It was a few years back when a story seeped out and started doing the rounds within Premier League circles.
Manchester United were desperate to bolster their squad as the clock ticked down on the end of the summer transfer window, thus a technician with a Sky Box was surprised to be sent to the home of a club executive with a key role in bringing in new faces. Not as surprised as when he was greeted mid-morning by the person in their pyjamas though. The football world was out finalising deals; this was their de facto control centre.
It wasn’t told as a joke but it did surmise the fact that a fallen giant was fast becoming.
If yesterday was bad against a Chelsea side in serious decline, meaning top four won’t happen in a league with two excellent clubs, one good team and a lot of dross, it wasn’t the worst. For last week’s game, in particular, was the culmination of so much that has been going on for so long.
Even if you’d been following the gradual decline as drip by drip the intimidation and the fear around going to Old Trafford has been syphoned off post-Alex Ferguson, it was still quite a thing to see. It wasn’t just that their cross-town rivals bided their time and picked apart United as if one more mid-table team, there was so much around that.
As an example, before the off and long before the inevitable outcome, a club that has spent £801m on transfers since summer 2013 – not to mention the pay-offs, agent fees and wages that today only are second on a global scale to Barcelona – was setting up with three central defenders and three deep midfielders while trying to cling on. By now this is merely met with a shrug.
That’s the new standard. That has become their relatively sorry level.
Most will be able to point to the how around the loss to Manchester City. It’s not difficult.
At a glance and you can see that for an elite athlete Romelu Lukaku is overweight and Luke Shaw is too. But keep on going. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s efforts to awake a generation of footballers so caught up in themselves by bringing them to an old training ground was bringing ridicule upon himself and no inspiration upon his players. The lesser-spotted Matteo Darmian emerging from the wilds to take up a stage place in the biggest of shows stank of desperation and cluelessness. Alexis Sanchez is either tragedy or comedy, as the club’s best-paid player has been mostly watching on from the bench at a defence so badly in need of investment to the point they rely on Ashley Young, Phil Jones and Marcus Rojo.
And then there was Paul Pogba’s ongoing decline into the absurd as, employed as the main creator, he couldn’t get the ball forward as a link man and, when failing in his primary job, he jogged lazily about and offered those behind him no cover. Over his career there haven’t been enough instances to call him out as a great player as some still do, and not enough to suggest he has the potential to be a great player. Contrast him with his countryman N’golo Kante who does his job wherever he is, making those around him look better.
But apologists for Pogba talk about him growing at another club, meaning that at 26, as the fifth-most expensive player to ever cross chalk, he’s relying on others to make him look better. Whatever about inconsistency, it doesn’t even help that his attitude stinks. Roy Keane, for example, may often look out of date no matter how amusing, as he refers to emotional intangibles rather than tactical evolutions, but on this subject, he’s not wrong. You wouldn’t trust Pogba and while his dressing-room dances may not contribute to his performances, having a great time while being an off-field virus doesn’t do much. You match his productivity in your job and post how it’s all a great laugh. See how your boss reacts.
Therefore most will be able to point to the how they lost to Manchester City.
But of course, they are all symptoms of why they lost as well, and will continue to.
Take Darmian who they threw so much money at in his pay packet that reports say he’s turned down offers from numerous Italian clubs, happy to be a minnow on shark money, rather than a slightly larger minnow on more fitting reimbursement. Deck chairs in the Titanic would be a bad enough scenario, but United have bolted down theirs.
Take Solskjaer too and the rush to appoint him when most lower league managers would have cruised through his earlier schedule with a group so happy to be relieved of the pressure of Jose Mourinho whose junk stock rises every day he’s away from them. United clearly got excited by the micro and by the short term, never stepping back and thinking on down the road.
Those are examples of the complete scattergun approach via a lack of planning but where there is some semblance of thinking ahead, it’s aimed in completely the wrong way.
Manchester City did want Alexis Sanchez because he fitted into a system they are close to perfecting, but even with their riches, he had a value ceiling. United though never had so much as a system but wanted to get one over on their rivals, giving him £500,000 per week. It was all about perception as they acted as if sucking in their gut was akin to a six-pack.
Pogba was no different, and best surmised their priorities these days. Indeed as they mull over whether to not only keep a high-cost player that offers so little, but to build an entire team around a guy that doesn’t actually want to be there, what’s tipping their scales at the minute is again image. A style-icon with a big social media following, he helps them keep and up their brand value. Sadly, that’s what they’ve been reduced to.
It’s nothing personal anymore.
For this is just business.
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With the fifth pick in the 2019 NFL draft last week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Devin White. If you know nothing about the linebacker out of the famed Louisiana State University, don’t worry about it. What should concern you is the team’s place in that draft.
Owned by the Glazer family, they’ve been proof not just of the families sporting knowledge, but also of their business brilliance and where their priorities lie when it comes to teams.
As baffling as Jon Gruden’s management is now, he was a maverick when he took charge of that 2002 group and won a Super Bowl in his first season there. But zoom out a little for the Glazers in terms of results have been dining out on that for a long time, just as they have been off Alex Ferguson covering over the cracks that opened when they came to Old Trafford.
Look at it this way. The ironically communistic system of American sports mean that those franchises that go down should always bounce back. It’s a trampoline effect for most, but not the Buccaneers. Since that win they’ve gone the last 11 seasons without so much as a play-off win. In their sport, only the Browns have a longer drought but this year they are loaded whereas Tampa Bay are as bad as always. Meanwhile, out across all four major United States’ leagues only four teams have had a longer wait for the inevitable.
It’s damning but also a peek through the keyhole that tells you they don’t see it that way.
For your version of winning isn’t exactly theirs.
In 1995, Malcolm Glazer paid a then-record $192m for the NFL team, which in today’s buying power translates as $317.6m. Yet in 2018, Forbes estimated that their value was $2bn. Thus while his team may have been mostly awful, his investment has increased near sevenfold.
Even when his players lost, Glazer has been victorious.
Those who followed US sport closely, or even semi-closely, were aware of as much. It’s why back in 2005, Manchester United were made aware of exactly what they were getting. While his method of borrowing money in loans, leveraged against the club’s own assets, screamed of the worst vestiges of ultra-capitalist ideals, it was also a warning as to why he was in this. For him an £800m purchase was a bargain and he was proven right. It meant that when his son Joel said they were “avid Manchester United fans” it screamed lies.
Tellingly in May 2005, The Economist ran with this headline. “Can Malcolm Glazer, Manchester United’s unpopular new American owner, turn a profit in European soccer?”
A profile from The Guardian around that time made further promises about what would happen next.
“Glazer’s interest in United probably springs from the same instinct: he thinks it’s a bargain, even at £800m. You can see his logic: it is probably the world’s most famous sporting club, its stadium is always sold out and its brand cannot be copied. That makes it an enticing prospect for Glazer-style financing – mortgage a rock-solid asset up to the hilt in order to crank up the potential returns. Under the takeover proposal for United, Glazer’s direct upfront investment would be only a third of the takeover price.”
The problem for United fans since is that his asset has performed so well that there’s been a reluctance to change. This is too valuable to tinker with. Last June brought a record revenue of £590m. This year that’s expected to rise over the £600m mark. If many wonder why Ed Woodward after his miss-mash transfer policy and bizarre managerial merry-go-round is still there, the reason is obvious. It’s that you don’t press another button on the ATM screen when the money is simply shooting out.
All in all, it’s perhaps the most obvious example and depressing tale of what modern sport has become. Lining pockets while hoping for good results but not really caring. Love or hate them, what one of football’s great names has been reduced to is depressing.
It’s not so long since former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert met with the Glazers and, an actual United fan, he offered them a cheque for a billion dollars to take the club off their hands. They laughed. “This is the strongest brand name in the sports world,” they said.
That’s what they’ve become first and foremost. A brand.
Although if there is one way out for Manchester United it’s the blood money of Saudi Arabia, leaving them stuck between a rock and a hard place. Be careful what you wish for, as it’s probably better to endure this misery than to turn it around on the back of war crimes.
Once unbeatable, it means now there’s simply no way to win.