By any objective long-term measure, Manchester United are one of England’s most stable football clubs. Over the last seven Premier League seasons, they have never finished higher than second or lower than sixth, qualifying for European football every year and winning three trophies. Their fan base is large and loyal. Their business model is one of the most robust in the game, generating steady revenue growth without relying on oligarch wealth or player sales. In an age of labour churn, United’s squad is settled: the average first-team member has been at the club for seven years.
For those who follow the club on a day-to-day basis, however, the sensation is rather different. As a lived experience, United can feel like the most chaotic club in the world: a ceaseless typhoon of vivid triumph and bleak disaster, setbacks and comebacks, action and reaction, news and feuds, scandal and rumour, and above all the relentless noise of real-time judgement from a voracious media and a global following of millions. To be a United fan is to run the entire gamut of emotions, from relief to despair, hope to rage or boredom, often in the same week, even the same half.
Partly this is a result of the club’s internal dysfunction. Almost a decade of poor recruitment and coaching has created an unbalanced squad stuffed with rich individual talent but lacking cohesion. This is why United are capable of both spectacular collapses and memorable surges, brilliant goals and basic errors. Their 4-2 win over Leeds on 20 February was a good synopsis of their approach: throwing away a 2-0 lead in the space of two minutes, only to storm to a late victory.
But United are also turbulent by design. Like many big clubs, they derive the bulk of their revenue not from ticket sales, prize money or television rights but from commercial activities: sponsorships, partnerships, advertising. In other words, the function of United is not to win matches but to win audience share; not to harvest points but to harvest eyeballs. Winning helps. But when you are essentially a consumer entertainment product, what matters more is the story you sell: a steady supply of plot twists, dramatic intrigue and cliffhangers to keep viewers engaged.
Nine years after their last league title, United are undergoing their latest rebuild under the interim stewardship of the German coach Ralf Rangnick. A brilliant tactical mind with the sober deportment of a family dentist, the studious Rangnick is a departure from the passion and vibes of his predecessor Ole Gunnar Solskjær, who in turn was a departure from the pragmatic gloom of José Mourinho. Rangnick has overseen a cautious improvement in results since taking over in November: the win over Leeds was United’s ninth consecutive game without defeat. Yet the new coach is also fast discovering that, at a club of United’s size, results are only half the battle.
Every week seems to bring fresh, curiously well-sourced tales of splits, ruptures and disgruntlement. There are rumours of a rift between an English clique led by the captain Harry Maguire and an Iberian faction led by Cristiano Ronaldo. There are reports that players are underwhelmed by Rangnick’s training methods. Whether any of this is true is beside the point. United are not simply a footballing project but a daily content machine, and what is in the interests of the former – patience, foresight, a resistance to short-term judgement – is not necessarily in the interests of the latter.
In many ways United are an extreme example of a phenomenon visible across the European game. Never have the biggest clubs been more immune from the fluctuations and fortunes of competitive sport. At most clubs, a disastrous season might mean relegation, perhaps even extinction. For Real Madrid, Juventus or Chelsea, a disaster means finishing fifth. Champions League football is virtually guaranteed every year, along with the world’s best players and an expectation of winning. But has this relative stability made for happier clubs and fans? It has not.
The reason for this lies in the disconnect between the stability of the organisation and the daily turbulence required to fulfil its commercial function. The result is that many big clubs – throw in Tottenham, Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain with those mentioned above – are trapped in a kind of permanent discontent, a mini-cycle of boom and bust characterised by endless quick fixes, endless snap judgements, endless new hope. Every setback inspires an overreaction (amplified by social media), which then demands an instant correction, usually a big new signing or a managerial sacking that offers the illusion of progress. But of course the long-term structural issues remain unaddressed. So the problems recur, and the cycle starts again.
A genuine structural overhaul at United would involve gradually reducing the age profile of its squad, investing in its midfield, working out what its footballing identity should be and then assembling a backroom infrastructure that can build towards it. At Tottenham it would involve diluting the power of the chairman Daniel Levy and introducing more footballing expertise at board level. At Paris it would involve clearing out overindulged star players and replacing them with guys who can actually run. But where’s the fun in any of that? As any self-respecting pharmaceutical executive will tell you: the real money isn’t in the cure. It’s in the treatment.
This article appears in the 23 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Darkness Falls