Cristiano Ronaldo, David Beckham, Eric Cantona; what do all these men have in common? They are all undisputed legends of Manchester United, all of whom made the number seven shirt so iconic today. But with Alexis Sánchez gone after a nightmare spell at Old Trafford, the curse of this number seven shirt has taken another victim. Ever since the legendary Ronaldo left Old Trafford, whoever has donned his number has lived in a shadow of icons. Great players have come and gone, but none able to live up to the shirt. Let’s take a look at the past failures of those trying to shake the curse and those who could be next to take it on.
Manchester United’s Curse of the Number Seven Shirt
Ferguson Era Failures
Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure to Real Madrid in 2009 perhaps spawned the beginning of this curse. It was Michael Owen that would be the unlucky first to take on the iconic number at Old Trafford. Owen had just come from a disappointing spell with Newcastle United, ending in the club’s relegation from the Premier League. His first goal came in dramatic style, scoring a 96th-minute winner in the Manchester Derby to win 4-3. However, the rest of his United career was not quite so impressive. He scored just nine goals in his debut season, which was hampered by a hamstring injury.
With just 17 goals in his 52 appearances for United, it’s fair to say that he couldn’t replace Ronaldo’s influence. That season Manchester United lost out on the title to Chelsea by just one point.
Following Owen’s departure, and in his final season in charge, Ferguson offered the shirt to Antonio Valencia. After being named Players’ Player of the Year at United the season before, his season with seven on his back was a huge disappointment. He scored just one goal, and registered eight assists, but opted to switch back to his old number 25. Despite winning the Premier League that season, on an individual level, it seemed the number seven weighed Valencia down.
Post-Ferguson, The Curse Lives On
The number seven shirt at Manchester United has become somewhat emblematic of the club’s situation as a whole. The Red Devils have not lived up to the legends of old since Sir Alex Ferguson left the club. Since his departure, three more players have donned the number, and have all left after a torrid time in Manchester.
Di María and Depay, Victims of Defensive Tactics
Angel Di María became the most expensive British transfer in 2014, joining United from Real Madrid. However, by the end of the season, many pundits named him the worst signing of the season. Despite a return of four goals and 12 assists that season, Di Maríá could not adapt to Louis van Gaal’s tactics. Ironically, the Argentine would have fit the mould of former Manchester United wingers, with his ability to run at defences. Nevertheless, his undoubted talent was restrained by van Gaal. He is also not a player who enjoys the limelight, tending to play better in Ronaldo’s shadow at Madrid. Under the circumstances, the move was destined to fail.
When Di María left for Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester United brought in Memphis Depay from PSV Eindhoven as his replacement. The Dutch winger boasted some stellar performances for PSV and his national side which caught the eye of many European clubs. Yet, similarly to Di María, Depay cited van Gaal’s tactics as the reason for his failure. He believed his main qualities – his dribbling and eye for goal – to be significantly limited under his compatriot. After struggling to adapt to van Gaal’s more defensive style, Jose Mourinho provided what seemed like a fresh start for Depay. But after the arrival of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, he fell down the pecking order dramatically and was shipped out to Lyon in January 2017, where he has since thrived.
And last but not least, Alexis Sanchez. His flop was perhaps the most surprising, given his huge influence on Arsenal’s success. Yet, Sanchez lasted just a year and a half at Old Trafford, now spending the season on loan at Inter Milan. United coaches claimed that he could not adjust to the “club’s stature”, and everything that came with it. The burden of his £400,000 weekly wages weighed heavy on the Chilean’s mind.
Who Next to Take on the Curse?
The Welsh winger only arrived this summer from Swansea City, but has already matched Sanchez’s Premier League goal tally for United (three goals). If he carries on the way he has begun, he will surely be a fan favourite for years to come.
United kept tabs on the Englishman over the summer, but he opted to sign a new contract with Borussia Dortmund instead. Sancho’s rise since leaving Manchester City has been meteoric, now one of the hottest prospects in world football. If he does make the move to Old Trafford, he could propel United’s return to the top of the English football pyramid.
Since Sanchez’s departure, Lingard has reportedly asked Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for the vacant number seven shirt. He wears the same number for England and is clearly confident in his own ability. However, he does not offer enough for United at the moment in terms of end product. At 26, he is nearing the age when players enter their peak, but he will have to improve if he is to be the one to break the curse of the number seven shirt.