United’s ticking bomb. A loss to Palace should be least of their worries.

Abdel Rahman El Beheri
7 min readOct 2, 2023
Man United fans at full time whistle Saturday afternoon.

Full time at Saturday afternoon. Man United match their worst ever start to a season since 1989. Fans looks disgusted, helpless, and you can see on their faces the look of despair at their once great club and what has become of it. Though they are not saying anything out loud, you can hear their thoughts. You can tell what’s in their hearts and minds — as they look at the Theatre of where dreams used come true turn to the Theatre of where dreams come to die.

Sadly, this article isn’t about to make it any better. While a loss to Crystal Palace is bad and 4 losses in the first 7 games of the season is piss poor, they aren’t as bad as the ticking time bomb that’s lying underneath.

In 2019, Manchester United rebranded and started a marketing campaign under the guise that they are going back to the United Way…the Mancunian Way using the slogan 'Youth. Courage. Success.’

The aim was to construct a team of young talents and return to the ethos of the club. For the 19/20 campaign, United had the youngest team in the league. Fast forward to this season, United has the 11th youngest (9th oldest however you want to look at it) team in the league.

United’s key players are either at their peak or they are leaving their peak years. If United is planning to compete for the league in 2 years time under Erik ten Hag, then the core of his squad or the key players will be past their peak. For example, Fernandes will be 31, Casemiro will be ~34, Eriksen will be ~34, Varane will be ~32, Shaw ~30, Maguire ~32, Marital ~30, Rashford ~28 (Peak), and the list goes on. With the exception of Rashford and Shaw — all these players will need replacing or having under studies that are being groomed to bench them out.

The conundrum here is we all know that Man Utd are neither good at getting replacements nor selling players that have overstayed their welcome. This in turn places a massive pressure on managers. Instead of having a young squad that has massive room for improvement and growth, build a bond with the manager and absorb his ideas, the United managers find themselves in a so called “ready now approach” squad with established players, with their set in stones styles and a “want to win it now as I don’t have many career years left” attitude.

When United recruited Raphaël Varane and Cristiano Ronaldo, almost everyone in world football said this squad must win big prizes this season. They are bringing “the winning mentality”. Varane and Ronaldo aren’t here to hover around top 4. The pressure skyrocketed when the team was not ready yet for it.

In his latest interview Solskjaer confessed that the recruitment of certain individuals and with the outside pressure made them feel that they need players that are “ready now”. The “Youth. Courage. Success.” motto was abandoned just 2 seasons in. This results in a very old squad in comparison to how it started in 19/20 — couple with failure to offload. Add Casemiro and Eriksen and the average age kept going up. Luckily, Matic, Ronaldo, DDG, and Grant left and that reduced the age considerably but it is still not as young a team as it was when the original — the ‘Youth. Courage. Success’ —project started in 2019.

It’s been 5 years since then and the ones who were young and were supposed to usher United into a new era have aged and they added more old guards to that collection. This cycle will repeat after ETH’s second or third season.

Why does that keep happening?

Man United highest negative spend. A sign of failure in offloading — by TF

The reason lies in the way Man United conduct their recruitment and transfer business. As of December 10, 2022, Manchester United owe over ~£300m in unpaid transfer fees — a record among Premier League clubs — according to recently released financial documents. United spent over £200m in 2022 on Lisandro Martinez, Casemiro and Antony. In their released financial records, United confirmed that they still had a cool £306m left to pay clubs for their transfer business — more than any other club in the Premier League. It is normal for clubs to spread out transfers fees on installments but United have taken this practice to a new height and thus putting them in a constant need to offload a players in order to be able to continue spending at the same rate.

Despite creating a rift of problems for Manchester United both on and off the pitch, Cristiano Ronaldo indirectly saved Erik ten Hag and Man Utd from being ham strung in the transfer market for another 2 years — yes more than they already are. The explosive interview he did with Piers Morgan, which led to the termination of his contract and exit, gave United a little oomph in summer 2023.

Nonetheless, United still owe a lot of money to transfers but this is not the only contributing factor of course. The wage bill is a another big lump that United are carrying around despite the departures of big players like David de Gea and Cristiano Ronaldo. They spent the money they saved from Ronaldo and de Gea by offering Marcus Rashford and Luke Shaw a huge sum of money, while they had offered Sancho, Casemiro and Varane big wages on long term contracts.

The tricky part is United really tied their arms and legs up with these contracts. As of last season 22/23, they had the highest wage bill in world football. And again, the departure of Ronaldo and de Gea took them down to second after Chelsea but the problem remains. Chelsea and United’s wage bill far exceed the rest of premier league by a mile.

PL Wage Bill as of the 21/22 season.

What does all of this mean?

In layman terms, Manchester United need to seriously compete for the PL within a year or two max under ETH. The revolving door of players is ponderous and slow. By the time, United change their backline, their forward line would have aged and by the time they changed their midfield their backline has aged and so on and so forth.

This article has not even discussed the list of injury prone players that United have accumulated and the performance they are getting from those players in correlation to their contracts and the lengths of those contracts.

Arsenal and Liverpool are perfect illustrations of this issue. Klopp created a young team at Liverpool and by 19/20 most of his starting XI were starting their peak years or in their peak years. Then when his midfield aged and they didn’t replace them in time they collapsed. The key point is most of that team was together for few years with the exception of Van Dijk, Alisson, and Fabinho.

At Arsenal, Arteta weeded out most of the old players and created the youngest team in the league. This team has been growing in confidence and improving together for 1–2 years now. They are about to enter their peak years together. They’ll be very competitive for the next 2–3 years together then replacements will need to happen.

Compare and contrast that with United and their managers, they are stuck in an endless loop of succumbing to pressure and dealing in bad recruitment business. This compels them to commit the same mistakes over and over knowingly. The only way out of this loop for United is — well…to improve their recruitment strategy and negotiation — but in the money aspect is to not make signings for 1–2 windows and setting a cap on the age of players, the terms and lengths of contracts.

Liverpool did that when they were took over by FSG. They set a sub-25 years old cap on the age of players. When they didn’t follow through strictly under Brenden Rogers, they got instant results (finishing 2nd) in the short term but suffered massively in the long term and Rodgers was sacked. They stuck to the rule after him with Klopp.

The bomb of realization will kick in in a year’s time or two and ETH will realize the key players in his squad have aged and he needs to replace them. Then by the time he replaces those, he’ll realize that the ones he bought that were relatively young at the time of purchase have become the here and now — i.e. Mount, Martinez, Amrabat etc. They are either at their peak or about to leave their peak years. Rinse and repeat.

Obviously, the root of the problem is, was, and will always be a lack of proper structure and set identity defined by the club. This is the culmination of 13 years of transfer mistakes and it isn’t the manager’s fault — all of them from Moyes to ETH. It’s the club’s. If they had defined what brand football they wanted Manchester United to play, they would have recruited players that suited that style independent of the manager then only hire managers that play that style. This is what Man City did. This is what Liverpool did. This is what Arsenal are currently doing. This what Brighton has done. Man Utd still hasn’t figured that one out. They still hire the manager to figure it all out and expect him to save them from the depth of despair.

From this writer’s perspective, I urge United to stick with ETH and take the pressure no matter how big it is or will be — obviously there’s a limit to time and performance level. Nevertheless, they will have to suffer short term pains — losses both monetary and football wise — for long term gains. As Arsenal, United might need to finish 8th or 10th twice and until they sort out all their contracts and the age of the squad. Sadly, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks — the glazers.

Thank you.

Abdel Rahman

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