Sports

How Manchester United Finally Hit Rock Bottom

The storied franchise is having its worst season amid a run of bad ones.

Marcus Rashford lies on the ground.
Manchester United’s English striker Marcus Rashford lies on the ground, injured, during the match between Manchester United and Arsenal at Old Trafford in Manchester, England, on Sept. 30.
Paul Ellis/AFP

Let’s give credit where credit is due: Manchester United is still best in the Premier League at something.

During a season in which five of the league’s Big Six teams are off to starts ranging from worrying to disastrous, it’s Man U that’s winning the race to the bottom. Manchester City, Chelsea, and Arsenal all perform basic defensive actions as though they’re puzzling out Ikea instructions, but Manchester United is badly underperforming its expected goal totals on defense and offense. Tottenham looks like the New Coke equivalent of last year’s team and might be undergoing a full-blown player mutiny—but Manchester United did all that last year. 2019–20 for Man U is about Weltschmerz and ennui and trying to keep failing manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer around as long as possible so he can be scapegoated for more of the year.

Sunday, the side faces Liverpool, the only one of the league’s favored teams having an unequivocally good season, with an 8-point lead only eight games in. Jürgen Klopp’s jackhammer of a squad is designed to demolish all comers, and so far, all comers seem prepared to step aside and let it pound away. Should Manchester United beat the heavily favored Reds this weekend, the win will be a major morale boost, perhaps a turning point for the thus far cursed season. But a victory might also be meaningless, a cheery poster slapped over a crumbling wall.

Manchester United is the sixth-most-valuable sports franchise on the planet according to Forbes, worth $3.81 billion. The team has won 20 English titles, 13 of them since the Premier League’s establishment in 1992. Each of those most recent 13 championships came during the 26 years that the Scottish manager Alex Ferguson led the club. Ferguson retired after winning the title during the 2012–13 season, and the club has spent the subsequent six-plus years lurching between crises cold and hot and building up its nigh-insurmountable lead in the EPL’s implosion sweepstakes. Some seasons have been better than others, but the team has never come close to winning another title.

The popular explanation for the club’s decline is simple: The players haven’t been good enough.

There’s the likes of Phil Jones, dimly but lovably incompetent, like a cartoon henchman. Marcus Rashford is Schrödinger’s center forward: He’s an incredible bundle of potential and a tragic disappointment quantumly superpositioned into the same 21-year-old Englishman. The veteran Ashley Young steps onto the pitch like someone who has been drafted to coach a kid’s sports team in a movie, only his ragtag squad is definitely going to lose the last game, and neither the kids nor the adults will learn anything from it.

This amounts to a fair excuse, if an incomplete one. For the past six years, player recruitment and transfer dealings have been the purview of executive vice chairman Ed Woodward, who was previously in charge of the club’s commercial and media operations. The club is stuck in a morass, the conventional wisdom goes, because its last unqualified success on the transfer market was bringing in Robin van Persie in 2012, before Woodward’s promotion.

But it’s more accurate to say that Manchester United is the morass, dragging down the careers of what feels like dozens of promising young players and the reputations of three well-regarded veteran managers. The squad feels like a choice rummage sale, full of young and expensive pieces that never quite fit together and that will do far better wherever they find new homes. Free Anthony Martial, basically. Manchester United has sought out young players brimming with potential and then failed utterly to develop it.

It’s as if the team forgot that success in the Premier League is supposed to be hard. Rather than redouble its efforts to ensure a smooth transition from its legendary manager, the club has taken to the post-Ferguson era like an idiot son inheriting his parents’ business, full of memories of how sweet the boom period was, with little grasp of the work required to achieve it. When recruiting fans, Manchester United has long used its unprecedented run of success as proof of its exceptionalism, but now the club’s leaders, and certainly its diaspora of former players, seem to believe it, too: The velvet ropes are supposed to be lifted and the players are supposed to turn out great and the fourth official is supposed to hold up a ludicrously high number of stoppage-time minutes on his board, just because of the name Manchester United.

This began as soon as the club had to find a replacement for Ferguson. The length of his tenure seemed to convince United that it was exempt from the managerial carousel that every other top team had boarded. Nearly all of the game’s brightest minds take charge of a Premiership team for a handful of years before moving on to another one once their players start tuning them out. United made continued stability its No. 1 priority and hired David Moyes away from Everton. Moyes had spent 11 years building Everton to stable upper-midtable respectability, but it turned out the operative word wasn’t stable but upper-midtable. Not that he had a chance to prove it, since he was fired less than one season into his tenure. United finished that year in seventh.

Manchester United then zagged, hard, first bringing in the veteran Dutch manager Louis van Gaal for two seasons, then the veteran Portuguese manager José Mourinho for 2½ seasons. Results improved under both, temporarily, but neither was a stylistic fit for the type of swashbuckling, attacking soccer that the club’s legend says it plays—which anyone who had followed the coaches’ careers could have told you. But perhaps Woodward and the club’s executives once again thought that the name “Manchester United” would encourage the managers, and that they would open up the conservative styles with which they had made their names to rise to the occasion of leading such an illustrious outfit.

But to van Gaal and Mourinho, it wasn’t an occasion, but a job. The brand held no inherent meaning to inspire them to become something they were not. The young players floundered, flung between different systems and ignored by managers who had a mandate to win as soon as possible, and who brought in rent-a-season veterans to prop up the team and steal the minutes from the players they were supposed to be developing. Paul Pogba—a terrific talent and briefly the world’s most-expensive player—was purchased without regard to the fact that his skill set makes it terrifically difficult to build a team around him. Romelu Lukaku was purchased for $93 million and abandoned less than two years later.

This season, the club has two wins in eight Premier League games. Solskjaer talked up what a good result a 0–0 draw with Dutch middleweight AZ Alkmaar in the Europa League was. Man U needed penalties in the League Cup to beat Rochdale, which plays two divisions down from it.

Search “Manchester United” on Twitter after any of these bad results, and you’ll find a host of people who want the world to know that they didn’t sign up to root for an undistinguished team. That this isn’t the Manchester United they know. They’re right. Today Manchester United is yet another nigh-inescapable modern brand that has thoroughly deluded great swaths of people into believing it stands for success while producing failure after failure.

Like the Dallas Cowboys, Manchester United has become less a sporting concern than a luxury imprint, something that, fairly or not—historic, geographic, and familial ties to the team being granted—when plastered on a person or their property, communicates to much of the world that its bearer is a particular kind of front-running yet gullible person. Now that the squad’s reflected glory has faded, it must be conjured instead out of the past and the future. (I grew up in Alabama during the fallow late-’90s, early-2000s period in Crimson Tide history, so I know what this looks like.)

The past is easy. It wasn’t so long ago that Manchester United won three titles in a row. The future is harder, because history twists expectations for it. Asked on Twitter whom he’d sign for the team, former United player and current pundit Gary Neville named a trio of French World Cup winners—Raphaël Varane, N’Golo Kanté, and Kylian Mbappé—three astonishingly successful youngish players who could walk into any side on the planet. Which begs the question: Why on Earth would they want to play for a club as bad as Manchester United?

Neville likely knows they would not, but his answer betrays how deeply ingrained the notion of the club’s exceptionalism remains in the collective mindscape of English soccer. Only Manchester United, Real Madrid, and Barcelona—the two soccer clubs Forbes says are worth more than United—can believe that a glorious future is just the purchase of three all-world players away. But that’s only actually true for Real Madrid and Barcelona. The brain trust at United is still operating on the assumption that players will want to play for it because of the team’s history, but these days that’s about as delusional as the New York Knicks presuming every marquee NBA free agent is going to sign with them, too. Players are smarter than that. They aren’t so easily distracted from institutional rot.

Still, United has to do something to improve itself. The transfer strategy Woodward and Solskjaer have developed supposedly targets young English players, chief among them Leicester City’s playmaker James Maddison and Borussia Dortmund’s winger Jadon Sancho. Sancho in particular is an incredible talent, maybe one of the three best players in the Bundesliga despite being just 19 years old. His game is equal parts Beckham and Ronaldo, an electric dribbler like the latter, but more provider than goal scorer like the former. Rumors have it United are prepared to pay $125 million for him.

Dortmund would be wise to hold out for double that. At this point, Manchester United needs Sancho—who will both upgrade them on the field and probably sell an awful lot of Manchester United jerseys—much more than Sancho needs Manchester United. Reports suggest he already rebuffed the club over the summer, and nothing that’s happened this season will have done anything to lower his demands.

To Sancho’s credit, he seems to understand that there’s no reason for him to join a bad situation just because of the name on his shirt. That, more than anything, is what Manchester United needs: Someone who knows it’s not special, but who will work to make it that way again.