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Manchester United Is So Pitiful That I Almost Feel Bad

Manchester United mascot Fred the Red during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Brighton & Hove Albion at Old Trafford on August 07, 2022 in Manchester, England.
Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

It’s generally smart to avoid using too much contemporary slang in articles, mostly for the same reason Large Professor told Q-Tip not to say the year when recording songs—it doesn’t take long for the reference to sound dated and clunky. Sometimes, though, there’s something about the parlance of the times that captures a specific feeling that’s hard to replicate with more traditional phrasing. Which I think applies to this: Manchester United is, at present, down bad.

Where do you even start? With the retirement of Alex Ferguson? With the failure of David Moyes? With the decision to bring back Cristiano Ronaldo? Let’s just pick the most recent low point, last weekend’s Premier League opener.

Above you can watch Manchester United get the crap slapped out of it by Brighton and Hove Albion, 2–1. Now, losing the first game of the season isn’t all that big of a deal. Even a club like Manchester United losing to a club like Brighton and Hove Albion—if, in terms of history and finances, we could liken United’s size to that of a giant, then Brighton would probably scale to a hobbit—doesn’t necessarily spell the end of the world. Twin title favorites Liverpool and Manchester City will probably lose a match or two to one of the league’s cellar-dwellers this season, as happens to even the best teams practically every year.

But what makes the Red Devils’ defeat at the hands of the Seagulls so galling is that Brighton simply looked better. This wasn’t some fluke, the result of a lucky couple goals and a hand-standing goalkeeping performance. No, Brighton and Hove Albion thoroughly outplayed Manchester United, and if you didn’t know what the names of the players and the colors of the jerseys were supposed to mean, you probably would’ve thought Brighton the giants and United the hobbits.

But hey, Manchester United is in fact Manchester United, and surely this proud and still-rich club would react to such staggering evidence of its own inferiority by orchestrating a full-on assault of the transfer market. Which appears to indeed have been United’s plan. The only problem there is that, even with all the money in the world, United can’t buy the kinds of reinforcements that could return it to its glorious but increasingly distant past.

The day after the Brighton loss, the Telegraph reported that, amidst “a sense of despair” owing to the defeat, United looked to renew its efforts in the transfer market. What about Frenkie de Jong—the talented midfielder and former acolyte of United’s exciting new manager, Erik ten Hag—who is currently in the process of being unceremoniously forced out at Barcelona? Well, de Jong still wants nothing to do with United. OK, what about Brazilian phenom Antony, another of ten Hag’s old players, who would presumably jump at the chance to trade Ajax for a club like United? Apparently Ajax doesn’t want to sell low and United doesn’t want to buy high, so there’s zero progress there, “much to Ten Hag’s frustration” as the Telegraph describes it.

Fine, whatever—how about alternatives, then? If Man Utd can’t snag two of the very coolest young players in the game, surely they can pick a couple guys just below that tier, right? It turns out, not so much. Now that United appears to have finally conceded defeat in the de Jong sweepstakes, they have set their sights on Adrien Rabiot. Rabiot, currently of Juventus, certainly isn’t a bad player, but he’s hardly an equal replacement for de Jong. Even more to the point, he’s not really the kind of player who would notably improve United’s roster. Rabiot is fine, and United’s big problem right now is that they have way too much fine and not enough great. And that’s even before we see what kind of salary the Frenchman’s notorious momager rustles out of the club.

If an underwhelming player like Rabiot is the chosen fallback option to de Jong, then hopefully the club is aiming higher with its Antony substitute? Again, not exactly. The surprise transfer story of last week was that United had put in a bid for Bologna forward Marko Arnautovic. Arnautovic too is a decent player who was once coached by ten Hag (when he was an assistant at FC Twente), though he’s also 33 years old, an infamous hothead, and also maybe probably racist. Luckily, United fans concerned about all that—in particular the racism—need not fear. First, Bologna rejected United’s lowball bid, claiming Arnautovic to be untouchable. Then, rather than come back with an improved bid, United backed out of negotiations entirely on Tuesday, reportedly in part because of fan anger about the prospective signing.

So where does United turn from here? It’s highly doubtful either de Jong or Antony are coming. Rabiot wouldn’t really move the needle either much each direction. Cristiano Ronaldo still wants out. Harry Maguire still sucks. Jadon Sancho still hasn’t come good. Ten Hag might be the real deal, but no amount of tactical wizardry is going to turn this under-talented roster into a title contender. It’s a bummer seeing this normally fiery competitor sitting meekly in his chair in a bemused daze, looking like George W. Bush the moment his chief of staff told him about 9/11.

What kind of club does United want to be? Hell, what kind of club does it even think it is at this point? During the Moyes era, the club clearly saw itself as one of the grandest clubs in the world, enduring a short and unfortunate detour into the pits. During Louis van Gaal’s and José Mourinho’s tenures, United seemed to behave as if it saw itself as a temporarily embarrassed hegemon, on a circuitous path that nonetheless would inevitably lead back to power. When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over, it felt like the club had finally admitted that it no longer was what it used to be and probably wouldn’t get back there any time soon, which, not coincidentally, saw United earn a newfound modicum of respect and success. By signing Ronaldo last year, United tried to jump back into the fray with the big boys, believing it was finally ready to hang. Not even Ronaldo now believes that to be true, and United so far has failed to lure additional signings who could make it so.

It’s all so very unfortunate—so much so that it almost makes you feel bad for them. The key word, of course, being “almost.”

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