The British television channel for Manchester United’s trip to Bayern Munich in the Champions League this week described the match as a showdown between “two of the biggest teams in the world” in their advertising campaign, but Erik Ten Hag and his players will be arriving south. Germany amid an undeniable feeling that their club is now a shadow of its former self.
There are metrics by which United can be considered a heavyweight team in European football, but most of them have nothing to do with football at all. In July, they announced a record 10-year, £900m deal with Adidas, and last week, they agreed a £60m-a-year front shirt sponsorship with US technology company Qualcomm, also a record.
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However, everywhere else you look, there is mediocrity.
It has been more than a decade since United’s last Premier League title, and 15 years since their last Champions League win. Old Trafford, once known as one of the biggest and best stadiums in the world, had a leaking roof and overflowing toilets on match days. The training ground at Carrington has been overtaken by a larger and better facility 10 miles away built by neighbors Manchester City, who left their own site at Carrington in 2014.
United’s recruitment department is also routinely ridiculed for disappointing signings and wasted money, and above all, the Glazer family owners are regularly used as an example of the worst kind of guardian.
Ten Hag will walk away from the Allianz Arena on Wednesday with his side reeling after their worst start to a season since 1989-90, before the start of the Premier League in 1992. The 3-1 loss at home to Brighton on Saturday was United’s third defeat in five matches to leave them in 13th in the table, nine points behind City.
One of the biggest clubs in the world? Bayern should play with someone else. United often seem only capable of putting on a good game.
There is a saying on their website – “At Manchester United, greatness is more than a word; it is a way of being, never mediocre” – but there has been little evidence over the past decade to suggest that this is true. A club chairman once told reporters that “United will always be within reach of the best players” but Harry Kane, Declan Rice and Judd Bellingham all moved on this summer and United were nowhere near any of them.
Ten Hag began the transfer window prioritizing the arrival of a proven goalscorer, but Kane – who scored 213 Premier League goals for Tottenham Hotspur – joined rivals Bayern this week for a transfer fee of £101m. Meanwhile, United said they would pay no more than £60m for 20-year-old Rasmus Hoglund before eventually paying £72m. A £50million bid to sign 18-year-old Ivan Ferguson has been ridiculed by Brighton.
Kane has already scored four goals for his new club, and another on Wednesday night will further cement United no longer sitting at the same table with the German champions. Bayern have won the Bundesliga title in each of the past 11 seasons, but signed Kane in part to help compete for the Champions League. They have won it twice since United last lifted the trophy – Bayern’s last victory came in 2020 – and over the past 10 years, they have won 16 Champions League knockout matches compared to United’s two; Against Olympiacos in 2014 and Paris Saint-Germain in 2019. United did not even qualify for the competition in the 2014-15, 2016-17, 2019-20 or 2022-23 seasons.
The Glazers’ insistence on taking the money rather than giving it back, coupled with putting the wrong people in crucial positions, contributed to a seemingly inevitable cycle of failure. More than £1.6billion has been spent on new players since 2014, but there is little to show for even Donny van de Beek, who was shortlisted for the Ballon d’Or in 2019 before joining from Ajax Amsterdam for £35million. In 2020, he will win the award. I didn’t even travel to Munich because Ten Hag decided he wasn’t good enough to be part of the 25-man Champions League squad this season.
When United return to major European competition this week, there will likely be a feeling that England’s most successful club (historically, at least) is back where they belong, but alongside that, there will also be a sense that the clash against Bayern is a reality check. Another of how far they have fallen. Bayern have real hopes of winning the title this season – they are second favorites behind defending champions City – while Ten Hag desperately needs a positive result to stop the bleeding after a disastrous start to the new season.
United may feel they deserve to share the stage with Bayern and the rest of Europe’s heavyweights, but these days, there’s not much to back that up.