NUR-SULTAN, Kazakhstan -- It is 4:50 a.m. on Wednesday. The wind chill factor takes the temperature down to a punishing -22 degrees Celsius (-7 Fahrenheit), but as Manchester United's young squad emerges from the arrivals hall at Nursultan Nazarbayev International Airport, a throng of 60 locals with United scarves and banners greets them with a noisy welcome.
United are making their first visit to Kazakhstan to play a routine Europa League group game against FC Astana, 3,700 miles from Old Trafford, in a city that is closer to Beijing than Manchester. From a football perspective, Nur-Sultan is as far from home as United could possibly be within the UEFA orbit, but it is a fixture that sums up where the team and club are right now. Miles from where they want, and expect, to be, playing in a secondary competition while Europe's elite -- of which they were once a leading member -- contest the Champions League.
Nur-Sultan ultimately may be United's aphelion, the point from where they begin to navigate their way back to the top of the sport. A young team stacked with academy graduates -- six teenagers make their United debuts in the Astana Arena -- suffered a 2-1 defeat against the Kazakh champions. That result wasn't a shock -- manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer left almost all of his first-team players in Manchester due to United having qualified for the knockout stages -- but it was an embarrassing reminder of how far the club has fallen.
Since Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement in May 2013, when United clinched the Premier League title with an 11-point winning margin, the club have drifted further away from the position of power they once held. Manchester City have become the dominant force in Manchester and England, winning three titles in six years, while traditional rivals Liverpool have become Champions League winners and appear destined to end a 30-year league title drought this season.
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Managers have come and gone -- Solskjaer is the fourth hire since Ferguson -- a staggering £840 million ($1 billion) has been spent, and largely wasted, on players. Mistakes have been made in the boardroom and only now are we hearing talk of a "cultural reboot" within Old Trafford.
But how could it go so wrong, so quickly? Manchester United were supposed to be too big, too wealthy and too successful to fail.
'The lads wanted a star... we got Fellaini'
"HE'S EITHER A CLOWN OR A F---ING GENIUS," David Moyes suggested to a member of his coaching team after an early meeting with Ed Woodward, United's newly appointed executive vice-chairman, in July 2013.
Heralded as the "Chosen One" after signing a six-year contract as Ferguson's successor, Moyes was led to believe that big moves were underway to sign Gareth Bale, Cesc Fabregas and Cristiano Ronaldo. Woodward even told him that the club were just waiting to press the button on whichever deal he wanted to do. Moyes had already pulled the plug on a move (set up by Ferguson) for Barcelona's Thiago Alcantara because he was unconvinced. Having worked within a tight budget at Everton for 11 years, Moyes earned the nickname "Dithering Dave" because of his habit of painstakingly assessing every potential signing, but Woodward was now giving him the chance to play fantasy football for real.
But nothing happened. Moyes wanted Everton pair Leighton Baines and Marouane Fellaini, but what he really wanted was to make a statement and to do that, he had to deliver big name players to excite the fans. In late July, Woodward flew back from the team's summer tour of Australia with the club briefing that he had gone home on "urgent transfer business." Fellaini, meanwhile, had an escape clause in his Everton contract (due to expire in mid-August) enabling him to leave for £23.5m. Baines, on the other hand, made it clear he would not force a move to United.
As the days ticked by, nobody arrived to boost the squad. Panic set in. But with three minutes to go before the Aug. 31 transfer deadline, Fellaini arrived from Everton for £27.5m -- £4m more than his escape clause would have allowed him to leave for two weeks earlier.
It was a disastrous summer window, and privately, Moyes and Woodward began to point the finger at each other.
"Before games, [David Moyes] would say, 'We need to make 500 passes today.' What is all that about? 500 passes? We never had that kind of thing under Sir Alex [Ferguson]. Before we played Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarterfinal at the Allianz Arena, he told us to try to win corners by kicking the ball off Bayern players' shins. It was laughable really." - a former United midfielder
"The lads wanted a star name to lift the dressing-room, and we got Fellaini," one member of Moyes' first squad told ESPN FC. "Felli was a good lad and he did a job, but the rest of us were just looking at each other, wondering what the hell had happened. David misjudged the squad. He needed two new centre-halves at the outset because injuries had caught up with Rio [Ferdinand] and Vida [Nemanja Vidic]. But he was too worried about making such a big call straightaway. He didn't take risks and he didn't want risk-takers."
United would go on to their worst start to a season in the Premier League era, followed by another panic buy. In the January transfer window, they signed Juan Mata, flying him to the training ground in a helicopter. The club was desperate to promote the idea of Woodward pulling off a coup by prising the player from Chelsea for £37.1m, but the players were unimpressed.
"Great lad, Juan, but we didn't need him," a first-team player told ESPN FC. "We had Shinji Kagawa at the time and he was a really popular, well-respected player within the dressing-room. Moyes didn't know how to use him. He didn't trust him. But Shinji was quicker and more direct than Juan, who actually had the effect of slowing the team down."
With Fellaini and Mata, a pattern had been set. United were paying over the odds for players unsuited to the team.
'None of the signings impressed us'
UNITED SACKED MOYES IN APRIL 2014, but the scattered approach in the market continued under his successor, Louis van Gaal. This time, Woodward got deals done, breaking the British transfer record to sign Angel di Maria for £59.7m and completing the loan signing of Radamel Falcao from Monaco. Once again, the players were underwhelmed by the signings, which also included Daley Blind, Luke Shaw, Morgan Schneiderlin and Matteo Darmian, while homegrown players like Jonny Evans and Danny Welbeck were sold off cheaply.
"In fairness to Ed, he delivered for Louis," a former United coach told ESPN FC. "Louis wanted Di Maria, [Bastian] Schweinsteiger and Memphis Depay, and he got the deals done."
"None of the players that were signed impressed those of us who were already there," a player from the time told ESPN FC. "Di Maria was the only one who we thought was a real United player. He was a great lad and he really looked the part after two to three games, but he had loads of big rows with Louis -- always in Spanish, full-volume stuff -- and he wanted out after that. A misconception has grown about Di Maria. He was popular within the squad and a top quality player, but he and Louis just didn't get on.
"Falcao was a lovely guy, so humble, but he wasn't over his bad knee injury, so it never worked for him. The rest of the signings just weren't good enough, though. Louis wanted to clear out the Ferguson influence and build again, but he went too far and made the squad worse."
Van Gaal's stubbornness also led to the expensive mistake of signing Depay from PSV Eindhoven for £25m in 2015.
"Louis was a big fan of Depay," the former coach told ESPN FC. "He found out that Liverpool had met him and were ready to do a deal, so Louis told Ed that we had to move fast. PSG were also in for him. But Albert Stuivenberg, one of the coaches, had worked with Memphis as a youngster in Holland and he knew his character. He told Louis it was a bad idea and that he wasn't right for United.
"Louis had made up his mind, though, and Ed did the deal. Albert was right. Memphis wasn't right for United."
Depay scored seven goals in 53 appearances before being shipped out to Olympique Lyonnais, with one story emphasising why he failed at Old Trafford. "He made a mistake which led to a goal in a game at Stoke," a United teammate recalls. "Louis was furious, so he punished him by making him play in the reserves the next day. Memphis then turned up for the game in a Rolls Royce. Some of the lads told him it didn't look good doing that. Next day, he turned up for training in the same car."
Van Gaal attempted to sign Sadio Mane from Southampton in August 2015 only for the forward to reject a move to Old Trafford because, according to sources, he made it clear that he did not want to play for the Dutchman. Instead, United signed Anthony Martial from Monaco; the Frenchman remains at the club.
Mourinho arrives, but the imbalance continued
THE VAN GAAL ERA LEFT UNITED WITH AN IMBALANCED SQUAD, prompting his successor, Jose Mourinho, to spend big in an attempt to inject pace, goals and experience. Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Eric Bailly arrived in Mourinho's first summer. Romelu Lukaku, Victor Lindelof and Nemanja Matic checked in a year later, before Alexis Sanchez arrived in January 2018 from Arsenal.
Manchester City had been favourites to sign Sanchez, but United were prepared to pay him in the region of £400,000 a week and went on to become one of the worst signings in the club's history. Former United players spoke to their contacts at Arsenal and the same message came back: "Don't touch him, he doesn't have the character to play for United."
"Why didn't somebody at the club get one of the lads to speak to Danny Welbeck about him?" one United player said to ESPN FC.
By this stage, Mourinho was making uncomplimentary noises about player recruitment. Woodward floated the idea of creating the position of director of football, but Mourinho was reluctant and the idea was shelved. But with the manager publicly complaining about the club's transfer strategy during the 2018 summer tour of the U.S., when it became clear that United's scouts and player recruitment team were opposed to Mourinho's desire to sign Bayern Munich's Jerome Boateng as his new centre-half, the clock began to tick on Mourinho's reign in charge. Boateng's injury record was the big concern within the United scouting department. There was also a suspicion of Bayern's motives for selling, with United having seen Schweinsteiger and Owen Hargreaves arrive from the Allianz Arena, only to struggle with their fitness.
"Ed [Woodward's] problem is that he doesn't know what he doesn't know. He means well and wants United to be Premier League and European champions again, but he thinks he has the solution to everything. He doesn't, United don't, and he needs to hire the right people in key positions. He's also too nice. One problem that both he and the Glazers share is that they lack a hard edge. That is not the case at City or Chelsea, or with Levy at Spurs." -- one source, to ESPN FC
Mourinho also felt United moved too slowly in the market -- the one exception was when Woodward beat Chelsea to signing Lukaku -- and his approach jarred with the club's determination to be strategic in order to avoid the mistakes of Moyes and Van Gaal. Woodward had overhauled the club's scouting system, giving United eyes and ears across the globe, with as many as 60 scouts reporting into the main hub at the Carrington training ground, but it wasn't working for Mourinho.
He would be sacked last December, with Solskjaer appointed on a full-time basis in April after initially holding the post of interim-manager. Woodward heralded the Norwegian as helping United with a "cultural reboot," turning the focus onto developing homegrown talent and recruiting emerging players. In September, he told the fanzine "United We Stand" that the club signed Aaron Wan-Bissaka from Crystal Palace following an exhaustive process that began with "804 right-backs in our system based on scouting reports."
From the last minute signing of Fellaini in 2013 to the data-driven capture of Wan-Bissaka, United finally appeared to be settling on a coherent plan.
THE BUCK STOPS WITH THE MANAGER. You can blame the players and owners, but the manager ultimately pays the price for failure. United's problem, post-Ferguson, is that they have hired the wrong guy at the wrong time at every turn. Time will tell if the same applies to Solskjaer.
"It was chaos under David Moyes," one former United player told ESPN FC. Another recalled how the "training was s--- in Australia" during the early weeks of the Scot's reign.
"He told us that he would make us fitter. We had just won the Premier League by 11 points, but we were a group of players who would always strive to be better, so we bought into it," said a former player. "But training... was boring and unchallenging. Under Sir Alex, we would warm up in boxes, with one-touch passing, and it was intense and competitive. Under David, it became two-touch and our technique diminished.
"One big factor in David not succeeding at United was that he took too long to realise what he had inherited. The team had stopped pressing under Sir Alex. We began to defend deeper due to the age and experience of the team, but David came in and thought we could play fast-paced football. We couldn't and we made a terrible start that we, and he, never recovered from."
Moyes battled to win over the squad, but his attempts to make them more professional, like banning the tradition of the players eating chips on the night before a game, angered many who felt he was making changes for change's sake.
Tactically, the players also struggled to warm to Moyes. "Before games, he would say, 'we need to make 500 passes today,' a former United midfielder told ESPN FC. "What is all that about? 500 passes? We never had that kind of thing under Sir Alex. Before we played Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarterfinal at the Allianz Arena, he told us to try to win corners by kicking the ball off Bayern players' shins. It was laughable really."
In his autobiography, "#2Sides," Rio Ferdinand claimed that Moyes failed to connect with the United players. "Moyes's innovations mostly led to negativity and confusion," Ferdinand said. "The biggest confusion was over how he wanted us to move the ball forward. Some players felt they kicked the ball long more than at any time in their career. The whole approach was alien.
"Sometimes our main tactic was the long, high, diagonal cross. It was embarrassing. In one home game against Fulham we had 81 crosses! I was thinking, why are we doing this? Andy Carroll doesn't play for us!" By the time United sacked Moyes, less than 12 months into a six-year contract, United had fallen from being champions to a team that was unable to qualify for European competition.
Where Moyes was out of his depth, Van Gaal marched into Old Trafford in the summer of 2014 as a Champions League winner with experience of managing some of the biggest clubs in the world in Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. He had also just guided the Netherlands to the World Cup semifinal in Brazil. "He felt like a 'boss' from day one," a United player told ESPN FC. "He just had presence and authority."
The staff behind the scenes were also immediately impressed. Van Gaal was warm and inclusive to the point that the feel-good factor returned. His personality and charisma chimed with Woodward's desire to make United punch their weight, the two men working together and the club spending heavily during a major rebuild. But while Van Gaal got United back into the Champions League in his first season, the football became predictable. He demanded that his players stick to his philosophy of a possession-based game. At a time when their Premier League and European rivals were developing quicker, high-energy styles of play, Van Gaal's United were getting slower.
"I liked Louis," one player sold by Van Gaal told ESPN FC. "He was a brilliant coach. Tactically, the best I have ever had. But his football was restrictive and he didn't allow for flair in the final third of the pitch. If a player shot and missed, he had to explain himself after the game. Louis hated players shooting with their first touch -- he basically ordered them to take a touch before shooting. Crazy, really."
Van Gaal sent every player video clips via email of what they had done wrong. When they ignored him, the emails soon came with "read receipts". During team meetings, the manager would criticise players in front of their teammates for the most basic technical mistakes.
"It was hard work under Louis," one senior player recalls. "It got to the point where Wayne [Rooney] and Michael [Carrick] went to see him to tell him that it was too much and he needed to change. He did for a while, but by the time he was sacked, the players really couldn't take any more. The lads were looking forward to international breaks just to get away for a few days."
Van Gaal was fired within 48 hours of United winning the FA Cup in 2016 -- their first trophy in the post-Ferguson era -- with Mourinho hired in his place after the club had also considered Tottenham's Mauricio Pochettino and Van Gaal's assistant, and Man United legend, Ryan Giggs.
With Pep Guardiola having taken charge at Manchester City, Mourinho was United's response: a big-name manager described as a "trophy machine" by one senior figure at Old Trafford. But by this point, United were a shadow of the team that Ferguson had led to the title three years earlier. The experienced men had gone, leaving fringe players like Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia, alongside ageing stars Rooney and Carrick. Add the failures of Depay, Schweinsteiger, Darmian and Schneiderlin and it was easy to suggest that Mourinho had taken on a bigger challenge than he had imagined.
That Mourinho delivered two trophies (Europa League and League Cup), reached the FA Cup final and qualified for the Champions League is perhaps testament to his achievement. But he spent just short of £400m in two-and-a-half years as manager and left in December 2018 with the club no better off than when he arrived.
United's football was also uninspiring, almost to the levels of the Van Gaal era, and Mourinho reacted badly to criticism from former players, most notably from iconic figures such as Paul Scholes and Gary Neville. He had also become unpopular around the club and within the dressing room during his final months in charge.
According to one source, things had gotten so bad under Mourinho that when Solskjaer became caretaker manager, folks at Old Trafford referred to him as the "anti-venom."
'Ed's problem is he's too nice'
AT THE BAGGAGE CAROUSEL IN NUR-SULTAN, Manchester United supporter cheered the players, but they booed Ed Woodward. The 48-year-old has become accustomed to criticism since succeeding David Gill in 2013, and even as far away as Kazakhstan the story remained the same. Woodward describes himself as a "lightning rod" and with that comes the abuse he receives, both in person and on social media. He may put on a brave face, but sources have said that the negativity can consume him. "He's a normal guy and just wants to be liked," a source said.
Woodward mingled with supporters in an Irish bar in Nur-Sultan, for example, only for one fan to approach him and poke his finger in the executive's ear before the incident was posted on social media. United sources told ESPN FC that Woodward does not like socialising with the protection of the club's security team. Incidents such as this one, however, perhaps emphasise his naivety.
Fans are frustrated over how Woodward and the Glazers, the U.S. owners, have run the club, seeming to care more about commercial success than success on the pitch. When the Glazers, who also own the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, bought the club in 2005 with a leveraged takeover, they plunged United into debts of around £350m. The Americans have since made United the most powerful commercial brand in world football, but unlike Roman Abramovich at Chelsea or Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan at City, the Glazers have not invested any of their own money, instead taking dividends on a regular basis. Since Sheikh Mansour bought City in Sept 2008, he has pumped more than £1 billion into the club to transform their fortunes. At Old Trafford, interest payments on the debt and money drawn in dividends has seen over £1 billion drain out of United's coffers.
A former investment banker by trade, Woodward advised the Glazers during their takeover of United while working for JP Morgan. He speaks to co-chairman Joel Glazer on a daily basis, and despite the club's football failures, a United source told ESPN FC that he is "rock solid" in his position. But just as successive managers have been unable to escape Ferguson's shadow, Woodward continues to be measured against Gill, who presided over incredible success and stability alongside Ferguson.
"The players used to refer to David as 'Mr Gill,'" a former United player said. "But Ed Woodward has never had that level of respect. He's a nice guy, people like him, but David Gill just had a status around the club and United have missed that."
Within the game, Woodward has struck up strong relationships with leading figures in the business, including Man City's Ferran Soriano, Tottenham's Daniel Levy and others at Juventus, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. But one figure at a leading Premier League club told ESPN FC that Woodward suffers from "jockstrap syndrome" in that he's too easily dazzled by the association with big-name players and agents.
"Ed's problem is that he doesn't know what he doesn't know," one source told ESPN FC. "He means well and wants United to be Premier League and European champions again, but he thinks he has the solution to everything. He doesn't, United don't, and he needs to hire the right people in key positions. He's also too nice. One problem that both he and the Glazers share is that they lack a hard edge. That is not the case at City or Chelsea, or with Levy at Spurs."
One area of scrutiny is United's lack of a director of football, a position that involves mapping out the club's long-term approach on the pitch and recruiting players and coaches to fit that vision. When Mourinho was sacked, this role was cited as an urgent appointment. Almost 12 months on, sources tell ESPN FC that it is no longer a priority.
Woodward has admitted that he, at times, has been the man who has blocked transfers. "Sometimes I have to be the one who delivers the 'no,' which isn't easy," he told "United We Stand." "Our natural tendency is to back the manager in every possible circumstance, but we have to listen to the experts too."
'Ole is going to have to be selfish'
SOLSKJAER WAS IN A RELAXED MOOD as he sat in the coffee lounge of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, United's base, in Nur-Sultan. The United manager was making light of the bitterly cold temperatures outside, claiming that "it's colder when I go to my cabin in Norway." Less than 12 months earlier, Solskjaer was managing Molde in his homeland. There have probably been times in recent months when he could have used the solitude of his retreat.
"Fair play to Ole, he is making big changes," one of Solskjaer's former United teammates told ESPN FC. "But I don't know how much his voice is really heard at the club and whether he is able to do what he really wants to do."
Solskjaer's initial appointment as caretaker manager went so well, winning his first eight games and guiding the team to a remarkable 3-1 Champions League win against PSG in France, that he was given a three-year contract in April. Woodward declared that Solskjaer was the man to lead United's "cultural reboot" by delivering attractive, winning football with a team predominantly made up of homegrown players. Behind the scenes, the scouting department was up and running, with the Wan Bissaka signing an example of how United were using strategy and data to recruit players. For his part, Solskjaer offloaded high-earning, but under-performing, players such as Lukaku, Sanchez and Darmian.
When United took the field against Astana, the average age of their 10 outfield players was 20.1. The squad cull had been brutal and the lack of reinforcements -- only three signings arrived this summer -- means Solskjaer must use untried youngsters when he wants to give his senior players a break. It is why United have languished in mid-table this season, yet those at Old Trafford say the club won't go on a spending spree in January.
Gary Neville, a former United captain, has urged Solskjaer to protect himself by pushing for funds to sign players. "Ole is not going to be there to see the fruits of the labour he has put in, the foundations that he is laying, unless he gets players in around them [youngsters]," Neville said. "The young players won't develop the maturity they need without experienced players alongside them.
"Ole must demand it [money to spend]. He is going to have to be selfish, have a ruthless streak and protect himself in January."
The money is there to spend, but missing out on the Champions League will undermine the club's efforts to sign the world's best players. And the prospect of finishing in the Premier League's top four, which grants automatic qualification to Europe's top competition, appears as far away as Kazakhstan.
Sources have told ESPN FC that the United hierarchy are prepared to endure a period of "pain" to come out the other side in a better place. There is also a view that patience will deliver its rewards. City and Liverpool are the big two at this moment in time, but nobody at Old Trafford expects Guardiola to remain at City for the long-term, while there is also a belief -- maybe a hope -- that Liverpool will have to plan for life without Jurgen Klopp at some point in the next two to three years. But waiting for your rivals to fail is no plan for success. Six years of mistakes and false steps have been hugely damaging for Manchester United, but as they emerged from the Astana Arena the mood was one of optimism. Maybe this is as bad as it gets.
United have to come in from the cold at some point.