The Case For Divorce

Is there a crisis line for sports fans when their team goes into a crisis?  Can sports fans divorce their spouse teams?

If there was a crisis line, then that call center would be overwhelmed this week by fans of Manchester United, Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid, and PSG (they are in crisis, trust me, any team that has Mauro Icardi/Wanda Nara IS in crisis).  

Since I only have time to focus on one team, I will focus on Manchester United as they are slowly spiraling into a combination of medical waste dumpster fire, mass delusion, and irrelevancy.  As a supporter of Manchester United, I found writing about the team quite difficult. Supporters are typically subjective, overly emotional, and reactionary. When it comes to United, I am all those things rolled into one, but only if you multiply it by a hundred.   I try very hard to follow the 24-hour rule of supporter response to a horrific loss. The 24-hour rule states that you make no statements on social media, message boards, columns, pod casts, fan TV or in bars, shopping malls, churches, pizza joints, bowling alleys, and schools for a full 24 hours after the game is over.  I am breaking that rule right now. Remember, I AM morally ambiguous as a soccer supporter.

Over a decade ago, Bill Simmons, when he was a columnist, wrote a column for Page 2 on stating the 20 rules for being a true sports fan.   It was a gem of a column and I remember it as well as where I left my car in the parking garage. It contained such rules like:

“1.  You can’t purchase a ‘blank’ authentic jersey from your favorite team with no name on the back, then stick your own name and number on the jersey…..3. Don’t wear cheap-looking replica jerseys or flimsy-looking bargin-basement hats….8. No hopping on and off the bandwagon during the season with the flip-flop….11.  Don’t boo your team unless it is absolutely warranted…”

There are a few rules that warrant further examination when they are applied to supporting Manchester United.  

“12.  After your team wins a championship, they immediately get a five year grace period:  You can’t complain about anything that happens with your team…for five years.”

For the record, I believe this rule is inherently wrong, but I understand the reasoning.  However, it is against a supporter’s nature to not complain when things go sideways. Its in the shark’s nature to tear stuff up and its in a scorpion’s nature to sting everything.  Do we want them to against their nature? No, if they did, they would die. I am not down for that. I am not down for supporters not doing what is in their nature which is to complain, roll on the ground like Neymar, drink heavily, and get multiple piercings when things go wrong.  

Manchester United won their last major trophy in 2012-13 when they won the English Premier League in Sir Alex’s last season as manager.  I do not count the Clumpy Cat Litter Cup (aka the Europa League) because it is a relegation competition when compared to the Champions League.  I am horrible at math, but 2013 was six years ago. Manchester United has not even come close to winning it since. The second place finish in Jose Mourinho’s last full season in charge is a mirage – they were 17 points behind Abu Dhabi City.  So this rule is rubbish and I never followed it anyways.

This brings me to the “loyalty” rules:

“19.  Once you choose a team, you’re stuck with that team for the rest of your life…unless one of the following applies…..The owner of your favorite team treated his fans so egregiously over the years you couldn’t take it anymore.”

So following this rule, I have been married to my spouse team for well over a decade.  Sorry, I am a dude and I only remember when I married my wife.   

Does openly mocking the fans count as treating them egregiously?  

Let me lay out the evidence.

In June 2005, the Glazers owned 98% of all Manchester United’s shares and squeezed out all the remaining shareholders out to complete their takeover.  The final valuation of the team at the time was $1.5 billion. The Glazers took out a loan to complete the takeover and used Manchester United itself to help secure it.  This plunged the team into debt for the first time in 74 years. In 2010, that debt had increased to $1.17 billion. As a result, the Glazers announced a plan to re-finance all this debt through a bond issue.  Embedded in the bond prospectus were policies that would allow the Glazers to move large amounts of money out of Manchester United to pay the loans and to pay themselves 50% of the Consolidated Net income of the team every year.  This is how the Glazers have taken over $1 billion OUT of the team.  

According to Forbes, as of May 30th, 2019, Manchester United is worth $3.81 billion.   This is 3rd in the world behind Real Madrid and Barcelona.   Nineteen percent of that $3.81 billion was wrapped up in debt.  The value of Manchester United has fallen 8% in the last year. Manchester United took in $795 million in revenue in the last year (also 3rd in the world).   To compare with the hot blue neighbors, City is worth $2.69 billion (ranked 5th in the world) with an increase in value of 9% in the last year.   They took in $678 million in revenue in the last year. None of the value of Manchester City is wrapped up in debt.  Of note, at the time of this writing a conference call with Wall Street regarding their last quarter of finances was scheduled for September 24th at 8:00am.  

In short, every time Manchester United supporters buy jerseys, scarfs, memberships, MUTV, tickets, t-shirts, key chains, gerbils, pjs, flasks, bongs, and cat litter that have United’s badge they are directly paying the Glazers and paying off their debt.  It could be argued that all this money is also paying for players, staff, and infrastructure. This is inherently false and a mocking joke on the supporters.  

It would be considered a sacrifice to trade something of high value (money, time, and emotions) for something of low or no value in return.   What do supporters’ value when they support any team? Is Manchester United in its current form giving a higher or equal value back in return for all their supporters’ investments?

Sunday provided an answer.   Manchester United put out a horrifically bad line-up, used a poor tactical strategy, and offered no imagination while losing to West Ham United at London Stadium 2-0.  This plunges the team into 7th place in the league.  This is a crisis for United.  

Cousin Ole used Marcus Rashford as a solo striker (hint, he’s not a natural striker) because he had no one else to play in the role) which resulted in limited opportunities, predictable play, frustration, and eventually injury.   He started Juan Mata and Matic as opposed to Angel Gomes and Fred in the mid-field, which resulted in a slow and uncreative mid-field combination. Fred was substituted into the game for the last twenty minutes and immediately created two scoring chances.  Ole’s strategy on Sunday was in stark contrast of when he was brought in as a care-taker manager last winter. United’s strategy when Cousin Ole was auditioning for the job was attacking and counter-attacking at will providing a high-risk, high-reward style of play that was entertaining and effective.   His strategy now is to park the bus, go backwards in the attack, pass side to side in the back half, and send predictable balls and charges toward the goal. This chart illustrates how this strategy played out yesterday:


The blue lines indicate completed passes.  The red lines indicate failed passes. Manchester United’s chart clear indicates spending most of their possession in their back half passing the ball back and forth.  The two frequent passing combinations in the game were between Victor Lindelof and Harry McGuire back and forth.  

This new tactic is playing not to lose.  I understand using this strategy when you fear being sacked and/or you feel that you don’t have the players to run a more attack minded game plan.  However, United’s back line now is much better at dealing with counterattacks then when Cousin Ole started last winter. Yes, there have been injuries (Martial), sickness (Mason Greenwood), and dis-interest (Paul Pogba) which have not helped at all.   However, using Matic and Mata as starters for their “experience” is a recipe for slow, fearful, and unimaginative play. When a more dynamic combo in Fred and Gomes in front of a more reinforced backline is available, not using them is quite questionable and suggests that Cousin Ole is managing out of fear rather than throwing all the chips on the table and letting it ride Dippy the Prate Bear style.  This would normally get a manager sacked.

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In this case, it will not and should not.  At least not yet. The main issue for Manchester United is not their manager.  It’s the depth of the squad itself. The team somewhat shored up their defense by getting Aaron Wan-Wissaka and Harry McGuire, which has provided immediate positive returns.  They added what was initially thought to be a project in Daniel James who has become a vital cog in the offense. The departures of Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez without having viable replacements left the front line quite thin especially when Jesse Lingard can not score at a porn convention let alone on the pitch (sorry, bad joke) and Anthony Martial is often injured for weeks and months at a time.  The mid-field is also depleted of talent outside of Paul Pogba who also is often “injured” and let me say this loud and clear: HE DOES NOT WANT TO PLAY AT MANCHESTER UNITED. So even if Pogba plays he is playing for the next team he will play for or he is playing at 65% speed. The team has plenty of youth. They have fielded the youngest line-up in the Premier League in every week except on Sunday. The unfortunate part is that there are not enough of them who are ready for week to week Premier League wear and tear.  This is not the managers fault. Aside from absurd formation, tactics, and line-ups, the pieces he must work with is grossly limited.  

Who selects, signs, and pays the players?   At the end of the day its Ed Woodward and the Glazers.  Are they putting out a product on the pitch that is of higher or equal value than the values the supporters are trading with them for?   Before supporters can answer that question, we should be reminded that the team is worth $3.81 billion and had revenue last year in excess of $795 million according to the most recent reports.  United’s net spending with all those resources this past summer transfer window was $60 million.  

Apparently, someone within the club was bothered by all the chatter from the Twitter world and somehow let this statement leak out after Sunday’s match:

"Everyone at the club, from the owners down, is focused on competing for and winning trophies at the highest level.

"To do that, we have invested heavily in the playing squad and will continue to do so. At the same time, the exciting pool of talent coming through from our youth and academy sections is a result of increased investment in this area over the last five years.

"It's important to note that while our successful commercial operation helps drive that investment, the priority is the focus on achieving success on the pitch. Similarly, it is worth noting that we are not looking at or buying players based on their commercial appeal.

"We agree that recruitment is critical. We are committed to getting this right and there has been huge investment in this area to put our recruitment department into a position to be able to deliver the manager the players he wants. This process is significantly more effective than four to five years ago."

This statement is a delusion.  It’s an attempt, like with most everything that seems to be given to the media, to spin a false narrative.  It would take way too long to truly break this statement down, but I will start by saying two words: Paul Pogba.   He does not want to be here. The only reason why he is still here is to sell more shirts. That is it. He is only there for his “commercial appeal.”  

So, members of the jury, I have laid out the evidence of the Glazer’s treating the supporters of Manchester United egregiously.  Dippy and I will wait patiently for your verdict: Can supporters, with cause in accordance with Rule 19, divorce their spouse club Manchester United?    

Case closed.  The plaintiff rests.

Author: Keith Lisenbee, mental health professional, writer, and soccer enthusiast is from Atlanta, Georgia by way of Virginia. I was in love with soccer until Agüero destroyed my soul and Manchester United's title hopes in 2012. Came back for the World Cup in 2014 and through the use of DVR I am back with the force of orange Tic Tacs and IPAs covering the EPL, Bundesliga, MLS, and La Liga. You can follow me on Twitter @keith_lisenbee and Instagram @lisenbeekeith got more random soccer thoughts.