Manchester United and Liverpool: The pit and the pendulum

FOOTBALL has to have its crisis clubs and for the first fortnight of the 2022-23 season, Manchester United donned the black shirt of doom. United were in a hole, victims of their own malaise, their poor transfer record and, apparently, shackled by their owners. Their 4-0 defeat at Brentford was supposedly as symptomatic of decline as their 5-0 humbling at the hands of Crystal Palace in December 1972. To make matters even worse, they had to host Liverpool at Old Trafford and a heavy defeat against their rivals – they were beaten 9-0 over two games in 2021-22 – could spark panic in the streets of Salford.

United’s fans are calling for the club’s owners, the Glazers, to sell and among the people interested in buying England’s biggest football entity is Jim Ratcliffe, a Chelsea season-ticket holder and United supporter. Ratcliffe has a net worth of US$ 28 billion, earned from a successful business career in the chemicals industry. Right now, many supporters see Ratcliffe as the club’s saviour, but so far, nobody has suggested United are even up for sale. Many still continue to insist United belongs to them, but the truth is the club ceased to be the property of its customers when it went public. The soul of Manchester United may rest with those that patronise the stadium on matchdays, but in reality, MUFC is an asset that sits in an investment portfolio.

Although United’s loyal band, and it’s a huge mass of people, might consider the end of the world is nigh with every passing defeat and demonstration of incompetence, observers from the outside know that the club is big enough and resourced enough to bounce back and become a force once more. With every bad mistake, however, recovery gets more complex and while neighbours City continue on a path of carefully-measured and strategic growth, United’s confused approach seems to border on comical at times. For the second time in the club’s history, United appear to have allowed an individual to shape almost every aspect of the club and along with that misjudgement, they have failed to plan appropriately for succession. Hence, the deck of cards has been slowly collapsing since 2013.

The top clubs are generally smarter than the rest – intelligence is now part of the new football business paradigm

Whether this is solely due to the Glazers is open to debate, but clearly, United have not moved with the times and recognised that intelligence and acumen have created the new football paradigm. The top clubs, in other words, City and Liverpool, are generally smarter than the rest. The most important people at a club are not necessarily the managers and coaches, but those buying and selling players, those identifying talent and the bean counters managing contracts. Managers come and go, but in the future, the most marketable individuals at a club will be sporting directors. The mess at one or two major clubs in the past few years can be partly attributed to bad and impetuous hiring of players, over-generous contracts and poor judgement in the market, not to mention, over-stocked squads of expensive occasionals.

While United fans call for new backers, it has to be asked what type of owners do they want to see in the expensive seats at Old Trafford? While debt, loaded on to the club when the acquisition was funded, is an issue, there has been no shortage of funds made available to buy players. Yet some of United’s transfers have been confusing and somewhat peculiar for a club of their size. A penchant for headline-making big name veterans has done little for the reputation of Manchester United and a number of others have not really been of the required quality. This may be the root of the problem, although it is easier to just blame the owners for just being there.

There is little doubt the hiring of the people working for the owners is something they can certainly be accountable for. What sort of owner will eventually turn up? The current trend seems to be for US sports team owners, who invariably want a return and are now becoming very data driven. United is a cash cow and a prime asset for an investor, so it would seem likely that if it’s not Ratcliffe (and nobody knows that sort of stance he would eventually take to team funding), then another US owner would takeover.  The age of the oligarch and sportswashing middle eastern state may be at an end, the former for obvious reasons, the latter because of the negative PR that surrounded Newcastle United. If and when it does happen, there will be no shortage of buyers.

But the very nature of modern football means a team can lurch from crisis to new horizon in the matter of nine days. When Brentford thrashed United 4-0, it seemed that the 20-times champions were staring into the abyss. A 2-1 victory over Liverpool ended with the sun creeping over the Old Trafford stands with churns of milk and jars of honey being served up in the boardroom. Pundits eulogised about Erik ten Hag, the nearest person they’re ever going to get to Guardiola in terms of appearance, who seemed mightily relieved that his decision to leave Cristiano Ronaldo and Harry Maguire on the bench worked. United were [far] better for it. Too much emphasis may have been placed on the win, for Liverpool have been out-of-sorts in their first three games of the season.

Only a fool believes a great team can go on forever

And now, the talk is of Jürgen Klopp’s side being in  a mild decline, which is premature. Only a fool would pretend that a great team can go on forever, the continuation depends on replacing and enhancing a squad while in flight and on the evidence of the acquisition of Diaz and Jota, Liverpool have bought well. Sadio Mané decided he wanted to move on and he’s now at Bayern, but how much of his determination to leave was brought on by the arrival of new, younger forwards?  Mane was sold for just under £ 30 million, a bargain for Bayern, but Liverpool paid £ 67.5 million for Benfica’s Darwin Núñez, a big fee for a relatively untried striker who was red-carded in his Anfield debut against Crystal Palace. Liverpool’s transfer activity is generally carefully handled and their net spend for 2022-23 so far has been just £ 5 million, a big difference to their peers. They also recouped some good money for squad players like Minamino, Williams and Grujic and allowed the popular Origi to move on a free.

But if there are concerns, it should be the inevitable ageing of key squad members. Virgil van Dijk, Joël Matip and Thiago Alcantara are all 31 years old and Roberto Firmino and Mo Salah are both 30. Jordan Henderson (32) and James Milner (36) are even older. On the plus side, Jota, Diaz and Núñez are all 25 or under, and Trent Alexander-Arnold is a mere 23. Andrew Robertson and Fabinho are at their peak but goalkeeper Alisson has years ahead of him. Some, if not all, still have some mileage in their careers, but the time is approaching to talk of succession.

Although the die-hards will be wringing their hands at the way their team has started the season, Liverpool may also be suffering from exhaustion. They had a lengthy, all-fronts campaign in 2021-22, one that culminated with two trophies and two agonising near misses. It would be understandable if they were a little flat after such an intense year, especially given the style of play Klopp advocates. More worrying for Koppites is that Liverpool do appear to have been “sussed” by some teams and this may be prove to be the catalyst for change, if indeed that is possible.

On the evidence of the first three weeks, United are not as woeful as Brentford suggested and Liverpool may not be quite as potent as they have been in recent years. Neither will be in any serious trouble and both will be contending nearer to the top than mid-table. Klopp won’t need reminding that City already have a five-point advantage over his team, although Liverpool will probably still be their biggest challenger, and Ten Hag will be aware that one impressive victory doesn’t make a season. But that could all change in another nine days.

Manchester City’s financial power evident on opening weekend

THE LONG-awaited arrival of Norwegian striker Erling Haaland in the Premier League was marked by two goals and a comfortable 2-0 victory for Manchester City at West Ham United. Haaland, who already looking like a bargain at just over £ 50 million, showed what a powerful player he is and might have netted a third with a little more composure. But Haaland is young, has the appearance of a player designed by scientists for a team made by engineers, and he’s nowhere near his peak. It will be a surprise if he doesn’t hit 30 goals in 2022-23.

For the opening weekend, City fielded players that cost them £ 700 million-plus in the market. In this age of five substitutes, the power of Manchester City’s wallet is really going to tell, possibly more than ever. With 50% of the outfield team now replaceable during a game, those teams with bigger or better quality squads are going to have a significant advantage over their poorer stablemates. City are already a step ahead of everyone else, so their strength in depth is going to possibly lengthen the margin of superiority. Certainly, it is not hard to interpret the early season angst of some clubs about their squad.

Compared to their “big six” rivals, City’s first round squad cost substantially more – Manchester United’s team that took the field cost £ 459 million, Chelsea’s £ 422 million and Liverpool’s £ 400 million. Tottenham, who didn’t play their big signing Richarlison, spent £ 204 million on the players who received appearance money in their 4-1 win against Southampton. Arsenal, meanwhile, won 2-0 at Palace with a team that cost £ 370 million. Let’s be clear here – Manchester City’s squad on the first day of the 2022-23 season cost £ 346 million more than the average for the other “big six” members (£ 371 million) – so goodness knows how it measured up against the rest of the Premier.

In days of old, when one, two or three substitutes were permitted, the relative strength of a squad was always determined by the quality of the benched players. That measurement has never been more relevant, but it comes with unprecedented strain for some clubs.

Looking at Manchester City’s replacements at West Ham, which included new signing Kalvin Phillips as well as Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva, the quality was far greater than the men that came on for Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United.

Naturally, the cry of “you’re buying it” can be heard in Liverpool and the other side of Manchester, but City have also started to sell talent in the market. Liverpool have spent big on key players, but they cannot afford to bolster their squad in the same way. Manchester United have spent prolifically but their expertise in the transfer arena in recent years has to be questioned. Arsenal have also bought poorly at times, while Chelsea seem to make costly mistakes on a regular basis, such as Romelu Lukaku, Timo Werner and Alvaro Morata.

In the 2022-23 window, Manchester City’s net spend is a positive of £ 46 million (as at August 13 2022), thanks to the sales of Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus. Over the past five seasons (including 2022-23), their net spend has been £ 173 million, which is less than every other member of the “big six”. But extend that over 10 years and you see where City’s arms-race gathered momentum; their net spend from 2013-14 to the current window has been £ 824 million, topped only by Manchester United, who appear to have frittered away £ 900 million-plus. The lowest among the top half dozen include Tottenham Hotspur (-£291 million) and Liverpool (-£300m).

Interestingly, in the period between 2016-17 and 2021-22 – the completed Guardiola v Klopp seasons – City’s net spend of £ 711 million is more than three times Liverpool’s £ 226 million. City have won nine major trophies to Liverpool’s four under their current managers, but the gap between the two clubs is small, which tells you that the differential in market prices is far higher than the relative qualities of players.

And yet there are few failures at both clubs, indicating that the player acquisition model, driven by data as much as gut-feeling, is generally sound. There appears to be fewer “forgotten” individuals at City or Liverpool, which says as much about the administration teams and recruitment strategy. The issue is that man-for-man, their starting elevens have very little between them, but City’s wealth allows them to acquire high quality options. A missing key player or two will have more impact at City’s rivals than it will at the Etihad.

City’s other advantage, like it or not, is the business philosophy of their ownership. Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United are all owned by US investors. Their approach is very different to the one adopted by Roman Abramovich when he owned Chelsea, in other words, no desire to pay himself anything in the form of dividends. City are very much on their own in the Premier (although Newcastle may eventually join them) as “Sports team ownership” becomes more common and increasingly attractive to entrepreneurs and business people both sides of the Atlantic.

The increased substitutions will have a profound influence on the outcome of the Premier League because it can provide transformational impetus to struggling teams. Replacing half your outfield team should/will change the shape of a game dramatically. Hence, Manchester City’s rivals may see them accelerate into the distance in 2022-23, a season in which the term “squad game” has never been more relevant.