Manchester United isn’t just out of the Champions League. It’s rotten

Tuesday’s 1-0 loss to Bayern Munich was another reminder of how far the once-great institution has fallen

Bruno Fernandes and Manchester United limped out of the Champions League group stage Tuesday with a loss to Bayern Munich. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Bruno Fernandes and Manchester United limped out of the Champions League group stage with a loss to Bayern Munich on Tuesday. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Manchester United limped out of the Champions League on Tuesday but crumbled long ago, long before this latest crisis spiraled into stunned silence at Old Trafford.

It crumbled not in Copenhagen or Istanbul, nor against Bournemouth last weekend, with Old Trafford’s stands emptying and boos pouring. They poured after a 3-0 defeat, United’s 11th of this still-young season. They poured down on a scorned head coach and his inadequate players. They poured because beatdowns by Bournemouth and early Champions League exits don’t befit England’s most storied soccer club.

But they also poured because none of this is novel or surprising.

United has been crumbling for more than a decade now.

It is rotting, and Tuesday’s 1-0 loss to Bayern Munich, which left United at the bottom of its Champions League group, was merely the latest reminder.

Its remains are a mediocre team cobbled together by clueless executives, hampered by injuries and elevated only by the mystique and prestige of a once-great institution. They have managed just one convincing win all season. Their goal differential and underlying metrics suggest they belong in the Premier League’s bottom half.

Their history makes each successive failure an alarming headline. Battered by Brighton. Collapse in Copenhagen. Beaten by Crystal Palace at home. But letdowns are no longer the exception; they’re the rule. Palace, Copenhagen, Brighton and Bournemouth — like Norwich, Sunderland, Burnley, Başakşehir, Sheffield United, West Brom and Cardiff City in seasons past — are all part of the same damning pattern.

It’s a pattern recently compounded by off-field controversies. United’s shameful mishandling of Mason Greenwood, a young forward charged with attempted rape and assault, cast a pall over the club this summer. With the charges dropped after key witness withdrawals, United executives reportedly planned to reintegrate Greenwood, only to backtrack amid internal and external backlash. They have, though, supported Antony, another young winger accused by multiple women of assault. Meanwhile, yet another young winger, Jadon Sancho, has been exiled for refusing to apologize to manager Erik Ten Hag for his insufficient effort in training. Questions surrounding the Sancho saga — and about the 23-year-old’s future — swirl to this day.

Manchester United's Diogo Dalot covers his face after their Champions League loss to Bayern Munich on Tuesday. (Photo by PETER POWELL/AFP via Getty Images)
Manchester United's Diogo Dalot covers his face after his team's Champions League loss to Bayern Munich on Tuesday. (Photo by PETER POWELL/AFP via Getty Images)

Now there are reports of more disillusioned players. United responded to those reports by banning journalists from news conferences last week. Problems are accumulating, the sale of the club is still pending, and Ten Hag’s seat is increasingly hot.

But no one man is responsible for the intense malaise that envelopes Old Trafford. The pattern — and the problems — all stem from the same roots. United’s reviled American owners, the Glazers, have allowed the club to decay and descend into cyclical dysfunction.

The dysfunction has yielded 10 grumpy years without a genuine Premier League title challenge since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013. It has yielded four seasons sans Champions League football and three group-stage eliminations. It has yielded protests and shocking on-field performances. Whenever it does, the Glazers and their henchmen sack a coach or spend another nine figures on players, but the pattern continues.

The cycle that propels it has been explained ad nauseam. While rivals such as Liverpool and Manchester City modernized their sporting structures, with directors of football and data, United lagged in soccer’s stone age. Until 2021, it had never employed a true sporting director; its transfer gurus were finance bros and … the manager. Coaches had a direct line to the chief corporate crony, executive vice chairman Ed Woodward. Woodward pulled in Matt Judge, the head of corporate development, and together they became the point men for negotiations — until both resigned last year. Over eight-plus seasons, they greenlit more than $1.5 billion in spending on players — most of whom were overvalued, old, inflexible or not very good.

They — the players and the execs signing them and the owners empowering those execs — were the reasons for United’s futility. The squad declined throughout the 2010s. And it still hasn’t recovered.

Finally, in 2021, United restructured itself around a “football director” who’d oversee the scouting and recruitment of new players. That served as a long-overdue acknowledgement that previous processes were outdated. It supposedly signified a step toward a more auspicious era. But rather than hire an experienced football director, United promoted John Murtough, originally a David Moyes appointment, from within. And two-and-a-half years later, it seems that not much has changed.

Manchester United has sat in a malaise for years now. (Photo by Richard Sellers/Sportsphoto/Allstar via Getty Images)
Manchester United has sat in a malaise for years now. (Photo by Richard Sellers/Sportsphoto/Allstar via Getty Images)

United has reportedly invested in data, but investing financially and investing institutionally are very different matters. Data is information — it must be used — and at United, it seemingly hasn’t been. Recent signings haven’t been celebrated by the analytics community; they’ve apparently been Ten Hag’s picks. And they haven’t been good ones.

United has spent around $500 million over the past 18 months, enough to completely transform any squad. But it spent more than half the sum on three premier signings: Antony, a flashy winger with viral highlights but unremarkable numbers in the notoriously open Dutch league; Casemiro, a then-30-year-old who’s already declining; and Rasmus Højlund, a 20-year-old whose primary qualification was 9 goals in 32 appearances during one Italian Serie A season at Atalanta (and, perhaps, a last name that accentuated comparisons to a fellow left-footed Scandinavian striker, Erling Haaland).

Højlund might yet turn into a superstar. But Antony, with an appalling 0.07 assists per 90 minutes, clearly isn’t one. Mason Mount, signed for around $70 million this summer, isn’t one. Lisandro Martinez could be, but he’s injured. Jadon Sancho could be, but he’s training and even eating alone, having been barred from the team canteen amid his monthslong stand-off with Ten Hag. Sancho was elite at Borussia Dortmund. Then, like other stars, he became polluted by the Man United rot.

Old Trafford has become something of a graveyard for promising players. The very best ones, such as Harry Kane and Jude Bellingham, now turn down big-money offers and sign elsewhere. Those who do come struggle in a team that lacks coherence. And the cycle churns.

The hope is that new ownership will disrupt it. After a protracted process, replete with underwhelming bids, Sir Jim Ratcliffe is close to completing his purchase of 25% of the club for $1.6 billion. The Glazers will remain in control, but Ratcliffe and his company, INEOS, will take over the soccer department. A welcome overhaul could be coming.

But for now, there is just another disappointment to digest, a 12th loss in their past 23 games, a new low for the 20-time English champions. Bayern and Man United were incomparable on Tuesday. Liverpool, another rival that has soared into a different stratosphere, is up next this weekend. Ten Hag might or might not survive a 13th blow. But whether or not he does, the dysfunction will continue.