Record revenues off the field, record deficits on it. Welcome to Manchester United’s new world circa 2019.
On Sunday, against a Newcastle United side that is no stranger to troubles of its own, Manchester United succumbed to a 1-0 defeat as it continued its worst start to a league season since 1989.
On that occasion 30 years ago, United managed to accrue eight points before going on to finish 13th. Such an end to this season for a club of United’s wealth and stature — worth nearly $4 billion, according to Forbes — would rank as one of modern football’s greatest failures.
Should United’s malaise be combined with Liverpool’s first league title triumph in 30 years — Jurgen Klopp’s team has an eight-point lead over Manchester City — it will represent the sort of nightmare that would have fans of Football Manager constantly hitting the restart button until there is no feeling left in their finger.
Just two points separate United from the Premier League relegation zone and though only eight games of this fledgling Premier League season have passed, it remains rather mystifying how a club of such great riches can also be the source of such startling ineptitude.
“I don’t know what is happening,” said goalkeeper David de Gea after being asked for his assessment of United’s dreadful start to the season.
United has now scored just nine goals in eight league games — and four of those came on the opening day of the season.
For those such as Gary Neville, a former United player who enjoyed great success under Alex Ferguson, the blame for the club’s demise is clear.
“The quality is not right, the depth of their squad is not good enough and they have taken a step back,” Neville told Sky Sports after the defeat at Newcastle.
“Their recruitment has been bad now and woeful for many years, they have been all over the place, with different styles of managers and ways of playing.
“They need five or six top players into that squad, and they are going to cost a lot of money.”
Neville added: “(The board) have cocked this up over many years. They cocked it up, they are responsible for this. Poor recruitment, poor selection of managers, going with them and then pulling off them.”
While Manchester City and Liverpool have both excelled in the transfer market over the past five years, United has made error after error since Ferguson retired in 2013.
Since his departure, managers like David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho have all attempted to instil their own imprint on the club. None succeeded.
The problem, as witnessed across football and not just at United, is that when there is a constant change of management, it brings with it instability.
Players that are brought in under one coach, are discarded by the next. That coach then brings in his own players, who then are often sold off by whichever coach replaces the previous incumbent. It is not a sustainable strategy.
At United, players commanding huge transfer fees and wages such as Angel Di Maria, Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez came and went without much success. Others such as Brazilian midfielder Fred remain behind as a permanent reminder of the club’s failed transfer strategy.
United is only one of three Premier League clubs not to have a technical director or similar — a position that takes control over transfers and works on a long-term strategy to find the players best suited for the club.
So far, calls for such a position to be established at United have fallen on deaf ears.
The United board and the club’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward will no doubt come under renewed pressure in the coming weeks should the team, which faces unbeaten league leader Liverpool next on October 20, continues to slide having won just two of its past 13 Premier League games.
Woodward lent his support to Solskjaer during a post-results media call last month but he will be only too aware that the current run of form will bring yet more questions
At the end of last month the club announced record revenues of £627.1 million ($772 million) for the year ending June 30, 2019 — an increase of 6.3% from the previous year, in part courtesy of the new Champions League broadcasting deal.
There was also the announcement of 10 new or renewed global sponsorship deals, as well as the claim that it now had 1.1 billion fans and followers across the globe, according to data from Kantar, added further gloss to balance sheet.
But numbers on a balance sheet cannot compete with the number of points on a league table and when performances on the field begin to affect the club’s brand, that’s when trouble can occur.
Shouts of “Glazers out” from United supporters angry at the club’s owners following the defeat at Newcastle could be heard, hinting at yet more disillusionment and anger from the support at the way the club is being run.
“There remains some considerable equity in the Manchester United brand, which has accumulated over decades,” Simon Chadwick, professor of sport enterprise at the University of Salford, told CNN Sport.
“Hence, there is the potential to extract further value from the brand, especially when targeting certain key target audiences that are familiar with the club’s historic success.
“However, with each unsuccessful season that passes, the goodwill some fans have towards the brand, allied to the failure in engaging new fans, will diminish the brand, erode the club’s commercial appeal, and threaten United’s revenue streams.
“One also needs to remember that its commercial rivals are no longer benign, nor are they playing catch-up, increasingly they are more aggressive, more innovative, and are making bigger commercial strides.
“It is six years since Ferguson retired, and the brand degradation has already set-in. In branding and commercial terms, United needs ‘Fergie time’ now more than ever,” added Chadwick, referring to the Red Devils’ knack of winning games in stoppage time under their former Scottish manager.”
The time of Ferguson, who won 13 Premier League titles in 26 years at the club, could scarcely feel any more distant for United fans.
There was heavy investment during the summer too. United spent a world record for a defender in acquiring Harry Maguire from Leicester for a reported £80 million ($98 million), while Aaron Wan-Bissaka arrived from Crystal Palace and the exciting Daniel James joined from Swansea.
But the £150 million ($184 million) has proved to be as effective as trying to fix a broken leg with a Band-Aid. Several players have underperformed and young players from the academy have been drafted in to bolster a squad that is severely lacking in quality.
Last season United finished sixth, 32 points behind champion Manchester City and 32 ahead of Cardiff, the team occupying the final relegation place. It is already out of this season’s title race after just eight games and faces an uphill battle to even qualify for the Europa League, let alone the Champions League.
To put that into perspective, the four victories, five draws and seven defeats is the fourth-worst total of any of the 17 ever-present Premier League teams during the same period.
There’s also the fact it has managed just two Premier League goals since August and has been beaten by Crystal Palace, West Ham and now, Newcastle.
It doesn’t get much better when the team competes in European competition.
In last week’s 0-0 draw at Dutch side AZ Alkmaar, United failed to have a single shot on target in a Europa League game for the first time in its history.
The defeat at Newcastle means United has now gone 11 successive games without managing to win away from home.
“It will take however long it will have to take [to improve] because it’s a journey we’ve started on and the culture is getting there,” Solskjaer told reporters after the game.
“It’s a delight to work with the lads every single day because they’re hard-working. I can’t give you any time but we’ll get there.”
Unfortunately for Solskajer, in a world where patience is a rare virtue and the thirst for instant gratification grows ever stronger, that time may be running out.
And yet, when Solskjaer replaced Jose Mourinho on an interim basis in December 2018, the contrast could scarcely have been any different.
Under the Norwegian, United went unbeaten in his first 11 games in charge and produced a stunning comeback victory to defeat Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16 of the European Champions League on away goals after losing the first leg 2-0.
Before Solskjaer was appointed as head coach on a full-time basis in March 2019, United won 14 of his 19 games in charge, drawing two and losing three, while scoring 40 and conceding 17. He had a win percentage of 73.7%.
But the decision to appoint Solskjaer as a permanent successor to Mourinho always appeared a more sentimental than strategic appointment.
Since signing a three-year contract in late March, United has managed just four league victories with wins against Watford and West Ham at the end of last season and Chelsea and Leicester at the start of this campaign.
“If you only walk on sunny days you’ll never get to your destination,” a philosophical sounding Solskjaer said on Sunday.
A meteorologist he is not, but the warmth and light of those sunny days are nothing but a memory. Winter is coming.