Manchester United’s Perfect Feedback Loop

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was in the mood to play the hits. He said Manchester United’s most ardent fans are “the best in the world”. Players who had …

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was in the mood to play the hits. He said Manchester United’s most ardent fans are “the best in the world”. Players who had the privilege of wearing the team’s colors were the “luckiest” players on the planet. And, of course, there was an inevitable nod to history, to the club’s “habit” of clawing victory at the mouth of defeat.

Solskjaer was shining, and for good reason. United started Atalanta two goals ahead of the Champions League and rebounded to win no matter what. Cristiano Ronaldo has once again surrendered. United were at the bottom of their group at halftime, flirting with qualifiers, but are now comfortably on top. Fans chanted Solskjaer’s name while giving their post-match television interviews.

After signing, British streaming returned to the studio. The mood there was completely different. Former Manchester United midfielder Paul Scholes, who appeared as one of the guests, wasn’t feeling particularly excited. “The first half worried me,” he said. His voice was stern, his gaze serious. United face Liverpool on Sunday. Scholes felt the storm clouds gather.

As he spoke, footage of United’s electrifying winner played back. Ronaldo’s header went to the corner of the goal. “Imagine Jürgen Klopp watching this,” Scholes said. Ronaldo tore in celebration, another stitch woven into the fabric of his legend. “He’ll rub his hands together.” Old Trafford was turning into delirium. “Play like this against Liverpool and see what happens.”

It is in this contrast that the essence of modern Manchester United, a club where the eyes see and the ears do not always – if not often – match. Since the beginning of Solskjaer’s reign, three years ago, this ability to confuse the senses, to be everything and nothing, progress and stasis, promise and despair, success and failure simultaneously, has been almost like this. United became a football team as the Rorschach test: what you see in the inkblot spreading in front of you largely depends on what you want to see.

The main complaint from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s critics is that he doesn’t always appear to know what he’s doing with his team.Credit…Carl Recine/Action Images Via Reuters

In many ways, of course, that is probably less than ideal. As a general rule, the teams that win trophies are not the ones that radically divide opinion, or the ones whose performances oscillate wildly both within and between games, or the ones who never seem to be more than a couple of defeats from full-blown crisis. League titles, in particular, go to the strong and the steady, the clear and the convincing.

And that, of course, is what is supposed to be Manchester United’s priority. That is what Scholes believes is the club’s rightful place, the cornerstone of soccer’s natural order: There can be true harmony and balance in all things only if, at the end of May, Manchester United is crowned the best team in the Premier League.

But that is not, of course, Manchester United’s only priority. It is — and this will read as criticism only if you want to read it as criticism — concerned with not only being the best team in England, but being the biggest club, too. That might, in a certain light, feel like little more than semantics. It is not.

In a sporting sense, United’s tendency to act as a sort of fuel cell for an apparently inexhaustible debate is very obviously a drawback, a reasonably damning indictment of Solskjaer’s reign in and of itself. Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool are not subject to such wild swings in popular perception. Their exact places in England’s pecking order might be disputed, but that they belong at the very summit is not.

The sporting sense, though, is not the whole picture. It is easy to chide United every three months, when its leading executives use their quarterly call with investors to primp and preen over their social media engagement figures. It is simple to see this as yet more proof of how capitalism and/or technology has corrupted the game, how out of line United’s priorities are, how confused its leaders have become about whether their job is to win titles or accrue followers on Instagram.

If United’s main business is soccer, mythology and commercial revenue aren’t far behind.Credit…Phil Noble/Reuters

The truth is a little of both. It is an awkward coexistence, but clubs are both sports teams and businesses. Those numbers are not brought up as a transparent bid to distract private equity managers from poor performance on the field. They are brought up because the private equity managers probably care about them as much as — or even more than — they care about whether United won or lost last weekend. Those numbers matter.

And from that point of view, it is hard to conceive of any strategy better than this version of Manchester United, with all of its inconsistencies and contradictions, each one open to every interpretation imaginable. It is the gift that keeps on giving, a virtuous circle, the highest attainable form of sport as content machine. Presumably by accident, rather than design, Manchester United finds itself in the Platonic ideal of an engagement sweet spot.

It is perfect: The presence of so many enormously talented players means that the team is never bad, not in any real sense. It is never going to be out of contention for a place in the Champions League, and so it is never going to be in real danger of missing out on the vital revenue streams offered by European soccer.

Most of the time, the team will win: occasionally convincingly, occasionally fortunately, occasionally despite all available evidence suggesting that it really should not have. But, crucially, it will not win all of the time. Winning all of the time is what fans want, of course, but it is not, in truth, a particularly compelling story. If a team wins all of the time, there is not much to say. Look at Bayern Munich, or Paris St.-Germain, or even Manchester City. They win, again and again, and the world shrugs.

Not Manchester United, though. Sometimes, United will lose. It will never lose often enough to be in genuine peril of finishing, say, ninth — the extraordinary players will see to that, remember — but sometimes having those players is not enough. Sometimes the opposition will have a better system, or United will be less than the sum of its parts, and so sometimes United will lose.

No matter what happens, though, there will be something to talk about. Regardless of whether the dice fall for United in any particular game, it will be compelling. The team can be whatever you want it to be: a side building momentum, or one threatening to malfunction. Occasionally, as Scholes proved, it can be both of those things at the same time. The pictures can say one thing, and the words another.

Cristiano Ronaldo papered over some more of United’s problems this week.Credit…Peter Powell/EPA, via Shutterstock

It leaves every game fraught with meaning. Every single fixture could be the start of something or the end, the day that the club rises to indisputable glory or sinks into unabashed crisis. There will always be something to say, a position to take, an opinion to air. And that means there is always something to sell, because there is always something to watch or something to hear or something to read or something to click. It means Manchester United is always there, front and center, pumping tons and tons of content out into the atmosphere.

This weekend, it is entirely feasible that Manchester United will beat Liverpool. Or lose to Liverpool. Or draw with Liverpool. There will be a result, but that is not the same as a conclusion. Not one that lasts, anyway, not one that holds beyond the next game, or the game after that. There never will be, not with these owners, not with this team, not with this manager. Manchester United will just keep on as it is, forever near and forever distant, soccer’s most reliable source of engagement, a club caught in its own perfect feedback loop.


No Good Guys Here

Newcastle asked its fans this week to stop wearing robes to matches “if they would not ordinarily wear such attire.”Credit…Paul Ellis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

This is not something that will be said regularly, in the months and years to come, but it was just about possible to have a little sympathy for Newcastle United’s new ownership group this week. Not for the defeat against Tottenham, of course. Not for firing Manager Steve Bruce. Not even for having to issue a statement urging the club’s fans to stop dressing up in thobes and kaffiyehs because it is, you know, offensive.

No, the one aspect that made it just about possible to see the Saudi-backed consortium’s point of view was the decision by the rest of the Premier League to place a temporary stay on related party transactions: that is, deals in which companies linked to a club’s owner suddenly and entirely coincidentally decide they want to spend vast sums of money sponsoring the owner’s team.

Some 18 of Newcastle’s Premier League colleagues/rivals backed the motion, with a view to implementing some sort of permanent restriction on the practice in the future. Manchester City abstained from the vote, presumably aware that backing it would be, well, hypocrisy of the highest order.

Newcastle’s immediate response was to threaten legal action against the Premier League. This is not uncomplicated, of course, because it is — when you think about it — basically an admission that getting a load of Saudi companies to sponsor a Saudi-backed team so as to fast-track its growth was a fundamental part of the business plan.

But that is, perhaps, balanced out — in this case — by the fact that a host of Premier League teams have been doing this for years. And not just Manchester City, the world’s foremost billboard for Etisalat. There is Leicester City, too, with its home, the King Power Stadium. It is curious that Everton’s training ground is sponsored by USM: What benefit a Russian mining giant gets from having its name splashed on a club’s changing rooms is anyone’s guess, but it is apparently worthwhile.

This, you see, is the problem with the Premier League’s cynical decision to avoid anything approaching morality as long as the money keeps on flowing. It is an appealing approach, because it absolves the league of having to make any tricky, subjective decisions. Until, that is, something so craven comes along that everyone else’s cravenness pales in comparison. Opting out is not a tenable position in the long run. It is time that English soccer learned that.

Enough, Gianni. Enough.

Gianni Infantino: a man with a (very bad) plan.Credit…Harold Cunningham/Agence France-Presse, via Fifa/Afp Via Getty Images

In a way, you have to admire Gianni Infantino. By now, those occupying what we might call soccer’s Blue Sky executive level have conjured so many risibly absurd ideas in such rapid succession that we should be inured to it. They should not be able to plumb new depths of stupidity. Those wells should have been tapped long ago.

Credit, then, to Infantino for boldly going lower than anyone else had thus far dared to go. A World Cup every two years, it turns out, is just entry-level stuff. The real galaxy brain idea was decreeing, as he did to various European federations this week, that teams would not be allowed to compete in consecutive tournaments if, and when, the competition goes biennial.

That’s right. Infantino, the president of FIFA, the most powerful person in the game, the man responsible for safeguarding the biggest sport on the planet, has considered taking the World Cup and splitting it in two, so that it is not, in fact, a World Cup at all. Infantino appears to think that if you cut a golden goose in half, there is a chance you might get two golden geese.

And yet there is reason to be thankful, too. Infantino might not quite have worked out King Solomon’s gambit, but in doing so he has, at least, exposed the fact that FIFA’s plan to double the number of World Cups is crumbling.

The powerful European and South American confederations staunchly oppose it. So do the European Union and the International Olympic Committee. FIFPro, the players’ union, is against it. There is a reason for this. It is a bad idea.

Correspondence

A man, a medal and a lesson. Read on for his story.Credit…Lisi Niesner/Reuters

Soccer, it turns out, is not the only sport with something of an aversion to celebrating second place. “There is the N.H.L.,” wrote David Sullivan. “No second-place trophies or medals, and a similar tradition/superstition that any team award less than the Stanley Cup itself is to be spurned.

“The league now awards the Presidents’ Trophy to the team with the best regular season record, but there are documented cases of players looking down, looking away, acting awkward, refusing to acknowledge or touch the trophy they won, and skating away as quickly as possible.”

There are, at least, trophies handed out for winning divisional titles, something that was pointed out to me while “researching” — it looks a lot like asking the most recent American I have corresponded with — last week’s column. You can win, in a way, multiple times in most of North America’s major leagues, so even the teams that lose finals can reflect on the fact that they are winners.

But there can be no question whatsoever about the most poignant and uplifting email of the week, and possibly ever. I don’t want to edit it too much, even for length, because it deserves your full attention.

“I’m 22, and won two silver and one bronze medal at the Tokyo Paralympic Games,” wrote Jaryd Clifford. “My silvers came in the 5000m (on the hottest running day of my life — “feels like 43 degrees and 85 percent humidity”) and the marathon (I spewed my guts up for the last 12 kilometers*).

[*NOTE: I have left this phrase in to prove that Jaryd is Australian. It may be the most Australian phrase imaginable.]

“I was defending world champion in the 5000m and world-record holder in the marathon. I learned that disappointment can coexist with pride, particularly when you know you gave it everything. I’m disappointed I couldn’t win that gold medal, but I’m proud that I never gave up and that I gave it everything I had.

Jaryd Clifford of Australia collapsed after finishing second in a Paralympic marathon in Tokyo.Credit…Eugene Hoshiko/Associated Press

“What more can you do? Sometimes you’re just beaten by a better opponent on that day. For me, the silver represents the journey I’ve been on from my early teens to now, all the blood, sweat and tears. It also motivates me to one day turn it into gold. My teammate, Scott Reardon, told me as I sat in an ice bath after the 5000m that “sometimes it takes silver to win gold.” In 2012, he won silver/lost gold by 0.03 seconds in the 100m. In 2016, he won gold, he says, because of the lessons he learned from his silver.”

That last sentence is a far better encapsulation of what I was trying to express than I managed in a thousand words or so, as it happens. (I’ll be adding Jaryd to the list of people who aren’t allowed to email too often, for fear of showing me up.) You can either see it as losing gold, or you can see it as winning silver. The latter seems far healthier to me and, more important, to Jaryd.

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