The black clouds are closing in at Old Trafford and manager Jose Mourinho is copping the flak from all sides following Manchester United’s poor Premier League start.
While the Portuguese has played a large part in their current malaise, he is far from the only person at fault and it runs much deeper than him. Since Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill’s departure in 2013, this a club that have placed financial results above on-field performances.
You only need look at the other major sporting franchise the Glazer family owns – the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – to see where Manchester United could be heading. Glazer raised eyebrows when he paid $192m, a league record, to purchase the struggling NFL franchise in 1995.
He lead them to a Super Bowl in 2002, but that was as good as it got for long-suffering Bucs fans. The Buccaneers have long operated well below the NFL salary cap, and they have not made it to the play-offs since 2008.
Indeed, in that decade since, they have won just 59 games at a time when ticket prices have increased at the Raymond James Stadium – an arena taxpayers funded after the Glazers threatened to move the franchise elsewhere.
The appointment of former banker Ed Woodward, who has no football experience, as executive vice-chairman clearly signalled the direction the Glazers wanted to take the club.
Under the foreign ownership of the Glazers and Woodward’s day-to-day running of Manchester United, the board’s focus has gone from wanting to be the best club in Europe – winning titles and trophies at home and abroad – to wanting to be the richest.
While Manchester City and Chelsea have been winning Premier League titles and the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona have been dominating in Europe, Manchester United have been busy posting record-breaking revenues.
Woodward has turned United into a commercial behemoth with more than 80 official partners, with everything from film partners (Fox) to wine, spirits, music, lubricant, and ‘digital transformation’ partners….the list goes on, and on, and on.
When shareholders asked if United’s improved Premier League performance had improved the financial results, he famously replied, “Playing performance doesn’t really have a meaningful impact on what we can do on the commercial side of the business.”
In fact, if United don’t win another major trophy in the next decade they would still be one of the richest clubs in the world. The Red Devils’ brand is that strong. So if results don’t have an impact on the health of the business arm, why would the team’s on-field performances matter to the owners?
Match-day revenue is unlikely to be impacted. For starters, that now makes up a comparatively small amount of the club’s overall revenue and there’ll always be plenty of ‘tourist fans’ desperate to soak up the match-day experience at Old Trafford once in their lifetimes.
Of course, playing in Europe does guarantee extra television revenue but to do this United don’t need to even be one of the top three clubs in the country.
It’s bred complacency at the top. Since Ferguson’s retirement it’s hard to argue the club has got many football decisions right, and that complacency looks like it is spreading to the coaching staff and players. Inexorably that mentality will trickle its way down to the players, in similar way to how players at ‘selling clubs’ know their time there will used as a springboard to greater things.
If the expectation of results isn’t coming from the top, and it’s only right that could take the edge off players’ performance. I’m not saying the players aren’t trying or have downed tools – far from it – but that desire to give the extra one or two per cent may not be there, especially if they’re guaranteed to take home a six-figure pay packet each week.
This is where Mourinho does deserve his fair share of the blame – it his job to make sure he gets the best out the players at his disposal, which is not the case right now. But Mourinho isn’t the only Old Trafford manager to struggle recently.
In the dugout, Ferguson’s replacements David Moyes and Louis van Gaal both underwhelmed. Jose Mourinho has delivered a League Cup, a Europa League title and Champions League football but it has been a far from happy tenure, with complaints over his signings, style of play and his dealings with players and the media. That makes it three managerial appointments in a row Manchester United haven’t got quite right.
In transfer dealings the picture isn’t any better. After Romelu Lukaku, a case could be made that Marouane Fellaini has been United’s best signing in the past five seasons.
Fellow signings like Paul Pogba, Eric Bailly, Juan Mata, Nemanja Matic and Marcos Rojo have arrived with inflated fees and despite showing glimpses of their true talent, they have all been too inconsistent on the pitch to be deemed true value for money. The less said about blue-chip signings Alexis Sanchez, Luke Shaw and Victor Lindelof, the better.
The arrivals of Pogba and Sanchez in particular smack of United paying over the odds for ‘name’ players who have underwhelmed on the pitch
But that doesn’t matter because those players provide a marketability and huge social media following that the club can tap into. And that’s what is important to the Glazers – a player they can market to an already established fan base improves their brand, which will increase revenue.
The club is in the black. In fact, nothing else really matters – the style and traditions of Manchester United, or the fans – as long as the club is making money for their American owners.
The real losers are the fans. Well, maybe not those that pose for selfies with the victorious opposition.