This has been a tough old week for Manchester United. They were knocked out of the Carling Cup against Sunderland, they are in 7th place in the Premier League and, to top it all, they were overtaken by FC Bayern in the Deloitte Football Money League – a ranking of the world’s football clubs by the amount of revenue they make from football operations.
It is perhaps this last defeat which will hurt the most. Indeed, as I write, raucous Bayern fans are rioting happily in the street, rejoicing in their final revenge for the horrors of 1999. “Fuck you, United!” they are chanting, “You can have as much injury time as you like, but you can’t generate as much revenue from football operations as we do!” Super Bayern. Super Bayern. Hey.
United, meanwhile, have softened the blow to their sense of financial superiority by showing that – less revenue than Bayern or otherwise – they can still flash the cash. Licking the wounds of their pride, they determinedly bought Juan Mata from Chelsea for 37m pounds, and – just to prove a point – flew him to his medical in a helicopter.
There was something delightfully self aware about United’s new midfield signing descending on Manchester from the clouds, his three day stubble and ever serene facial expression making him look like a sort of Hipster Jesus. For if anything in football is in need of a messianic figure, it is United’s midfield.
This is one of the major arguments with which one can defend David Moyes, despite his nightmare start to his Manchester United career. Over the last years of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign, United’s midfield got progressively weaker. Not only did the likes of Keane, Scholes and Ronaldo leave, but Ferguson’s famed eye for a transfer seemed to wane. Of all the midfield signings Ferguson made since 2006, Michael Carrick has proved the most successful. Yes. Michael Carrick.
Maybe, like many frustrated geniuses, Ferguson was just trying to give himself a challenge. For a manager of his calibre, it was too easy to win the league with good midfielders. Far more fun to see if he could win it with Eric Djemba-Djemba, Kleberson, Tom Cleverly and a 92 year old Paul Scholes, coaxed ironically out of retirement.
That genius, however, has eluded Moyes. The signing of Mata was desperately needed, and it is for that reason that the club were willing to pay so much money to their rivals in Chelsea. The Spaniard, who fell out of favour with José Mourinho this season, is a wonderfully gifted player, but with a lack of match practice, 37m is a colossal price tag. Chelsea will be smiling all the way to the bank. But hey, where would Chelsea be without their big cheques and evil smiles?
Don't think, however, that Chelsea treated Mata poorly. The Spaniard may not have played a major role in José Mourinho's plans, but the Portuguese manager wasn't entirely ruthless. All through the period in which Mata was sitting on the bench, Mourinho could be seen strutting around in a Chelsea training shirt with the initials "JM" embroidered on its chest. If that wasn't a touching gesture of personal support, then I don't know what it was.
On the other side of London, meanwhile, Arsene Wenger did his usual trick of appearing like a disgruntled golden eagle, and calmly made the point that – given that Chelsea have now played United twice this season – giving them Mata is much less of a risk. Politely and eloquently, the sage old Alsatian suggested that this may be something that the timetablers could look at when it comes to the January transfer window.
Not that it was reported as such. According to the reports all over the English media, Wenger had moaned that the transfer was unfair. Bloody French – always looking for excuses. Oh well, he couldn’t have expected any less. Headlines writers have about as much respect for context as Felix Magath does for frugality.
In any case, Mata is now at United, and has the weight of the world on his shoulders. For the dignity of this grand old football club is at stake. If Mata does not deliver, then United may not qualify for the Champions League. And if that does not happen, then Lord knows, how will they ever be in a position to once again generate more revenue from football operations than FC Bayern? For all self-respecting United fans, it is a fate not worth thinking about.