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Manchester United and the Mounting Cost of Failure

Manchester United’s problem has never been money. Not a dearth of it, anyway. Even now, in what may prove to be the twilight of the Glazer family’s 17-year ownership of the club, as prospective suitors and self-appointed saviors circle, great torrents of money continue to flow through Old Trafford.

Enough, certainly, for the club to end a week that started with Gary Neville railing against the Glazers’ chronic parsimony by submitting not only a bid worth $60 million for a 30-year-old midfielder, but a contract offer sufficiently generous that the midfielder, Casemiro, reportedly indicated to his Real Madrid teammates that he could not, in good conscience, turn it down.

There could have been more of it, of course. Since the Glazers’ arrival, United has in effect paid out somewhere in the region of $1.2 billion for the privilege of being owned by the family: a billion or so in interest payments, and a couple of hundred million in dividends, the majority of them paid to the Glazers themselves.

All of that — the bottomless bounty generated by United’s relentless commercialism, the unstinting riches brought in by the Premier League’s broadcasting appeal — could have been invested in the squad, had circumstances been different, had the Glazers not effectively placed the club in debt bondage to itself all those years ago.

But even without it, even with all of that money seeping away, Manchester United has never had to go without. The Glazers have, according to one estimate, spent around $1.7 billion in transfer fees alone since the family patriarch, Malcolm, took control at Old Trafford. The team broke the British transfer record to sign Paul Pogba. It made Harry Maguire the most expensive defender in history. It made Cristiano Ronaldo the highest-paid player in England.

And while precise figures are difficult to obtain, it pays just as well as its rivals, both domestically and in Europe. United’s salary roll is not drastically different to Manchester City’s, or Liverpool’s, or Chelsea’s: sometimes a little more, and sometimes a little less, but always among the highest in the world.

No, as easy and as accurate as it is to berate the Glazers for what they have cost Manchester United, blaming the club’s demise on a lack of investment is to misunderstand what has gone wrong at Old Trafford, and to misrepresent the solution for any new owner. The problem is not, and never has been, a lack of money. It is that there has always been rather more money than sense.

The last decade, since Alex Ferguson’s retirement, has brought any number of illustrative examples — trying to sign Thiago and Toni Kroos but deciding, in the end, that Marouane Fellaini served just as well; watching 804 right-backs and choosing Aaron Wan-Bissaka — but it is hardly necessary to strain the sinews of memory. There have been plenty of fresh examples this summer. There have been quite a few in the last week.

The looming signing of Casemiro, say. It is a coup, without doubt, for United to bring in a player who has won five Champions League titles, and established himself as one of the finest exponents of his subtle art in the world in the process. But Casemiro is 30. He is being offered a four-year contract.

He is also a very different sort of player than United’s primary target, the one the club spent much of the summer pursuing, the deep-lying Barcelona playmaker Frenkie de Jong. He is also hardly a straight swap for Adrien Rabiot, the player United identified as an alternative, once it became clear — after months of wasted time — that de Jong was not prepared to spend a season in exile from the Champions League.

It is possible, of course, that United reassessed its plans once it realized Casemiro might be obtainable. His arrival would, by any measure, make Erik ten Hag’s team more resilient, more obdurate, at least in the short term.

But it still leaves a question hanging in the air: If ten Hag was adamant that he required a player of de Jong’s ilk to play the way he prefers, does being presented with Casemiro mean he now has to reimagine his whole approach? Is Manchester United doing what it has done for some time: acquiring players, or even coaches, and then figuring out how everything will fit together later?

That, after all, is the abiding impression of the squad the club has built. It is not, despite appearances, stocked with bad players. It is, instead, littered with disparate — but high-quality — parts, a patchwork of ideas and concepts and impulses, rather than a cogent, coherent whole.

Ten Hag, for example, wants to build play from the back, but finds himself with a goalkeeper, David de Gea, who might be among the finest shot-stoppers in the world but is far less comfortable with the ball at his feet. He wants to play an intense, high-pressing game, but is slowly confronting the reality that he — like both of his predecessors — will have to do so while incorporating a striker, Ronaldo, who has shown precious little inclination to buy in to such an approach.

This is the failure that has held Manchester United back for the last decade. This is the failure that means the club is about to pass a decade without winning — or even, really, challenging for — a Premier League title. Neville, and the Glazers’ many other critics, are right to assert that United might have spent more if the club could only keep the money it generates. There is, sadly, precious little evidence that they would have spent it well.

This, as much as anything, is the Glazers’ great failing, the shortcoming that has allowed United to drift: an absolute, and somewhat baffling, inability to staff their business adequately, to allow those charged with running it on their behalf to do so in such a haphazard, thoughtless fashion. Accountability, like money, flows up, after all.

And it is this that any new owner, whoever they might be, must address. Quite what clubs want from those who buy them is indicated by the breathless way the various contenders for United are described: the billionaires and the magnates, the tycoons and the titans. That is the great dream of the modern fan, after all: to have a bigger, wealthier owner than everyone else.

The experience of Manchester United and the Glazers, though, rather disproves that idea. Money has never been the problem at Old Trafford, and money, most likely, is not the solution, either. It is not how much of it you have. It is, instead, what you do with it that counts.

Matheus Nunes should, logically, have stayed where he was. European soccer runs according to a strict, structural hierarchy, in which smaller domestic leagues feed into larger ones, and they, in turn, send their best and brightest — or at least their richest — to the Champions League. That is where players aspire to be. That, strictly speaking, is the aim.

At 23, Nunes had made it. Last season, he was a key part of the Sporting Lisbon team that reached the Champions League knockout rounds. Sporting had qualified again; around this time next week, Nunes would have been waiting to discover whether he would have been visiting the Bernabeu, or the Camp Nou, or the Allianz Arena in this season’s competition.

Instead, Nunes left. He did not leave, as the hierarchy would dictate, for a team with a better chance of winning the Champions League, or one with a realistic hope of making the semifinals, but for Wolves, last seen finishing 10th (creditably) in the Premier League. Wolves might, conceivably, reach the Europa League this season, but it is a safe bet that Nunes will never appear in the Champions League in an Old Gold jersey.

He is not the only player to have inverted the hierarchy this summer. His erstwhile teammate, João Palhinha, traded Sporting for Fulham, for whom a 17th-place finish in the Premier League this season would be a success worth celebrating.

Remo Freuler, a cornerstone of the effervescent Atalanta team that has been a European fixture for the last few years, now plays for Nottingham Forest. He may yet be joined by Houssam Aouar, a quick-witted, inventive playmaker from Lyon. Forest’s relationship with Europe has long roots, but it is not likely to bloom any time soon.

Moves like these are easily lost amid the thunderstorm of the transfer market. The eye, after all, is drawn much more easily to what Chelsea or Manchester United or Barcelona are doing than to whatever is happening amid the Premier League’s aspirants and also-rans.

But their moves are, perhaps, the most significant transfers of the summer, not just because these clubs can afford these players, but because the players themselves, having made it to the Champions League, appear to be happy to remove themselves from it in order to scrap for survival in the Premier League.

That speaks volumes for the status of European soccer, not simply in terms of its finances but in terms of its balance of power, too. The Premier League, it would appear, is just as much of a draw — if not more so — than the Champions League. Ambition always flows upward, and that suggests that the hierarchy no longer holds.

Let’s start this week with a clarification. “The Premier League doesn’t seem far off the Bundesliga or Ligue 1,” wrote Cristian Ardelean, referring to last week’s newsletter on European soccer’s lack of competitiveness. “Manchester City won four of the last five titles. Some were more thrilling than others, but the trend is very similar.”

This, as it happens, is a position I agree with wholeheartedly, and was one I hoped was conveyed last week. Yes, the Premier League has more variety than the Bundesliga and Ligue 1, but no, it’s not by much. And yes, you can make a case that the form of oligopoly in play in England is actually more corrosive than its equivalent in Germany or France, by virtue of the fact that access to the Champions League has been cut off to all but a few, too.

Mike Connell is on the same page as me on another matter, too. “This team dominance is why an N.F.L.-style league will be in place within five years, or at least after the 2026 World Cup,” he wrote. “Not aligned with FIFA, and owned by the clubs. Everything is in place.” My only caveat here would be that I suspect it will not, for now, include teams from the Premier League. As an idea, it makes more sense for the continental European teams than anyone is really prepared to admit.

And finally, on the same subject, Tim Connor has kindly volunteered to further my baseball education (which currently extends to knowing that there is a team called the “Tampa Bay Rays.”)

The subject of competitiveness, Tim wrote, made him “reflect on the days when the Yankees were unquestionably dominant in the American League, and there was an all-but-overt conspiracy to keep them so. The owners kept the Yankees on top because it was great for ticket sales when the team everyone loved to hate came to town. I’d like to think that unpredictability makes for more interest, but maybe people like to know in advance how the story is going to end.”

The fact that the global explosion in popularity in the Premier League came at a time when the story always seemed to end with a late Manchester United winner in a strangely extended period of injury time would certainly support that thesis, Tim, so you may be on to something.

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