Manchester United being bad is now its own self-sustaining media industry | Barney Ronay
“What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?”
Yes, I would. I would probably do that. It becomes easier to say this with certainty, to agree with Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence – which might previously have seemed a little lateral, lacking in, say, the directness that makes the Premier League so special – having watched Sky Sports coverage of Sunday’s Manchester derby; and having seen Dave Jones turn to Roy Keane at the final whistle, with a sense even here of basic existence-fatigue and ask: “Roy. How would you sum up that half?”
As the caption Roy Keane: unbeaten in all 14 derbies with Manchester City scrolled beneath his beard-line, Keane paused. Can I say that he looked tired? That behind his eyes, the great anti-bluffer knew that he too was in danger of lapsing into muscle memory and learned response.
Roy didn’t fake it. He didn’t confect imaginary adrenaline. He said that United’s players basically gave up, and not much more. And by the end it felt like a moment to ask: are the great days of people saying Manchester United are bad already gone? People saying that Manchester United are bad was a glorious thing. We will always have those sunlit memories, back when people saying Manchester United are bad was fresh and new. But you have to say, we expect a bare minimum of effort, of cinematic rage and tweetable clips. Perhaps we need to dig deep and look at the whole structure of people saying Manchester United are bad.
Because by this stage we have surely reached a tipping point in this fascination with the everyday decline of a poorly managed football club. Zoom out and United’s season is unremarkable. Fifth in the league, with a couple of minor cup runs: this looks about right given the squad and the coaching resources. Exactly which combination of Ole Gunnar Solskjær, Ralf Rangnick, Fred, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and an aged celebrity striker is supposed to guarantee elite-tier success?
And yet the wheel of rage continues to revolve, to the extent the only really interesting thing about Manchester United right now is how unhappy people are about Manchester United. The most powerful element, the only real energy at the club, is that apparently bottomless well of dismay.
It is worth noting this is not by chance. Good salespeople are endlessly adaptable. When life gives you a bad football team: make bad football team-ade. And so United’s non-success has become the product, a self-sustaining media industry in its own right. At the end of another unremarkable defeat we await impatiently the real match around the lighted coffee table, the cut-aways, the memes, the pornography of legend-rage.
Gary’s rant. Micah’s laugh. Scholesy’s pucker of disdain. This is where the eyeballs are now, the clicks, the money. Done with feasting on the flesh we are now down to gnawing the bones and sucking out the marrow. What, you wonder, will be left at the end?
There are two things worth saying about this. First, no useful purpose is served here. This is not good for the Premier League, or good for how we consume this thing. There is a general principle that grandiose failure is more interesting than efficient success. Stories about a non-tortured genius or unflawed heroes rarely catch the imagination.
Hence Manchester City winning is harder to describe in an interesting way than Manchester United losing. Describing why and how City are good, the way a team of seven technically sublime midfielders set to a wonderfully grooved plan can always create overlaps and space: this is less grabby, less operatic.
But that United obsession will also eat itself. The current mode of TV analysis is to throw a lighted circle around a player who isn’t running and say things like: look at him. He’s not running. And from there to talk about character and essence, to suggest the explanation for Manchester United not being better than teams with better players and better management is something deep and rotten, something that will, in the end, reward our fascination.
In reality this is not interesting failure. It’s not grand or thwarted or pure. It is easily explained. Compare the team lists from Sunday. Is it really surprising that City should go on to win 4-1? Or that City’s method, which is designed to exhaust and demoralise, should ultimately do both to an inferior team? Run it through the computer. Simulate these known qualities. This is what you’d get.
Carelessly run from the top, United have become a flaccid on-field entity, all weird succession and disjointed recruitment, with no obvious winning method among the many tiers of management blokes currently filling the gap between coach and board. At the end of which Wan-Bissaka is trying to defend against Phil Foden and João Cancelo, who are simply better players with a better plan. And Harry Maguire stands accused once again of being somehow deliberately, consciously bad.
Maguire is, of course, just a symptom. Before moving to this impossibly demanding environment he had played in the Premier League 69 times for Leicester and 32 times for Hull. Aged 29, he still hasn’t won a trophy. Maybe Maguire is just good but not great – a little overexposed, but also bedraggled now, scrambled and beaten down by the extraordinary levels of ambient unhappiness, the constant dissection, the theatrical punditry rage.
And this is the other thing. This loss of scale is, above all, bad for Manchester United. Take a step back and it isn’t much of a leap to conclude the rotating chorus of despairing legends may just be part of the problem. This is a club that remains in thrall to its own past, but which is still able to retail that iconography; and still able to find a market for those grave old Easter Island heads, out there feasting on the bones of the present.
How much harder to move forward while every public projection is still being broadcast from the land of Fergie; and while decline and falling short, the reproaches of the glorious past, is always the story.
Manchester United were great for just over 20 years. They’ve been bad for nine. How long will it take? When does angst and agony become the defining note? Why, you wonder, might those players feel their shoulders tense, the world closing in? Why do they look demoralised? We’ll be back after the break for more from the panel on that.