Michael Walker: Manchester United limp on but the tills still ring as loud as ever

For the money-men at the top of the club, just qualifying for the Champions League is key

Cristiano Ronaldo again came up trumps for Manchester United against Atalanta on Wednesday. Photo: Dave Thompson/AP Photo

Cristiano Ronaldo again came up trumps for Manchester United against Atalanta on Wednesday. Photo: Dave Thompson/AP Photo

 

It was not exactly John 2:13, yet somehow the New Testament came to mind on the forecourt outside the Manchester United megastore at Old Trafford three Saturdays ago.

The place was thriving, happily so. The Theatre of Dreams teemed with scarf-hawkers, fanzine sellers and day-trippers, tourists and fans. There was money to be made, money to be spent. “Get your photo with the Treble,” was the shout. Three replica trophies were lined up and punters were offered a souvenir picture for a fiver “with Ronaldo in the background, Matt Busby in the background.” Look up and a giant image of Cristiano Ronaldo dominates the megastore’s entrance. Busby’s paternal statue stands in front.

Manchester’s street entrepreneurs have long been part of matchday at Old Trafford. They add to the sense of place and occasion. And there was a buzz, no question.

On this afternoon, the scene was also a reminder of the scale of the club and that beyond a football team, Manchester United are something else. They are a big business, employing almost 1,000 people, up more than 200 in eight years.

The long-held belief in this column that everything - everything - in football stems from the pitch is challenged by modern United. Despite not winning the Premier League since 2013, the Champions League since 2008, the FA Cup since 2016 (though they did win the Europa League in 2017), Manchester United Limited snowballs on.

It is a money machine and the principal owners and earners from all this - the Glazers - must chuckle daily at their fortune.

While supporters inside Old Trafford went wild on Wednesday as Ronaldo scored the 81st minute winner to complete a 3-2 comeback against Atalanta in the Champions League, some shareholders and some in the accountancy department will have noted that each group win brings €2.8m. Ronaldo’s was a golden goal.

Status quo

Add his 90th minute winner against Villarreal in the previous home game and Ronaldo has contributed a fair amount to the €5.6m earned from two Group F victories. That’s on top of the €15.25m for simply reaching this stage. €20m-odd by October - without selling one ticket? No wonder Arsene Wenger called making the Premier League top four a trophy.

So as long as United can maintain the status quo, the Glazers may think, why would anyone seek to disrupt it? Why would you cleanse a temple so lucrative? Why disturb the revenue stream?

When they open social media or newspapers, though, advice on disruption is what they get. “Ole out” is what they see. In a sea of red faith, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer continues to inspire love and doubt.

Old Trafford and everything around it remains as lucrative as ever. Photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images
Old Trafford and everything around it remains as lucrative as ever. Photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images

It was there again on Thursday morning, even in the wake of Wednesday’s win. It was there between the lines of Paul Scholes’s analysis on BT Sport. Scholes was more focused on the first-half performance that allowed Atalanta - injury-hit Atalanta - a two-goal lead, than the second-half revival.

Scholes’s concerns are centred on the pitch, about defensive compactness, midfield numbers, about overall shape and balance. His worry is how this collection of players can be moulded into a side that wins actual trophies. Because for all the drama of Atalanta and Villarreal, they are the only two games United have won in the last six.

They have exited the League Cup at home to West Ham, they have lost to Aston Villa and Leicester in the league and in the game at Old Trafford three weeks ago, drew with an under-strength Everton. Had Tom Davies shown a little more confidence in front of goal, Everton would have won. United have kept one clean sheet in their last 20; few really believe they are title contenders; next it is Liverpool.

Scholes thought Jurgen Klopp would be watching the match “rubbing his hands together”. Klopp is unlikely to have been doing that, but he may have been planning tactically and there’s a thing.

Liverpool did not acquire Ronaldo, Jadon Sancho or Raphael Varane this summer, but Klopp will arrive in Manchester with a better team.

Liverpool are flowing - 14 goals in four away games, the best in the Premier League. There is not too much “new” about them, but that is the point. There is an understanding built up over time together. They possess structure and identity and while it might not be enough for Klopp’s team to win a competitive division, they will go close and we will know why.

All things at Anfield are not perfect, but it does feel as if the club gets its direction from the pitch.

Almost three years into Solskjaer’s management, it is difficult to say the same, and this of a team that finished second last season. Scholes’s view will chime with many fans and neutral observers as logical football analysis.

This probably differentiates them from those who run the club, however. The directors may consider United reaching the knockout stage of the Champions League and finishing in the top four of the Premier League a successful season. One estimate of the difference in direct Premier League income last season was around only £5m last season between United and Liverpool in third, which is not vast. United were 12 points behind Manchester City and to bridge that gap would require more than one removal and appointment and more money than might be worth the risk.

Tactical nous

So the big change was not made, in fact in August Solskjaer had his contract extended to 2024. This says, quite loudly, there is no club desire for change. The debate surrounding Solskjaer’s tactical nous can go on, but if he brings United the trophy of Champions League participation then, a la Wenger, he will surely continue.

In 2012 when Wenger offered his trophy assessment, the reaction was hostile because it offended the notion of ultimate sporting competition. Seen from the boardroom of a 2021 Champions League club, in a Covid world where a powerhouse like Barcelona is on the brink, it will make economic sense.

For Solskjaer, therefore, the moment of jeopardy is not here. Not yet. That does not mean it is comfortable. Liverpool will be troublesome and they are followed by Tottenham, City and Chelsea before the end of November. There’s Atalanta and Villarreal away in Group F, too.

It can get dangerous and by December it could be cliff-edge time, but as they showed against Atalanta, United have the players to win something out of nothing. Do so and Solskjaer will remain in post, moving month by month to another Champions League qualification. Ronaldo will be happy and the tills will ring for the trophy you can’t photograph outside Old Trafford.

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