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.

Another Manchester United post-mortem as the hour-glass loses more sand

DIEGO SIMEONE sprinted off the pitch and down the tunnel, showered with water, beer and plastic cups. He knew exactly what to expect as his team knocked Manchester United out of the UEFA Champions League. United were disappointing, lacking the intelligence to deal with an Atlético Madrid team that knew exactly how to play their hosts. The Spanish champions made the most of every foul, every hold-up and every niggling challenge and were economical with their energy. 

United enjoyed the greater percentage of possession, as they should have given their home status, but they did very little with it, especially in the second half. Atléti put on a classic two-legged away performance, the type that once characterised such ties in the days before the European Cup became the bloated Champions League.

How much longer can Manchester United remain on this greasy pole of existence? How much more disappointment can fans weened on multiple trophy wins and a stream of star players slotted into the system under Sir Alex, tolerate? The club is fortunate it has legacy fans who believe in the religion that is Manchester United, and a waiting list of eager fans longing to join the throng. Nothing dramatic is going to happen to United, but they desperately don’t want to become a heritage act.

Success is relative, so for United, that is measured by trophies, Champions League success and high-end squads playing a brand of exciting football the club’s reputation and DNA has been built upon. Those days have gone, United enjoyed not one but two long eras where style was allied to success. It has now gone and it will not return in a hurry, because United is now a multi-national sporting institution, owned by people who expect (not unreasonably) some form of financial return. Success has to be engineered to ensure the graph goes in the right direction. 

The “style” that United always saw as a prerequisite, is no longer at the top of the list. Getting back to being title contenders (genuine contenders, not top four candidates), is now the priority. It’s not something that has to be achieved at any cost, United are not about to become a team of cloggers, but that’s why they have hired, in the recent past, Mourinho, Ibrahimovic, Cavani and Ronaldo. There’s no “class of ‘92” situation waiting to revitalise the club, firstly because nobody has the patience to realise it and secondly, coaches come and go rather quickly.

United’s golden age in Europe was not in 1968, 1999 and 2008, even though they won the top European prize in each of those years. Sir Matt Busby spent more than a decade trying to win the competition, Ferguson won it twice in a period when United stood emphatically astride English football. Some say he should have had more success, but 2008, when his United team beat Chelsea on penalties, was really the end of their time as a compelling force. In 2009 and 2011 they reached the final again, to their enormous credit, but they were way behind champions Barcelona. Since then, their record has been very disappointing and setbacks like their Atlético defeat are becoming all too frequent.

United’s decline and Ferguson’s departure are, to some extent, coincidental. But where United went wrong was inadequate planning around his retirement and then in expecting instant results from every appointment. It should be recalled that Ferguson was not an immediate success, he took over in 1986 and it was not until 1990 that he won his first trophy. There is not a top club in existence today that would give a manager that amount of time to get it right.

But it is not as simple as getting the coach right. United have been through a few since 2013 and they are still searching for the holy grail. They have a squad that has cost more than almost every other assembly of players in Europe – the players fielded against Atléti cost over £ 500 million – they have one of the top wage bills, they enjoy 70,000 crowds. They are still Manchester United.

There seems, however, no cohesion and a distinct lack of strategy around transfers and an ongoing erosion of the club’s culture. Hiring veteran players is something a lesser club would entertain, it implies a desperate need to give United a “lift”, a boost to morale. Admittedly, we are talking about big names who have been brilliant, but United are not a club that should be pinning its hopes on faded genius. The attitude of some players has to be questioned, as pointed out by pundits like Roy Keane.

The question is, if people believe the coach(es) are to blame, who do they want to manage the team? The blame doesn’t only rest with the coach, it is also with those employed in identifying new talent for Manchester United and how those players fit into the system. Until they become more rounded, more strategic and joined-up, the frustration will continue for England’s biggest club.