Manchester United’s problem has never been money. Not a dearth of it, anyway. Even now, in what may prove to be the twilight of the Glazer family’s 17-year ownership of the club, as prospective suitors and self-appointed saviors circle, great torrents of cash proceed to flow through Old Trafford.
Enough, definitely, for the club to finish per week that began with Gary Neville railing against the Glazers’ chronic parsimony by submitting not only a bid value $60 million for a 30-year-old midfielder, but a contract offer sufficiently generous that the midfielder, Casemiro, has reportedly indicated to his current teammates that he couldn’t, in good conscience, turn it down.
There might have been more of it, in fact. For the reason that Glazers’ arrival, United has in effect paid out somewhere within the region of $1.2 billion for the privilege of being owned by the family: a billion or so in interest payments, and a few hundred million in dividends, nearly all of them paid to the Glazers themselves.
All of that — the bottomless bounty generated by United’s relentless commercialism, the unstinting riches brought in by the Premier League’s broadcasting appeal — might have been invested within the squad, had circumstances been different, had the Glazers not effectively placed the club in debt bondage to itself all those years ago.
But even without it, even with all of that cash seeping away, Manchester United has never needed to go without. The Glazers have, in line with one estimate, spent around $1.7 billion in transfer fees alone for the reason that family patriarch, Malcolm, took control at Old Trafford. The team broke the British transfer record to sign Paul Pogba. It made Harry Maguire the most costly defender in history. It made Cristiano Ronaldo the highest-paid player in England.
And while precise figures are difficult to acquire, it pays just in addition to its rivals, each domestically and in Europe. United’s salary roll is just not drastically different to Manchester City’s, or Liverpool’s, or Chelsea’s: sometimes just a little more, and sometimes just a little less, but all the time amongst the best on this planet.
No, as easy and as accurate because it is to berate the Glazers for what they’ve cost Manchester United, blaming the club’s demise on a scarcity of investment is to misunderstand what has gone incorrect at Old Trafford, and to misrepresent the answer for any latest owner. The issue is just not, and never has been, a scarcity of cash. It’s that there has all the time been moderately extra money than sense.
The last decade, since Alex Ferguson’s retirement, has brought any variety of illustrative examples — attempting to sign Thiago and Toni Kroos but deciding, ultimately, that Marouane Fellaini served just as well; watching 804 right-backs and selecting Aaron Wan-Bissaka — but it surely is hardly needed to strain the sinews of memory. There have been loads of fresh examples this summer. There have been quite just a few within the last week.
The looming signing of Casemiro, say. It might be a coup, no doubt, for United to herald a player who has won five Champions League titles, and established himself as certainly one of the best exponents of his subtle art on this planet in the method. But Casemiro is 30. He’s being offered a four-year contract.
He can also be a really different kind of player than United’s primary goal, the one the club spent much of the summer pursuing, the deep-lying Barcelona playmaker Frenkie de Jong. He can also be hardly a straight swap for Adrien Rabiot, the player United identified as a substitute, once it became clear — after months of wasted time — that de Jong was not prepared to spend a season in exile from the Champions League.
It is feasible, in fact, that United reassessed its plans once it realized Casemiro may be obtainable. His arrival would, by any measure, make Erik ten Hag’s team more resilient, more obdurate, at the least within the short term.
However it still leaves a matter hanging within the air: If ten Hag was adamant that he required a player of de Jong’s ilk to play the best way he prefers, does being presented with Casemiro mean he now has to reimagine his whole approach? Is Manchester United doing what it has done for a while: acquiring players, and even coaches, after which determining how all the pieces will fit together later?
That, in any case, is the abiding impression of the squad the club has built. It is just not, despite appearances, stocked with bad players. It’s, as a substitute, plagued by disparate — but high-quality — parts, a patchwork of ideas and ideas and impulses, moderately than a cogent, coherent whole.
Ten Hag, for instance, wants to construct play from the back, but finds himself with a goalkeeper, David de Gea, who may be among the many finest shot-stoppers on this planet but is much less comfortable with the ball at his feet. He desires to play an intense, high-pressing game, but is slowly confronting the truth that he — like each of his predecessors — may have to accomplish that while incorporating a striker, Ronaldo, who has shown precious little inclination to purchase in to such an approach.
That is the failure that has held Manchester United back for the last decade. That is the failure which means the club is about to pass a decade without winning — and even, really, difficult for — a Premier League title. Neville, and the Glazers’ many other critics, are right to claim that United may need spent more if the club could only keep the cash it generates. There may be, sadly, precious little evidence that they might have spent it well.
This, as much as anything, is the Glazers’ great failing, the shortcoming that has allowed United to drift: an absolute, and somewhat baffling, inability to staff their business adequately, to permit those charged with running it on their behalf to accomplish that in such a haphazard, thoughtless fashion. Accountability, like money, flows up, in any case.
And it is that this that any latest owner, whoever they may be, must address. Quite what clubs want from those that buy them is indicated by the breathless way the assorted contenders for United are described: the billionaires and the magnates, the tycoons and the titans. That’s the nice dream of the trendy fan, in any case: to have a much bigger, wealthier owner than everyone else.
The experience of Manchester United and the Glazers, though, moderately disproves that concept. Money has never been the issue at Old Trafford, and money, more than likely, is just not the answer, either. It is just not how much of it you’ve gotten. It’s, as a substitute, what you do with it that counts.
Matheus Nunes should, logically, have stayed where he was. European soccer runs in line with a strict, structural hierarchy, wherein smaller domestic leagues feed into larger ones, they usually, in turn, send their best and brightest — or at the least their richest — to the Champions League. That’s where players aspire to be. That, strictly speaking, is the aim.
At 23, Nunes had made it. Last season, he was a key a part of the Sporting Lisbon team that reached the Champions League knockout rounds. Sporting had qualified again; around this time next week, Nunes would have been waiting to find whether he would have been visiting the Bernabeu, or the Camp Nou, or the Allianz Arena on this season’s competition.
As an alternative, Nunes left. He didn’t leave, because the hierarchy would dictate, for a team with a greater probability of winning the Champions League, or one with a sensible hope of constructing the semifinals, but for Wolves, last seen ending tenth (creditably) within the Premier League. Wolves might, conceivably, reach the Europa League this season, but it surely is a secure bet that Nunes won’t ever appear within the Champions League in an Old Gold jersey.
He is just not the one player to have inverted the hierarchy this summer. His erstwhile teammate, João Palhinha, traded Sporting for Fulham, for whom a Seventeenth-place finish within the Premier League this season could be successful value celebrating.
Remo Freuler, a cornerstone of the bubbling Atalanta team that has been a European fixture for the previous couple of years, now plays for Nottingham Forest. He may yet be joined by Houssam Aouar, a quick-witted, inventive playmaker from Lyon. Forest’s relationship with Europe has long roots, but it surely is just not more likely to bloom any time soon.
Moves like these are easily lost amid the thunderstorm of the transfer market. The attention, in any case, is drawn rather more easily to what Chelsea or Manchester United or Barcelona are doing than to whatever is occurring amid the Premier League’s aspirants and also-rans.
But their moves are, perhaps, probably the most significant transfers of the summer, not simply because these clubs can afford these players, but since the players themselves, having made it to the Champions League, look like completely happy to remove themselves from it with the intention to scrap for survival within the Premier League.
That speaks volumes for the status of European soccer, not simply by way of its funds but by way of its balance of power, too. The Premier League, it might appear, is just as much of a draw — if no more so — than the Champions League. Ambition all the time flows upward, and that implies that the hierarchy not holds.
Let’s start this week with a clarification. “The Premier League doesn’t seem far off the Bundesliga or Ligue 1,” wrote Cristian Ardelean, referring to last week’s newsletter on European soccer’s lack of competitiveness. “Manchester City won 4 of the last five titles. Some were more thrilling than others, however the trend may be very similar.”
This, because it happens, is a position I agree with wholeheartedly, and was one I hoped was conveyed last week. Yes, the Premier League has more variety than the Bundesliga and Ligue 1, but no, it’s not by much. And yes, you possibly can make a case that the shape of oligopoly in play in England is definitely more corrosive than its equivalent in Germany or France, by virtue of the indisputable fact that access to the Champions League has been cut off to all but just a few, too.
Mike Connell is on the identical page as me on one other matter, too. “This team dominance is why an N.F.L.-style league will likely be in place inside five years, or at the least after the 2026 World Cup,” he wrote. “Not aligned with FIFA, and owned by the clubs. The whole lot is in place.” My only caveat here could be that I think it should not, for now, include teams from the Premier League. As an idea, it makes more sense for the continental European teams than anyone is admittedly prepared to confess.
And at last, on the identical subject, Tim Connor has kindly volunteered to further my baseball education (which currently extends to knowing that there’s a team called the “Tampa Bay Rays.”)
The topic of competitiveness, Tim wrote, made him “reflect on the times when the Yankees were unquestionably dominant within the American League, and there was an all-but-overt conspiracy to maintain them so. The owners kept the Yankees on top since it was great for ticket sales when the team everyone loved to hate got here to town. I’d prefer to think that unpredictability makes for more interest, but possibly people prefer to know upfront how the story goes to finish.”
The indisputable fact that the worldwide explosion in popularity within the Premier League got here at a time when the story all the time appeared to end with a late Manchester United winner in a strangely prolonged period of injury time would definitely support that thesis, Tim, so you might be on to something.