Daniel James, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire just don’t have the traditional Man United player mentality.
The two who seem to highlight the biggest problems at the club are Jesse Lingard and Paul Pogba.
Paul Pogba is what many fans would rightly deem as an “elite” player. Signed from Juventus for a record £89 million back in 2016, he was one of the best in the world in his position. Versatile, accurate, technical and with the undeniable capability to lead. Fans thought he was going to be the player the team was going to be built around. Fast forward and after 6 years of inconsistency, rumours of a transfer every year, many dodgy haircuts and dressing-room dance-offs and you’ve got Public Enemy Number One.
Jesse Lingard has been at the club ever since a young age. Since his debut though, he has never achieved the status of an important star player. Mainly playing as a rotational squad player, despite being 29 years old, he has played 232 games for the club and scored 35 goals. But for some reason, ever since the 2019/2020 season, he has reportedly been unhappy that he isn’t a starter for the team. And that unhappiness has made him and some of the other players who aren’t happy in the current squad leak information from inside the dressing room to the press. A very frustrating phenomenon for the fans.
One of the many reasons United have appointed Erik ten Hag, is for his ability to demand respect and professionalism, build strong dressing rooms and instil a winning mentality onto his players, something that the Man United team has been lacking for years. But for this to occur, Erik will need to be backed in every decision he takes regarding the squad, either that is selling, buying or dropping players. It remains to be seen if or when Erik will be able to transform the Manchester United squad into mentality monsters like in the good old days.