Man United need Champions League progress to justify superclub not on the pitch

“We are implementing a strategy to win and we will foster a culture of excellence through a world-class football environment,” boasted Manchester United’s new chief executive Richard Arnold when the club announced its financial results. at the beginning of the month. It was the latest edition of what has long become a familiar theme on conference calls with their investors. Best in Class, World-Breaking, Excellence, Record-Breaking… but for a decade, it rings hollow.

When United start against Atletico Madrid at Old Trafford on Tuesday night, they will be looking to reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League – the world’s top club competition – for only the third time since 2011. Excellency? Not even close. They don’t shy away from promoting themselves as the biggest football club in the world – a banner on the website designed specifically for investors even makes this clear, saying ‘Manchester United are the No.1 club in the No.1 sport’ — but on the ground, there was little evidence.

In the 10 seasons since reaching the Champions League final in 2011, United have won only two knockout ties in the competition; against Olympiakos in 2014 and Paris Saint-Germain in 2019. (For context, in the same period Chelsea have won 10 Champions League knockout matches, with Manchester City and Liverpool winning nine. And that are just their Premier League rivals.)

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“Of course it’s a surprise,” Brazilian defender Alex Telles said on Monday when asked about his recent record. “United always have to think about winning every competition they take part in. We’re not very happy with the last few years, but we’ve worked very hard to improve that and I think this year we have the opportunity to change things. .

“To change that we have to train well and win games and tomorrow we have the opportunity to change that.”

Man United remain convinced they belong to a group of super clubs (many of which also took part in the 2021 European Super League effort) alongside Real Madrid, Barcelona, ​​Bayern Munich and Juventus, but Real Madrid have won 24 Champions League knockout ties since 2011. Bayern Munich are not far behind 22. In the latest Deloitte Money League, which ranks clubs by income, United were fourth on the list behind Barcelona, ​​Real Madrid and Bayern, but in a purely sporting sense they fall far short.

Atletico Madrid are ranked 13th, but in the past 10 years have won two domestic titles and reached the Champions League final twice. It’s the kind of success that, for now, United can only dream of. Even if it’s not for lack of trying.

United’s gross transfer spend over the last 10 years is £1.4bn, just behind Chelsea (£1.6bn) and Manchester City (£1.5bn), but ahead Liverpool (£1bn) and Arsenal (£1bn). The wage bill for 2021 alone was £323m, again behind Manchester City (£355m) and Chelsea (£333m), but also more than Liverpool (£314m).

There are legitimate questions to ask the owners, the Glazer family, who took the club into debt to buy it in a leveraged takeover in 2005. They regularly pull in dividend payments running into the tens of million without injecting any of their money. , and they have been largely anonymous throughout their reign at Old Trafford, but for years now United have been hitting well below their substantial financial might.

It’s gotten to the point that midfielder Paul Pogba is ready to turn down one of the most lucrative deals the club have ever offered to leave on a free transfer this summer and seek trophies elsewhere. The full five seasons since his return as the world’s most expensive player in 2016 have given medals to the winners of the League Cup and the Europa League – both secondary competitions, by any measure.

Whatever the outcome against Atletico in Manchester on Tuesday night, United find themselves at another crossroads.

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Speaking on the same investor call as Arnold two weeks ago, director of football John Murtough said it was vital that the next permanent manager, who will take over this summer, brings the club “back to competition for national and European titles”, but it is easier. said than done. A look at the Premier League table shows United in fifth place and in a battle to qualify for the Champions League next season. Manchester City and Liverpool are 19 and 16 points clear respectively, and recent history suggests the gap will only have widened towards the end of the campaign. Since winning their last title under Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013, United have finished on average 22 points behind the champions.

It’s no wonder some of the candidates Murtough has in mind for the top job are nervous about agreeing to stake their reputations on achieving the club’s lofty expectations.

There is no silver bullet for a decade of decline, although a revamped Champions League format does eventually offer them a safer path. For now, caretaker boss Ralf Rangnick says when they go out to face Atletico he just wants United to ‘show we can compete with the best teams’ after so long in the Champions League desert. . It’s a far cry from Arnold’s ambitious promises of a golden future, but a place in the quarter-finals would represent at least one small step towards reclaiming their place at the top of Europe.

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