The word rebuild is tossed around constantly in modern football. This makes sense given that long enough has passed in Premier League history for former giants to have fallen low enough to need one.
Manchester United are the current club which pundits and fans are saying need a top-to-bottom overhaul. United are still the most successful Premier League team ever with 13 titles to their name, but the Red Devils are now nearly 10 years without a title. While their recent victories over Liverpool and Arsenal would have given fans a much-needed boost, the most recent Manchester derby was a powerful reminder that there is still work to do before they get back to their best.
With this in mind, I thought it would be a good idea to use a little economic theory to try and argue what United fans should be expecting from this season. My message to them is that 8th place would not be a terrible finish. Let me explain.
Economic theory relating to the firm constantly discusses the importance of efficiency and resource accumulation to increase growth. The industrial view of the firm states that efficiency is learned over time through ‘noisy signals’ and that young firms will often suffer from ‘liabilities of newness’. Given time, firms learn how to operate efficiently, acquire more resources, perfect their routines, and learn industry specific knowledge. A football club rebuilding is no different.
When Jurgen Klopp took over from Brendan Rogers at Liverpool he performed worse in his first season than Rogers did in his final full season taking the Reds from 6th place to 8th place. His first ever back four consisted of Alberto Moreno (LB), Mamadou Sakho (LCB), Martin Škrtel (RCB), and Nathaniel Clyne (RB). While these players helped Liverpool mount a title charge 2 years before against City, they were completely ill-equipped to play the gegenpressing style of football Klopp wanted to play. As a result, Liverpool didn’t perform well and won just 42% of their league games. This process was essential for Liverpool’s future success.
The evident inability of the back four to perform to the level that Klopp wanted led to the identification of inefficiencies and the acquiring of fit-for-purpose resources which would solve these issues. Very similar parallels can be drawn between this and Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal who also finished 8th in Arteta’s first season.
Arteta’s Gunners also missed out on top 4 last year when the dismissal of their centre forward along with injuries to their first-choice full backs and centre defensive midfielder produced a poor run of results handing the top 4 spot to their North-London rivals. It is no coincidence that this season Arteta has identified new full backs who can invert and help out in midfield as well as a new centre forward to replace the exiled Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. This has subsequently led them to the top of the Premier League table at the time of writing.
Here we can see that inefficiencies were a necessary process to signal the need for new resources in specific areas to improve Liverpool and Arsenal. Meaning it could be the case that this year United will experience growing pains and perform worse than last season where they finished 6th. Erik ten Hag’s project may take 2 or 3 more years before it will finally bear fruit and take the club back to where it once was. This ‘growing pain’ period is not a nasty precursor to the rebuild, it is the rebuild. Losses are painful, but they highlight inefficiencies which can then be addressed with specific resources. All in all, if you want to rebuild something you need to first accept dismantling it.