Accompanying Manchester United’s spectacular demise over the last decade has been a general sense of schadenfreude that, let’s face it, is quite understandable – watching a formerly proud giant stumble around like a drunk wearing a blindfold in an ice rink is, objectively speaking, quite amusing.
Recently however, there’s been a new, slightly different register to some of the discourse – a strand of criticism that often tries to pass itself off as counter-intuitive and therefore clever analysis. It’s the tendency to blame the club’s failings on the players and manager whilst simultaneously defending its owners – the Glazer family. Enough whining about the boardroom, the owners can’t be expected to put the ball in the goal is the general gist of this commentary.
Zlatan Ibrahimović, for instance, recently said:
Ibrahimović isn’t the only one to hold this opinion – plenty of others are perfectly happy to dismiss any notion that the Glazers are responsible for their vandalism of this institution. At least Ibrahimović had the decency to qualify his comments by saying he didn’t know what he was talking about – most others don’t. Because pointing at Manchester United’s astronomical transfer outlay over the years as though it’s unimpeachable evidence that the Glazers have “put money into the club” and therefore shouldn’t be criticized is a take that, to be polite, leaves a lot to be desired.
The first problem is that it’s basically wrong. At no point in their reign has this vampiric collective done anything other than take money out of the club – whether through the dividends they paid themselves until 2022 or the interest payments the club continues to pay because of their leveraged buyout. Neither penny nor pound has travelled in the opposite direction. United supporters know this and said as much in 2005, warning that ‘the Glazers would not put a cent into United, but would want fortunes out’. This is the one promise the owners have made good on. Nobody thinks the Cookie Monster deserves any credit for “putting cookies into the jar” because, well, he’s famous for doing the opposite; the same applies to the Glazers. Whatever money Manchester United have spent is money that the club itself has generated in spite of the Glazers because it is a commercial behemoth.
The other problem is that expenditure alone isn’t a marker of competence. If you spent a million on a Ferrari and then put a monkey behind the wheel, surely, when the inevitable car crash happens it would be reasonable for people to ask whether the decision not to put a competent person in the driver’s seat was a wise one. Defending the Glazers is like standing around the wreckage and saying: ‘Tell you what, Marcel the monkey should’ve really been a better driver’.
A more intelligent question would be whether Manchester United have spent wisely or, more generally, made reasonably smart footballing decisions. The answer isn’t very complicated: no. How can it be anything other than an indictment of its owners that Manchester United is consistently the singular exception in the world to the rule that in professional football ‘[players’] wages [are] incredibly closely correlated with results’? As Rory Smith puts it, ‘the problem is not, and never has been, a lack of money [at Manchester United]. It is that there has always been rather more money than sense.’
Having said that, the players and manager certainly don’t help themselves. Watching the insipid football United dutifully offer up every weekend, it’s understandable why Jamie Carragher was so exasperated in the Sky Sports studios after the Manchester derby last weekend, saying: ‘[United] play counter-attack and they play long ball. No other top team plays like that. That’s got nothing to do with what’s going on above them.’
In one sense, Carragher’s right. Erik ten Hag has presided over plenty of strange decisions that he fails to properly explain. He doesn’t communicate a coherent sense of what he wants his team to do either through his line-ups or the media – Andy Mitten likened one of his recent press conferences to ‘talking to a tree’. He ought to be held accountable for decisions like demanding a huge chunk of United’s transfer budget last summer be spent on Antony – a right-winger whose right foot is almost certainly only for standing – and then continuing to select him despite an extraordinarily limited output.
This summer, he spent almost £60 million on Mason Mount but hasn’t figured out how to use him effectively or even fit him into his starting eleven. Despite the huge aggregate outlay, the team’s best passer is a 31-year-old who isn’t capable of playing a full game at its requisite intensity. And he seems to have settled on a centre-back partnership that comprises a veteran who was essentially signed because he happened to be hanging around the club, and the guy he first sacked as captain and then tried to get rid of in the summer.
The players too have their own questions to answer. Diogo Dalot switched off in the League Cup game against Newcastle United, casually jogging back whilst allowing Miguel Almirón to blindside him and score, before doing the same in the Champions League game against FC Copenhagen. Aaron Wan-Bissaka was guilty of the same drowsiness against Fulham, except it didn’t result in a goal, before indirectly precipitating FC Copenhagen’s equalizer with an atrocious back pass to André Onana. Christian Eriksen constantly allowed Rodri to run off him against Manchester City. The matchwinner against Fulham, Bruno Fernandes, regularly does the reverse – running about very fast with little regard for tactical discipline when a game appears beyond United’s reach, which is quite regularly the case these days. Casemiro’s second season is one where he’s constantly a second behind everyone else. And since signing his massive new contract, Marcus Rashford’s become a shadow of the player he was a year ago.
Nonetheless, multiple things can be true at once. Is the Manchester United mess the Glazers’ fault, Erik ten Hag’s, or the players’? Yes to all. It’s obvious that the owners’ hopeless mismanagement has meant that ten Hag is working in a difficult set of circumstances. It’s also true that he hasn’t done the best job in these difficult circumstances. And it’s also true that the players are consistently performing poorly. But none of the latter negates the former — it doesn’t absolve the Glazers in any sense.
Whatever issues appear on the field have been infrastructurally produced over the long, torrid arc of their ownership. They chose to appoint the merchant banker who facilitated their takeover as the club’s executive vice-chair. Was a man who commented that ‘[p]laying performance doesn’t really have a meaningful impact on what we can do on the commercial side of the business’ ever going to preside over a solid footballing operation? Richard Arnold, who succeeded him, declared almost pre-emptively that footballing matters were beyond his expertise – again, hardly the stuff to inspire confidence. The people who have been appointed to ostensibly look after footballing matters are equally underwhelming. It’s telling, for example, that in conversations around elite directors of football, John Murtough and Darren Fletcher’s names are never mentioned, unlike say Txiki Begiristain, Monchi, Paul Mitchell and so on. And there’s hardly anything in Murtough or Fletcher’s body of work that suggests they should be. What the players make visible on the field each week are simply the consequences of ‘what’s going on above them’.
Take transfer policy, for example. What goes on up above in the boardroom is Manchester United’s player recruitment strategy that mirrors a Sunday pub team’s strategy – calling up players the manager’s seen somewhere before and persuading them to join. What we see on the field every Saturday is Antony either displaying the emotional capacity of a ten-year old and squaring up to an opponent or squaring up the opposing full back before thrashing the ball ten yards wide – sometimes both. Anthony Martial – a player who’s essentially incapable of playing a full game without getting injured – is brought on to salvage a game. Mason Mount starts the game on the bench whilst Sofyan Amrabat gives the ball away before getting outpaced once more. We could go on.
But whilst Carragher was en route to the right conclusion, he got lost along the way. It’s not that United’s poor performances having ‘nothing to do with what’s going on above them’; they have everything to do with what’s going on above them. There’s no other way to explain why players’ and managers’ careers go into slumber in the Theatre of Dreams. Like Gary Neville said:
The bigger picture of Manchester United is that we’ve seen great managers with great reputations and great players with great reputations come here and just die in front of our eyes. Why is that? How do we answer that question?
It’s not hard. Here’s a hint: it doesn’t require any unconventional, left-field, counterintuitive thinking.