There is no doubting the fact that Manchester United are not just one of the biggest soccer teams in the world, but one of the biggest sports teams, if not brands on the planet. With 1.1 billion fans globally it is hard to go anywhere and not see someone sporting their famous red jersey, or one of their players peering down from an advertising hoarding. But could their star be waning? In a decade or even less, could it be that they will have been usurped, not just on the world stage but in their own back yard in the EPL?
The coming festive period is always a crucial period for any EPL club’s season. Firstly because of the sheer number of fixtures, coming as it does on top of an already congested fixture list, something that many people are not happy about, but that is an argument for another day. Secondly because it comes just before the January transfer window. This year, it may not just be crucial for United’s season but also for their entire identity and future as a club.
Clubs rise and fall out of favor. That is the beauty of sport and particularly soccer. In the top tier of English soccer – held up by the majority as the pinnacle of the sport – clubs such as Nottingham Forest, Leeds United and Ipswich Town have conquered, dominated and then fallen down the leagues. But during almost all of that period, there has been one constant – Manchester United.
During the last decade of the last century and the first decade of this one, they dominated in a way no other club has done in the English game. At the time it was hard to see anyone challenging. That it has changed is unmistakable however, and that change has come from two fronts, internally and externally.
The retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson is an easy cause on which to pin the blame for the club’s decline, but that is certainly not the whole story. There were signs at the end of his tenure that the team he had built was past its best and the players coming through were going to find it increasingly difficult to fill the boots of their esteemed predecessors. Subsequent managers have failed to find success, and the club has stagnated, finding themselves fighting for a top four and Champions League place as opposed to the title.
This has all happened at exactly the wrong time for United. Their decline has coincided with a time when instead of perhaps one, maybe two sparring partners there are suddenly five or six clubs all believing they have a legitimate chance of getting into the top four, even of winning the title. Leicester City showed that anything is possible, even in the most competitive league in the world.
Manchester United’s global fanbase meant they had a revenue stream few if anyone could match. Incredibly lucrative television deals mean the playing field has been leveled somewhat, and suddenly the likes of Manchester City and now even Newcastle have owners and backers way wealthier than the Glazers.
The team currently sits in fifth place. The title is beyond them this season, so is the top three. They need to finish in fourth place as an absolute minimum. Manchester United need to be playing Champions League football. If they are going to attract the best players in the world, the name of the club will only go so far. If they are consistently missing out on the Champions League and coming up short domestically, there are plenty of other places for those players to go. They have been the second best team in their own city for a while now, if they are going to turn it around and start behaving and playing with that belief and swagger that made a generation fall in love with them, they need to act fast.