Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Barney Ronay

Ten years on from The Fellaini Window, United’s age of waste goes on

Since Marouane Fellaini’s arrival in 2013, Manchester United has generated around £6.5bn in revenue with just under £1bn net spent on players.
Since Marouane Fellaini’s arrival in 2013, Manchester United has generated around £6.5bn in revenue with just under £1bn net spent on players. Photograph: Guardian Design

Manchester United’s official Twitter account kicked off its feed on Monday morning with a quietly coy assessment of the week to come, described through a haze of robotic corporate optimism as “an intriguing seven days”. May you live in intriguing times. Although perhaps not, for the sake of everyone engaged in following this great creaking, wheezing ghost ship through the entropy of the late Glazer age, as intriguing as this.

For United the week has already taken in the two promised cup draws and the shared digital panic attack of another transfer deadline day. It will now conclude with what the club admin described accurately as “a huge early season #PL clash” at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday afternoon, a meeting with Arsenal that already feels disproportionately urgent given the familiar howls through the wall, the creak of the coffin lid, the sense of zombified institutional unhappiness beginning to stir.

The Old Trafford ministry of truth did overlook one or two other significant calendar events this weekend. Sunday will also bring the first opportunity, eight days on from the last one, for another mass protest against the club ownership, this time among the more militant away support.

The lurch into September also brings two significant anniversaries. We are not quite yet at the first anniversary of the club being put up for sale, the opening shot in a takeover saga that has begun to resemble a piece of interminably slow-burn Norwegian minimalist cinema, a takeover with everything except an actual takeover-style event at its centre.

But this month sees the 20th anniversary of Malcolm Glazer informing the stock exchange that he had shares in the club. Less traumatic, but part of the same continuing story, Sunday’s game also marks 10 years to the day since United’s first post-Ferguson transfer deadline day, marked by the midnight ensnaring of Marouane Fellaini, billed at the time as a midfield replacement for (it says here) Paul Scholes and the only new player to arrive during that vital summer.

As Manchester City’s nation state project rolled into gear, as Arsenal marked their own new dawn by signing Mesut Özil, back when he was still Mesut Özil, United sent David Moyes marching out in to battle with a baguette in his hand.

It is at least a blueprint the club have stuck to in the years since. Fellaini had been available cheaper (of course) earlier in the window, but ended up being bundled in through the saloon doors at a panic-buy price, the football equivalent of petrol station flowers on Valentine’s Day.

And so a pattern was set of non sequitur recruitment, of drift interspersed with splurge, of periods of cautious progress, such as the current one under Erik ten Hag, undercut by a sense of fundamental contraction, an institution always falling short.

As September’s anniversary rolls around those last 10 years do deserve to be tallied up, receipts retrieved, compliant underlings flushed into the light. Because it really has been the most extraordinary age of waste.

Some basic numbers: since Fellaini’s arrival Manchester United have generated about £6.5bn in revenue. Just over £1bn net has been spent on players. Seven of the top 10 transfers in the club’s history are currently in the first-team squad.

Yet somehow the end result is still inertia, muddle and lethargy. Throughout that entire decade of expense and contraction United have won a Europa League and three domestic cups. Total debts are up to £1bn. The wage bill is vast, the inability to get rid of players chronic. Anthony Martial made his 300th appearance for the club last week, three years on from the last time he registered an interception during a first-team game.

Manchester United fans stage a protest against the owners after last Saturday’s victory over Nottingham Forest
Manchester United fans stage a protest against the owners after last Saturday’s victory over Nottingham Forest. Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters

The one constant on the playing side is a sickly quality, an echoing slackness at the heart of the team, the club, the operation. It’s strange how often analysis of United’s on-pitch failings has centred on the inability to fill the giant hole at the heart of the midfield, a basic lack of resistance and spirit that feels like a team finding its own performative tactical metaphor.

The Glazer family have, of course, been the key architects of this theatre of pain. Still, it would be incorrect to call the Glazers bad owners on their own terms. Once you accept this is about the scorched earth extraction of resources, maximum return for minimum investment, the Glazer ownership has been hugely effective in achieving its goal.

An asset bought for £800m in 2005 is now for sale at an asking price of £5bn. Another £1bn of United’s own income has gone into paying interest on the purchase, a rare feat of financial self-levitation. The board has paid itself at least £130m since 2005. Shareholders have raked out between £150m and £200m. This has been a breathtakingly focused act of cash-sluicing, entirely one-note, undisturbed by any wider concerns. Need a new top-class centre-forward? Pay me. Stadium crumbling? Pay me.

Huge display showing Bruno Fernandes outside Old Trafford
Bruno Fernandes has been bizarrely framed as part of the problems at Manchester United, when in reality he is simply the club’s best player. Photograph: Lee Smith/Action Images/Reuters

For supporters, seeing money spent on the team but sporadically and without care, there has been a tendency to scapegoat star players, to assume it is in their gift to right this toxic vessel, a line that runs right through to the current blame-magnet Bruno Fernandes, bizarrely framed as a part of the problem in the last few weeks, when in reality he is simply United’s best player.

More startling, as the regime enters its dog days, is the basic lack of obvious high-end competence among the underlings and placemen appointed to run this thing. Richard Arnold, the current CEO, has been at the club for 15 years, a marketing guy who owes his career to the Glazers, and whose most notable recent achievement is to bungle the Mason Greenwood affair so badly that United have now spent the last year and a half clinging on to a player so tarnished even Saudi Arabia has decided he might be a little off-brand.

The football director, John Murtough, appointed on the back of zero experience in any kind of similar role, has turned out to be even worse than his predecessor. Some achievement when that predecessor was Ed Woodward.

Murtough’s recent legacy includes allowing Alessia Russo to walk away for free, overseeing the Ronaldo 2.0 comedy interlude, plus the dog days of the Rangnick debacle, assorted overpriced, much-fanfared signings, and giving off the sense of being a plucky fish out of water boldly learning on the job, just without the actual learning bit.

There are of course very few things that can’t be glossed by a little success. Ten years on from Fellaini, Rasmus Højlund is the current summer window hope, and may even be fit to take to pitch for the first time against Arsenal.

Three points would leave United in a healthy position in the league for all the early season Weltschmerz. And with no obvious resolution in sight, that familiar sense of intrigue, vagueness and unresolved narrative looks set to drift on from here. Welcome to Manchester United 2023, a place of furtively sustained status quo, of killing time before whatever happens next finally gets on with happening next.

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.