The Perfect Ten: Match Ten: Ajax 0-2 Manchester United (24th May 2017)

If there is one thing the matches selected for the Perfect Ten has shown it is that much of Manchester United’s success can be attributed to the visionary leadership of Sir Alex Ferguson. His retirement in 2013 cast a long, cold shadow over the club.

Since then United have deviated from their average line of performance. Under Ferguson, United never finished outside of the top three in the Premier League. Since his retirement they have never finished inside the top three. It has been a change of fortune United fans have been unaccustomed to for a number of years.

David Moyes led Everton for a long and consistent spell with success being largely contextual – in that despite not winning silverware they performed beyond expectations. He came close to leading Everton to cracking the top four and ensured they became the strongest contender to all the top clubs. Even though there were only empty shelves in Moyes’ trophy cabinet he was still selected as Ferguson’s successor. This was mainly down to Ferguson playing a large role in choosing the new manager.

United is a club of tradition, managers do not come and go, and the board and fans fully anticipated Moyes to be in it for the long haul. Ferguson left Moyes with a squad much weaker than previous United teams. At 40 years old, Ryan Giggs was in his final season, Paul Scholes had retired, Darren Fletcher struggled with illness and the United midfield clearly lacked the skill and control of years gone by. Moyes attempted to solve this particular problem with the signing of Marouane Fellaini. A signing who has shown consistent performers under later managers – but at the time it signalled Moyes’ lack of success in the transfer market.

After more than two decades of silverware and dominance, Manchester United’s empire built by Ferguson descended into free fall and came apart under Moyes’ nose in a matter of months. Rivals basked at the sight of United sitting seventh in the table and over twenty points behind Liverpool on top. His season ended prematurely and destroyed all reputation he built as a manager at Everton.

The saying goes: “Rome wasn’t built in a day” – but inversely it could be destroyed overnight. Lowest uis van Gaal was selected over interim manager Ryan Giggs on the back of a long and successful career, as well as strong spell as the Netherlands national manager. Although he led United to win the FA Cup, van Gaal went against all the traditions of how United play. Games became boring spectacles of United playing keep ball without any attacking purpose or prowess. The Old Trafford stands chanted “Attack!” to encourage a return to the good old days – but they continued to be rewarded with swathes of possession and a distinct lack of goals.

It seemed as though United’s board had decided to jettison van Gaal before United’s name had been inscribed on the base of the historic trophy. Jose Mourinho arrived at United with the expectation of a return to the golden years. Mourinho delivered silverware in his first season in the form of the Community Shield, the EFL Cup and the Europa League – hardly the most poignant of trebles – but an undisputed success. A sixth place finish and series of underwhelming performances undermined the season’s achievements in the eyes of many. For United fans it was a welcome return to how things should be.

United’s style of play had been expected to return to the traditional free-flowing, counter attacking play they had so successfully cultivated under Ferguson. They spent the 2016-17 season set up as a traditional Mourinho side – pragmatic, efficient and more defensive minded than attacking. United under Ferguson were able to completely dismantle opponents and overwhelm them with their attacking power. Under Mourinho, leads were squandered and countless goalless draws were played out.

On 22nd May 2017, a shrapnel laced bomb detonated during an Ariana Grande concert in an exit of the Manchester Arena. Twenty-three adults and children were killed, and 250 people were injured. The two clubs of Manchester created a banner reading: “Manchester – A City United”. A strong show of solidarity between old rivals. The Europa League Final in Stockholm was scheduled to take place just two days after the attack. The city, as well as the country, was in mourning and coping with the reality of what had happened.

Never before has an entire country leant their support to a team in a final. This game holds significance not only for the cultural statement it made against terror in the first world but also for how it represented the start of a new era for United under Mourinho. The Europa League victory over Ajax secured United’s place in the Champions League – but on a wider footballing spectrum it can be viewed as Mourinho manoeuvring all his pieces strategically into place to ensure United kick on in the coming season.

The start of the 2017-18 season has seen United dismantle both West Ham and Swansea with 4-0 victories. For the first time since Ferguson’s retirement United played with a verve and vigour, and the guile of killing teams off at will. They possessed power, strength and creativity in midfield with a razor sharp decisiveness in attack.

Many in the media and on the terraces have hailed United as being ‘back’. The landscape of football has changed dramatically in recent weeks with vastly escalating transfer fees and an influx of money never seen before. With United beating teams with ease and sitting back on top of the league it feels as though we are on the cusp of equalising the horizon of how the Premier League landscape ‘should’ sit with a return to the natural balance.

Mourinho has succeeded in returning trophies to Old Trafford and he has been wise in the transfer market to support building a team capable of challenging for the title. It would be foolish to become carried away and award the title prematurely to United – but victory in Europe and an attacking verve from a Manchester United team is a step towards the romantic nostalgia of what the Premier League, the greatest league in the world, offers.