Inside Manchester United's worst Premier League season: Where it all went wrong
It had all started so well. When Cristiano Ronaldo returned to Manchester United last August, 12 years after leaving for Real Madrid, the team were unbeaten in the Premier League and harbouring hopes of challenging for the title. But nine months on, United have just completed their worst season in Premier League history, finishing sixth with 58 points, 35 behind league-winning City.
The in-fighting within the squad can best be summed up by a source telling ESPN that an agent of a senior player complained to the club that Ronaldo had been given more prominence than their client in promotional campaigns.
Ronaldo is one of the most recognisable sporting stars in the world, his Instagram account has more followers -- 443 million -- than the rest of the United squad combined (United's official account has 58 million) and his fame extends to every corner of the globe. But while the team were heading for a sixth-placed finish in the Premier League and a spot in next season's Europa League, one player's representative was more concerned with how often Ronaldo was used to promote the club's sponsors.
Welcome to the broken, dysfunctional world of Manchester United.
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Ralf Rangnick, the interim manager appointed following the dismissal of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in November, spoke last week about the lack of "team spirit and togetherness" within the squad, but with Erik ten Hag now installed as the club's new manager, ESPN has been told by multiple sources that the 2021-22 meltdown at Old Trafford extended far beyond the players.
It was a season that saw the team led by three managers -- Solskjaer, Michael Carrick and Rangnick -- and one in which humiliation lurked around every corner. There was a 5-0 defeat at home to Liverpool, exits from three cup competitions at Old Trafford (Champions League, Atletico Madrid; FA Cup, Middlesbrough; Carabao Cup, West Ham) and new lows in terms of goals conceded (57), losing sequences and points tally (58), with players left bemused, confused and unimpressed by Solskjaer and then Rangnick.
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Sources have told ESPN that the rot set in under Solskjaer, who was regarded as indecisive, weak and lacking tactical acumen. The Norwegian had told players in preseason that he would introduce a 4-3-3 system which would enable the team to be more attack-minded, but as soon as the season started, he reverted to 4-2-3-1 and was then unable to find a way to accommodate Ronaldo properly following his arrival from Juventus.
There was also disbelief, according to sources, that Solskjaer had allowed Edinson Cavani to spend two weeks on holiday in Uruguay and delay his return for the start of the season simply because the former Paris Saint-Germain striker had endured a difficult year during lockdown at Old Trafford and wanted time with his family.
If that decision was designed to secure Cavani's loyalty and commitment, sources said that any goodwill quickly evaporated when the forward was told to relinquish the No. 7 jersey for Ronaldo. With his shirt number and first-team place lost to Ronaldo, Cavani was keen to accept an offer from Barcelona at the end of the transfer window, but United refused to let him go and told the 35-year-old to fight for his place instead.
"Cavani was pissed off by that," a source told ESPN. "He did really well in a tough season during COVID-19 despite his difficulties adjusting to life in Manchester -- he couldn't believe that it got dark outside at 3 p.m. in the winter -- but he knew he wasn't going to play with Ronaldo and wanted to join Barca. He ended up starting eight games all season at United and scored just twice, so nobody benefited from him staying, least of all the club."
Anthony Martial was another player whose mood changed with the arrival of Ronaldo, with the France international largely overlooked by Solskjaer and Rangnick before joining Sevilla on loan in January. The handling of Cavani and Martial was even more surprising considering Marcus Rashford's form and fitness problems. The England forward, who delayed surgery on an injured shoulder until August (a month after playing in the Euro 2020 final), did not return to first-team action until mid-October and went on to endure his worst season for the club.
Sources have told ESPN that senior figures at United attempted to persuade Rashford to sideline his off-field commitments to focus on regaining his form and fitness, but the player instead chose to continue to combine both. The 24-year-old ended the season with five goals in 32 appearances and has lost his England place, though he alone was not responsible for United's poor form.Solskjaer sacked and Rangnick fails
With results nose-diving and Solskjaer unable to halt the slide, the former United player was fired in November and, to many at the club, that was the moment things went from bad to worse.
Carrick's three-game spell as caretaker manager brought stability and calm -- United secured two wins and draw during his brief period in charge -- but despite the availability of Antonio Conte as an immediate successor to Solskjaer, sources told ESPN that the Old Trafford hierarchy regarded the former Chelsea and Inter Milan coach as being "too demanding of players to suit our squad." He was overlooked and soon hired by Tottenham, who ended the season qualifying for the Champions League, 13 points ahead of United in the table.
So in came Rangnick while United embarked on a "thorough" process to identify a long-term appointment. ESPN revealed earlier this season that one player admitted to teammates that he "had to Google" the 63-year-old German, who did little to impress a sceptical squad by hiring unknown coaches Chris Armas and Euan Sharp because he was familiar with them from his time working within the Red Bull franchise at Salzburg and Leipzig.
Sources have said that Rangnick was compromised by both Carrick and Kieran McKenna deciding to leave their coaching roles and then saw three potential appointments ruled out by unavailability or Brexit red tape, but Armas and Sharp were, nonetheless, his appointments. Rangnick also set alarm bells ringing within the club when he was warned that managing United would lead to unprecedented scrutiny of his results and decision-making in the media and among supporters.
"Ralf just smiled and said, 'Don't worry, I moved to a big club before when I left Hoffenheim for Schalke so I know what to expect,'" a source told ESPN. "It's fair to say that he had no idea what to expect."
By January, sources told ESPN that Ronaldo had made it clear to the club that he would not stay at United if Rangnick was given the job on a permanent basis and the Portugal forward was not the only player unimpressed by the interim boss or his coaches, with ESPN reporting that former FC Toronto coach Armas had been nicknamed Ted Lasso -- after the fictional, hapless American coach parachuted in to manage fictional side AFC Richmond in the hit Apple+ comedy show -- by some within the squad.
Janusz Michallik looks to the future after a season to forget for Manchester United.
Several players had become angered by Rangnick's outspoken comments in news conferences and tensions within the squad began to grow, with splits exacerbated by Rangnick's remarks about a variety of players including Ronaldo, team captain Harry Maguire, Rashford and Cavani.
"The British players tended to stick together while many of the foreign lads took their lead from Ronaldo," a source told ESPN. "There was a lot of upset when it was reported that some of the squad weren't happy with Maguire as captain, but that was the reality of the situation."
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The bad feeling began to extend itself to those connected to the players -- families and representatives -- with sources telling ESPN that two rival groups were involved in heated exchanges in Madrid prior to the Champions League round-of-16 first leg against Atletico in February.
There was also a suspicion within the club that many of the leaks coming from the dressing room were from three specific camps, with one in particular identified as being a persistent problem. The mood within the squad had become so sour by the end of February that sources at United's Carrington training ground told ESPN that the atmosphere within the staff and players' canteen was "awful."
There were then more angry exchanges at half-time during the 4-0 defeat at Liverpool in April due to Rangnick deciding to play with three at the back, handing Phil Jones a first appearance in almost three months, and then replacing the former England defender at half-time. "Rangnick left Phil Jones completely exposed at Anfield," a source told ESPN. "He had basically ignored him for three months and then threw him in at the deep end. Harry Maguire had a bad night at Anfield, but Rangnick made the easy decision to substitute Jones at half-time because he didn't have the bottle to take Maguire off."
Ten days later, Rangnick announced he would be taking up the role as Austria coach, despite agreeing a two-year consultancy agreement at United beyond the end of his interim spell at Old Trafford.
"Rangnick did United a favour by taking the Austria job," a source told ESPN. "It means they can move him on this summer, forget about his consultancy and draw a line under his disastrous six months at the club."What does the future hold?
So what happens now? Ten Hag has won the race to take charge of United and the former Ajax coach has already impressed his new bosses with his determination to begin work ahead of his July 1 start date.
Rangnick will be ushered into the background, while Paul Pogba, Cavani, Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata will all leave as free agents. Nemanja Matic also has served notice of his decision to leave the club this summer.
Richard Arnold is now three months into his role as chief executive, having replaced executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward at the end of January, and he has already made changes behind the scenes to the scouting network and media department. Arnold has also made an impression on the staff at United.
"Richard is different to Ed," one source said. "We never saw Ed, but Richard will eat with the staff in the canteen at Old Trafford and he's approachable. There's a real mood now that the guy in charge has an idea of what he wants to do and how he will execute it.
"When he took over, he invited in club legends such as Bryan Robson, Denis Irwin and Gary Neville to tell them what he wanted to do but also hear their ideas. The atmosphere has already changed for the better."
It will take more than dining with staff and canvassing former players for United to return to their glory days, but with Ten Hag promising to make big decision and a sense of change in the air at Old Trafford, the club's worst season in over 30 years may just be the line in the sand that United have needed. Things can't get any worse, can they?