Manchester United’s perfect feedback loop

Football - Champions League - Group F - Manchester United v Atalanta - Old Trafford, Manchester, Britain - October 20, 2021 Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates scoring their third goal REUTERS/Phil Noble
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was in the mood to play the hits. Manchester United’s most ardent fans, he said, were “the best in the world.” The players who had the privilege to wear the team’s colors were the “luckiest” on the planet. And, of course, there was the inevitable nod to history, to the club’s “habit” of clawing victory from the maw of defeat.

Solskjaer was glowing, and with good reason. United had just given Atalanta a two-goal head start in the Champions League and recovered to win regardless. Cristiano Ronaldo had delivered, yet again. United had been at the bottom of its group at halftime, flirting with elimination, but now it sat comfortably at the top. The fans sang Solskjaer’s name as he gave his postmatch television interviews.

Once he had signed off, the British broadcast feed cut back to the studio. The mood there was starkly different. Paul Scholes, the former Manchester United midfielder appearing as one of the guests, was not feeling particularly stirred. “That first half worried me,” he said. His voice was stern, his look grave. United faces Liverpool on Sunday. Scholes felt storm clouds gathering.

As he spoke, footage played of United’s rousing winner. Ronaldo’s header arrowed into the corner of the goal. “Imagine Jürgen Klopp watching that,” Scholes intoned. Ronaldo tore off in celebration, another stitch woven into the fabric of his legend. “He’ll be rubbing his hands together.” Old Trafford was melting into delirium. “Play like that against Liverpool, and see what happens.”

In that contrast lies the very essence of the modern Manchester United, a club where what the eyes see and what the ears hear do not always — or even often — match up. It has been like this almost since the start of Solskjaer’s reign three years ago, this ability to jumble the senses, to be everything and nothing, to be progress and stasis, promise and despair, success and failure all at the same time. United have become football team as Rorschach test: What you see in the spreading ink blot in front of you depends, largely, on what you want to see.

In many ways, of course, that is probably less than ideal. As a general rule, the teams that win trophies are not the ones that radically divide opinion, or the ones whose performances oscillate wildly both within and between games, or the ones who never seem to be more than a couple of defeats from full-blown crisis. League titles in particular go to the strong and the steady, the clear and the convincing.

And that, of course, is what is supposed to be Manchester United’s priority. That is what Scholes believes is the club’s rightful place, the cornerstone of football’s natural order: There can be true harmony and balance in all things only if, at the end of May, Manchester United is crowned the best team in the Premier League.

But that is not, of course, Manchester United’s only priority. It is — and this will read as criticism only if you want to read it as criticism — concerned with not only being the best team in England, but being the biggest club, too. That might, in a certain light, feel like little more than semantics. It is not.

In a sporting sense, United’s tendency to act as a sort of fuel cell for an apparently inexhaustible debate is very obviously a drawback, a reasonably damning indictment of Solskjaer’s reign in and of itself. Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool are not subject to such wild swings in popular perception. Their exact places in England’s pecking order might be disputed, but that they belong at the very summit is not.

The sporting sense, though, is not the whole picture. It is easy to chide United every three months, when its leading executives use their quarterly call with investors to primp and preen over their social media engagement figures. It is simple to see this as yet more proof of how capitalism and/or technology has corrupted the game, how out of line United’s priorities are, how confused its leaders have become about whether their job is to win titles or accrue followers on Instagram.

The truth is a little of both. It is an awkward coexistence, but clubs are both sports teams and businesses. Those numbers are not brought up as a transparent bid to distract private equity managers from poor performance on the field. They are brought up because the private equity managers probably care about them as much as — or even more than — they care about whether United won or lost last weekend. Those numbers matter.

And from that point of view, it is hard to conceive of any strategy better than this version of Manchester United, with all of its inconsistencies and contradictions, each one open to every interpretation imaginable. It is the gift that keeps on giving, a virtuous circle, the highest attainable form of sport as content machine. Presumably by accident, rather than design, Manchester United finds itself in the Platonic ideal of an engagement sweet spot.

It is perfect: The presence of so many enormously talented players means that the team is never bad, not in any real sense. It is never going to be out of contention for a place in the Champions League, and so it is never going to be in real danger of missing out on the vital revenue streams offered by European football.

Most of the time, the team will win: occasionally convincingly, occasionally fortunately, occasionally despite all available evidence suggesting that it really should not have. But, crucially, it will not win all of the time. Winning all of the time is what fans want, of course, but it is not, in truth, a particularly compelling story. If a team wins all of the time, there is not much to say. Look at Bayern Munich, or Paris St.-Germain, or even Manchester City. They win again and again, and the world shrugs.

Not Manchester United, though. Sometimes, United will lose. It will never lose often enough to be in genuine peril of finishing, say, ninth — the extraordinary players will see to that, remember — but sometimes having those players is not enough. Sometimes the opposition will have a better system, or United will be less than the sum of its parts, and so sometimes United will lose.

No matter what happens, though, there will be something to talk about. Regardless of whether the dice fall for United in any particular game, it will be compelling. The team can be whatever you want it to be: a side building momentum or one threatening to malfunction. Occasionally, as Scholes proved, it can be both of those things at the same time. The pictures can say one thing and the words another.

It leaves every game fraught with meaning. Every single fixture could be the start of something or the end, the day that the club rises to indisputable glory or sinks into unabashed crisis. There will always be something to say, a position to take, an opinion to air. And that means there is always something to sell, because there is always something to watch or something to hear or something to read or something to click. It means Manchester United is always there, front and center, pumping tons and tons of content out into the atmosphere.

This weekend, it is entirely feasible that Manchester United will beat Liverpool. Or lose to Liverpool. Or draw with Liverpool. There will be a result, but that is not the same as a conclusion — not one that lasts, anyway; not one that holds beyond the next game or the game after that. There never will be — not with these owners, not with this team, not with this manager. Manchester United will just keep on as it is, forever near and forever distant, football’s most reliable source of engagement, a club caught in its own perfect feedback loop.

No Good Guys Here

This is not something that will be said regularly, in the months and years to come, but it was just about possible to have a little sympathy for Newcastle United’s new ownership group this week. Not for the defeat against Tottenham, of course. Not for firing Manager Steve Bruce. Not even for having to issue a statement urging the club’s fans to stop dressing up in thobes and kaffiyehs because it is, you know, offensive.

No, the one aspect that made it just about possible to see the Saudi-backed consortium’s point of view was the decision by the rest of the Premier League to place a temporary stay on related party transactions — that is, deals in which companies linked to a club’s owner suddenly and entirely coincidentally decide they want to spend vast sums of money sponsoring the owner’s team.

Some 18 of Newcastle’s Premier League colleagues/rivals backed the motion, with a view to implementing some sort of permanent restriction on the practice in the future. Manchester City abstained from the vote, presumably aware that backing it would be, well, hypocrisy of the highest order.

Newcastle’s immediate response was to threaten legal action against the Premier League. This is not uncomplicated, of course, because it is — when you think about it — basically an admission that getting a load of Saudi companies to sponsor a Saudi-backed team so as to fast-track its growth was a fundamental part of the business plan.

But that is, perhaps, balanced out — in this case — by the fact that a host of Premier League teams have been doing this for years. And not just Manchester City, the world’s foremost billboard for Etisalat. There is Leicester City, too, with its home, the King Power Stadium. It is curious that Everton’s training ground is sponsored by USM: What benefit a Russian mining giant gets from having its name splashed on a club’s changing rooms is anyone’s guess, but it is apparently worthwhile.

This, you see, is the problem with the Premier League’s cynical decision to avoid anything approaching morality as long as the money keeps on flowing. It is an appealing approach because it absolves the league of having to make any tricky, subjective decisions — until, that is, something so craven comes along that everyone else’s cravenness pales in comparison. Opting out is not a tenable position in the long run. It is time that English football learned that.

Enough, Gianni. Enough.

In a way, you have to admire Gianni Infantino. By now, those occupying what we might call football’s Blue Sky executive level have conjured so many risibly absurd ideas in such rapid succession that we should be inured to it. They should not be able to plumb new depths of stupidity. Those wells should have been tapped long ago.

Credit, then, to Infantino for boldly going lower than anyone else had thus far dared to go. A World Cup every two years, it turns out, is just entry-level stuff. The real galaxy brain idea was decreeing, as he did to various European federations this week, that teams would not be allowed to compete in consecutive tournaments if and when the competition goes biennial.

That’s right. Infantino, the president of FIFA, the most powerful person in the game, the man responsible for safeguarding the biggest sport on the planet, has considered taking the World Cup and splitting it in two so that it is not, in fact, a World Cup at all. Infantino appears to think that if you cut a golden goose in half, there is a chance you might get two golden geese.

And yet there is reason to be thankful, too. Infantino might not quite have worked out King Solomon’s gambit, but in doing so he has at least exposed the fact that FIFA’s plan to double the number of World Cups is crumbling.

The powerful European and South American confederations staunchly oppose it. So do the European Union and the International Olympic Committee. FIFPro, the players union, is against it. There is a reason for this. It is a bad idea.

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