The U.K. television broadcaster of Manchester United’s trip to Bayern Munich in the Champions League this week billed the match as a clash between “two of the biggest teams in the world” in their advertising push, but Erik ten Hag and his players will arrive in southern Germany amid an undeniable feeling that their club is now a shadow of its former self.
There are metrics by which United can still be considered a heavyweight of European football, but most of them have nothing to do with football at all. In July, they announced a record 10-year, £900 million kit deal with Adidas. Last week, they agreed a £60m-a-year front-of-shirt sponsorship with U.S. tech company Qualcomm, also a record.
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Everywhere else you look, however, there’s mediocrity.
It’s been more than a decade since United’s last Premier League title and 15 years since they last won the Champions League. Old Trafford, at one time known for being one of the biggest and best stadiums in the world, has a leaky roof and toilets that notoriously flood on match days. The training ground at Carrington has been overtaken by a bigger and better facility 10 miles away built by neighbours Manchester City, who left their own site at Carrington in 2014.
United’s recruitment department is also routinely mocked for underwhelming signings and the money wasted while, above it all, owners the Glazer family are regularly used as an example of the worst kind of custodian.
Manchester United return to the Champions League for the 2023-24 season, but a poor start to the campaign coupled with injuries and ownership issues piles on questions about how far they can go into the competition. Stu Forster/Getty Images
Ten Hag will walk out at the Allianz Arena on Wednesday with his United team rocking after their worst start to a season since 1989-90, before the Premier League’s inception in 1992. The 3-1 home loss to Brighton on Saturday was United’s third defeat in five games to leave them 13th in the table, already nine points behind City.
One of the biggest clubs in the world? Bayern must be playing someone else. United often seem only able to talk a good game.
On their website there’s a quote — “At Manchester United, greatness is more than just a word; it’s a way of being, never settling for ordinary” — except there has been little evidence over the past decade to suggest it’s true. One club chief once told reporters that “United will always be in for the best players” but Harry Kane, Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham all moved this summer and United were nowhere near any of them.
Ten Hag began the window prioritising the arrival of a proven goal scorer, yet Kane — scorer of 213 Premier League goals for Tottenham Hotspur — joined this week’s opponents Bayern for a £101m transfer fee. United, meanwhile, said they wouldn’t pay more than £60m for 20-year-old Rasmus Højlund before eventually paying £72m. A bid of £50m for 18-year-old Evan Ferguson was laughed off by Brighton.
Kane has already scored four goals for his new club, and another on Wednesday night would rub it in even more that United no longer sit at the same table as the German champions. Bayern have won the Bundesliga title in each of the past 11 seasons, but still signed Kane, in part, to help compete for the Champions League. They’ve won it twice since United last lifted the trophy — Bayern’s last triumph coming in 2020 — and over the past 10 years, have won 16 Champions League knockout ties compared to United’s two; against Olympiakos in 2014 and Paris Saint-Germain in 2019. United didn’t even qualify for the competition in 2014-15, 2016-17, 2019-20 or 2022-23.
The Glazers’ insistence on taking money out rather than putting it back in, coupled with the wrong people placed in crucial positions, has contributed to a seemingly inescapable cycle of failure. More than £1.6 billion has been spent on new players since 2014. but there’s so little to show for it that Donny van de Beek, named on the Ballon d’Or shortlist in 2019 before joining from Ajax Amsterdam for £35m in 2020, won’t even travel to Munich because Ten Hag has decided he’s not good enough to be part of this season’s 25-man Champions League squad.
When United make their return to Europe’s top competition this week, there is likely to be a sense that England’s most successful club (historically, at least) are back where they belong, but alongside it, there will also be a feeling that coming up against Bayern is another reality check about how far they’ve fallen. Bayern have genuine hopes of winning it this season — they’re second favourites behind holders City — while Ten Hag desperately needs a positive result to stop the bleeding after a disastrous start to the new campaign.
United may feel like they deserve to share a stage with Bayern and the rest of Europe’s heavyweights, but these days, there is little to back it up.