As strange as it might sound, I have genuine sympathy for Manchester United supporters. Liverpool fans have been in this same position, protesting against owners they do not want, and we know how it feels.
United supporters must feel like they are banging their heads against a brick wall, because they have made themselves clear and nothing ever seems to change. They have made protests, they have formed another club in FC United of Manchester, and their collective anger has even caused a Premier League match to be postponed.
I was there last year, when United supporters broke onto the pitch at Old Trafford in protest against the Glazer family’s ownership and forced the game against Liverpool to be rearranged. I supported those fans then, and I still support their cause now because I understand their feelings. Football is massively important in the lives of so many people, and these fans are looking at the Glazers and seeing owners who do not love or care for their club.
Under this ownership, United have become a laughing stock. Not just in England but around the world, with Elon Musk joking about buying the club. They are a mess, on and off the pitch, and this runs far deeper than the current group of players or the current management. If a club is not being run properly from the top, then the problems will inevitably trickle down.
No wonder there is so much excitement within the fanbase around a potential change of ownership, with the British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe signalling his interest, although we will have to wait and see whether that really is likely any time soon. Whatever happens, it is clear that United need investment on the playing side and in the infrastructure, as their poor performances on and off the pitch are now starting to bite the Glazer family financially.
It is telling that United’s two defeats this season have come against Brighton and Brentford, who are two of the Premier League’s most impressive teams in terms of their ownership models and off-field structures. From top to bottom, those two clubs are aligned throughout: they have managers who fit the philosophy of how they want to play, and there is a coherent transfer strategy.
Brighton, for example, sold two of their best players – Yves Bissouma and Marc Cucurella – within the space of a few weeks, but went to Old Trafford and still looked like the same team. That is because the whole structure of the club is set up to deal with these changes. Everything has been planned out.
As for United? Well, just look at the Adrien Rabiot deal, which collapsed this week due to the player’s wage demands. If you are a club like United, you should not be pulling out of transfers – after agreeing a fee with the selling team – due to wage demands. Someone at the club should already know what sort of salary the player wants, long before it reaches this point.
They have also spent weeks chasing Barcelona’s Frenkie de Jong, and now they are running around trying to sign Casemiro from Real Madrid. From De Jong, to Rabiot, to Casemiro. They are all different players with different styles and ages. What is the plan here? Where is the strategy? It is embarrassing.
Erik ten Hag will want his own players, of course, and so far this summer United have backed him in the moves for Lisandro Martinez and Tyrell Malacia. I understand that, because it is hard to say no to a new manager when he has just been appointed, but the desperation at this stage of the transfer window is another sign of the problems within the club. It is like watching Supermarket Sweep.
Contrast United’s approach in the transfer market with the strategy at Liverpool, their opponents on Monday night. There are Liverpool fans screaming from the rooftops at the moment, saying they need to sign a new midfielder, but the club’s decision-makers have consistently shown they are prepared to wait for the right player and the right moment, despite the external pressure.
Under FSG’s ownership, and thanks to their ‘Moneyball’ methods, Liverpool have been able to avoid so many of the problems that are now affecting United. FSG have not been afraid of making changes in personnel to get where they wanted, and they have also invested heavily in both the stadium and the new training ground. It is not simply about having the richest owners, but having owners with vision and decisiveness.
You have to be patient and do things properly. Liverpool trust in the plans they have put in place, and that is what most top clubs are doing. When you look at United, it reminds you of a team in the bottom three of the Premier League, frantically trying to make a few late signings in the January transfer window. Top clubs should never be panicking like this.
To be clear, I have very few complimentary things to say about United’s current squad of players, as I don’t think many of them have the required character or personality to play for the club. But it is evident that their struggles are part of a wider problem, stretching back years.
As detailed by the respected financial analyst Swiss Ramble this week, United are the only Premier League club to pay dividends to their shareholders. Since 2016 they have paid out an average of £22 million per year. As Swiss Ramble writes: “In the last 10 years, no owners in the Premier League have taken out more money than the Glazers have done at United.”
It is obvious that the Glazers do not care. Their friends in America must look at them and think, ‘Wow, what a great business you have there.’ To those people, United must be regarded as little more than a sports club, somewhere over in England, from which the Glazers take millions.
I was playing for Liverpool when the supporters did so much to force Tom Hicks and George Gillett out of the club. The fans were relentless and it made a genuine difference. United fans are now planning more protests against the Glazers on Monday, and that is no surprise to me.
But all of these clouds over the club do not make it acceptable for United to lose their first two games in the manner they have done. When we were playing under Hicks and Gillett at Liverpool, I hated it when players used the ownership as an excuse for defeats. I was trying to fight against the negativity in the dressing-room, but over a longer period of time I couldn’t do it, and I was naive to think that I could.
Is it clear that this mess — which starts from above and seeps through the entire club — is not helping anyone. United’s actions this summer are evidence of a club in turmoil and an executive team without a discernible plan in the transfer market. The club is turning into a joke, and without meaningful change at the top it is hard to envisage any significant long-term improvements on the pitch.
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