Is Manchester United really a step up?
Last week, in the context of the well-worn ‘Hugo Lloris to Manchester United’ rumours, the former France manager Raymond Domenech gave his two cents as follows:
“Tottenham is a big club — it is not the biggest. Manchester United qualified for the Champions League, but I can’t see really the difference with Tottenham. For me, it’s Chelsea, Arsenal or Manchester City. Because I think Manchester United is no more a big club, in England, for me. I think like that. I think Arsenal will be every time a big club, Chelsea also — City is becoming a big club — but I think United is with Tottenham, with the other clubs. Not one of the biggest clubs, so there’s no difference.”
So are Manchester United really no longer a big club? Are they and Spurs really on a par?
This is a fairly easy one. Of course Man United are still a bigger club. It is a commonplace of pseudo-football-philosophers to ponder ‘what makes a big club’, but the evidence here is pretty open and shut. United have won more trophies than Spurs, they have a bigger stadium, a bigger global fanbase, more money, and, in terms of the hypothetical cost of buying a squad, it would be difficult to argue that they do not have better players. Yet Domenech’s comments, though undoubtedly provocative by design, raise interesting questions about the nature of success in football. After all, Tottenham did finish above United last season, and this season the two teams were part of a similar collective scrapping it out for fourth place. So is the time always ripe to judge the balance of power at this precise moment? Is it more pressing to ask not ‘what’ makes a big club but ‘when’ they are made?
Now, one would have heard many a wise drunk in the corner of the pub say that a team is only as good as their last season. The nature of the game is indeed that success is fleeting: no sooner has a club got their hands on a trophy than they have to give it back and start again; come the beginning of August, every team goes back to 0 points. Despite this, almost every football experience seems to suggest the opposite. Fans love to conduct their own myth-making, narrativizing the good and ignoring the bad. In this vein, we get the ‘hiccup’, the ‘anomaly’; and some seasons (usually 50+ games, let’s remember) simply don’t seem to count. Many understandably winced at comments from the Liverpool community at the tail-end of last season that the club was back where it ‘should’ be (of which being above Tottenham was a popular measure). But even a cursory glance at league tables will show that Tottenham finished above Liverpool for five of the last six seasons (2009-2010; 2010-2011; 2011-2012; 2012-2013; 2014-2015), and that even Everton finished above their rivals in 2011-2012 and 2012-2013. True, Liverpool won a trophy in that time that neither Everton nor Spurs did. But, aside from returning to the question of how to measure success in football, the dangerous and unstable nature of the ‘hiccup’ can be seen. When is a ‘hiccup’ not a ‘hiccup’? When does an anomaly actually become a wholly different trajectory?
We only have to look at clubs like Nottingham Forest (who apparently show new players and managers their European Cups as soon as they walk in the door) or Newcastle (50,000 Geordies is a big number, but their club hasn’t won a major trophy for half a century) to see how long an ‘anomaly’ can go on for. Or rather, how much fans still expect to be a ‘big club’ despite a long period showing them otherwise. Fans remain convinced that they are still the club they once remembered, even if recent events haven’t gone their way. So it can be seen that if United don’t win anything in the next couple seasons, it may very well be the turn of Liverpool fans to sneer insults back about clinging onto their history.
All of this conjectural, of course, and should remain the purview of a drunken debate on a Saturday night. Nonetheless, we should perhaps recognise the instability of making a narrative in football; of smoothing out the details to link the past to the present and lazily predict the future. Two years ago, when Dortmund faced Bayern at Wembley, a time of German dominance was upon us. A year later, two Spanish teams were in the final, and critics predicted the resurgence of Spain. Again, the fleeting and unpredictable nature of success (especially in knock-out competitions) comes to the fore. Maybe football doesn’t work like that. Maybe a team really is only as good as their last season, or at most the last two or three, and the further back you go, the less success should be held to have any bearing upon the future.
Or, at least, maybe the next time you make a confident statement about your club, you should check the last few seasons first.