Can Manchester United return to glory as the EPL season kicks off?
The third-richest soccer club in the world is not the best team in England, and not particularly close to it. It’s not even the best team in its own city.
While Manchester United is as famous a global brand as it gets — only Real Madrid and Barcelona financially outmuscle it — the English club heads into the new Premier League season this weekend with expectations tempered by recent failure.
United, despite being flush with booming revenues from merchandising and television rights, placed sixth in the EPL last season, meaning it will miss out on this campaign’s UEFA Champions League, the ultimate testing ground for top European clubs, for just the second time since 1995-96.
Having spent lavishly on new players, highlighted by a $103.2 million fee paid to Leicester City for England defender Harry Maguire, you might expect that the prospects for the club would improve this time around.
In reality, that’s not the case.
“Where do I think Manchester United (will finish)?” asked former England forward Stan Collymore on his podcast, The Last Word, this week. “The self-styled biggest club in the world? Glory, glory Manchester United?
“Sixth [place]. This is a football club that quite simply has lost its mojo. It was a club that won trophies and had a philosophy of young players, two or three marquee players, a solid, stable organization and structure. And they ripped it up because they thought they were omnipotent and they thought the recipe was right.”
After the television revolution sparked by Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Sports led to the founding of the EPL in 1992, United won 13 of the successive 21 championships. But that was then. Since the last success in 2013, the final year of coach Sir Alex Ferguson’s historic reign, there has been a steady decline.
Other teams have caught up and overtaken them, fronted by, most shockingly to United fans, local rival Manchester City. Backed by a Middle Eastern oil consortium, City have won the past two EPL titles, including last season with a points haul of 98 – compared to United’s 66.
As former player Ole Gunnar Solskjaer continues as coach in what will be his first full season, FOXBet have United as the 4th favorites to win the EPL this season, which might not seem all that bad at first blush. But they’re a whopping +3300 underdog (and level with Arsenal at that price), far back of favorites Man City and Liverpool, and no one’s exactly shedding tears over their fall from grace.
“This is United, so people are enjoying where they are at,” Charlie Wyett, senior football writer for London’s Sun newspaper, told me. “People were sick of them winning all the time, and now it has completely turned. Sometimes they are even getting a bit of sympathy, which is probably even worse for their fans to deal with than hatred.
“It just has the feel of a club stuck in the past. There are still things like Solskjaer refusing to park in Ferguson’s old parking space out of sentiment and nonsense like that. If you want to move forward, it has got to stop.”
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) August 8, 2019
In a piece in The Athletic, which this week shook up British sports media by hiring more than 40 writers and launching a European soccer portal, Laurie Whitwell explained how even the inner infrastructure had been allowed to slip since Ferguson left.
“Food would be ready and available for staff from midday but the footballers might not show up until 2 p.m. after training,” Whitwell wrote, describing how a nutrition overhaul had recently taken place. “Essential fuel post-workout could be left under a lamp.”
Solskjaer is determined to take care of issues both large and small, but it will take more than fresher lunches to stem the flow of disappointment, as we’ve seen this summer.
The preseason run-up has been far from smooth. Before landing Maguire, United came under heavy criticism for paying a seemingly exorbitant $60.6 million for unproven young defender Aaron Wan-Bissaka from Crystal Palace. Star forward Romelu Lukaku, after failing to report for preseason and training with the youth team of Belgian side Anderlecht to try to force a move, got his wish Thursday as his transfer to Inter Milan was made official.
OFFICIAL: Romelu Lukaku completes transfer to Inter Milan for a reported fee of up to €80M with add-ons. pic.twitter.com/m24fPL8HLL
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) August 8, 2019
Perhaps the biggest canary in the coal mine for the Red Devils is their fanbase abroad — which is to say, here in the States. United has historically been the best supported team among American fans, but even that position is under threat.
Liverpool won last season’s Champions League and has enjoyed a new surge of American popularity, while younger fans have been attracted by the success of City and the push for the top made by teams like Tottenham.
“The biggest heartbreak of my adult life is that my son doesn’t want to support United,” Rob Phillips, a Los Angeles businessman originally from Manchester, told me. “It is hard to blame him. He’s nine, and he wants to see his team competing for a title and playing in the Champions League. The club is costing itself a generation of new fans.”
Chelsea, meanwhile, has signed 20-year-old Christian Pulisic, who is not only the best American soccer player of recent times, but is in position to become the best ever.
In what will be a baptism of fire, United hosts Chelsea in its opening game this Sunday. It does so while chasing a better future, as the memories of past glories fade further away.