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Manchester United's woes help illustrate English Premier League's rise

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Saturday, August 10, 2019 – Page S1

In order to see how far the English Premier League has risen, it helps to look at how far Manchester United has fallen.

The club remains one of the most profitable ventures in the history of sport.

Last year, United turned over revenues of nearly $1-billion. Its brand is still king - one of a handful of teams that are watched and admired in every corner of the planet.

But between the frugality of its American owners and the fickleness of the market, United cannot figure out how to put together a roster suitable to the club's stature. It is as though the New York Yankees had to draw their players exclusively from the Arizona Fall League.

The club finished sixth last year and took no trophies - one of its worst results in 30 years. Paul Pogba, far and away the best player on the squad, made it clear he wanted to leave. After an excruciating summer of push-pull, he didn't get his wish.

One imagines Pogba will return refreshed and happy to continue working with a bunch of colleagues he neither likes nor rates.

United did add one major player - galumphing centre back Harry Maguire, who is now the most expensive defender in history.

Rather than prove United's bona fides (no other truly top team was interested in Maguire), it showed that both teams in Manchester have to pay a hidden tax in order to acquire talent. Only one of them can afford it.

On Thursday, United's sophomore manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, announced he'd experienced a "great feeling of relief" when the transfer window closed. That is loser talk.

Poor Solskjaer. He was brought in to save United's 2018-19 season and, for his sins, was given a permanent position. He now looks like he ages a month for every day he's in the job. By April, the ratio may be up to a year-per.

The Premier League kicks off in full on Saturday. If you plan on watching, remember that cable TV is now a zombie medium. As of this year, Canadians can only view EPL games on an internet streaming platform, DAZN.

If you choose to be cheap, here's a précis of how things will go. Manchester City or Liverpool will win it. Over the summer, City used its bottomless Emirati wallet to pad a squad already bursting with quality. City's bench might now qualify as one of the 10 best teams on Earth.

Liverpool made no significant changes, either an indicator of enormous confidence or the dithering that presages the imminent end of the fun times.

Other teams will be either good (Spurs, Arsenal, Chelsea) or interesting (Everton, Wolves). A few will be bad in an interesting way (Crystal Palace, Newcastle).

And some will be flaming disasters (Sheffield United, Norwich).

Which is also interesting.

United will likely be a smorgasbord - occasionally good, often bad, eventually a disaster, all of it interesting.

Not so long ago, the Premier League lament was that the Big Four could not be cracked. At that point, United was first among a very few equals. Then the makeup of the Big Four began to shift.

Eventually, it became the Big Six.

Now it's no longer clear who counts as a member from year to year.

All the while, the economics of world soccer were shifting at hyper-speed. Ten years ago, the most paid for a soccer player was the £80-million Real Madrid forked over to United for Cristiano Ronaldo (in retrospect, the first of what would become a steady series of surrenders). At the time, Ronaldo was 24 and arguably the best soccer player in the world.

This summer, four players went for at least that much. The most expensive of them, Joao Felix, is a teenager who has played only one season in Portugal's Primeira Liga. Atletico Madrid paid $180-million for what is effectively a flyer. That's what now counts as budget-conscious shopping.

Everyone has had to radically reconsider what qualifies as affordable. The biggest spenders of all remain Spain's royal couple - Real and Barcelona. Both clubs are owned by fan-controlled trusts. They spend what they earn, giving their eminence equilibrium. But, thanks to its enormous broadcast contracts, the Premier League is the only one in the world in which just about everyone can afford to splash out big numbers. In all, 20 teams spent $2.25-billion this summer.

That amount does not include salaries, which are rising like an out-of-control hot-air balloon.

Two events of recent years have emboldened the herd. United's long fall from prominence proved nothing lasts forever. In 2015-6, 5000-to-1 long shot Leicester won the Premier League, proving miracles do in fact happen.

The two black swans taken together flipped the internal calculus of every club. The good ones could no longer afford to take a financial breather for a season or two and still feel certain of earning a Champions League place.

The mediocre ones could no longer convince fans that good enough was good enough.

A stable ecosystem of buyers and sellers became a chaotic one made up entirely of buyers. United hasn't just been squeezed out of the market by the Bayerns and Paris Saint-Germains of the world. United is now now competing with the West Hams and Watfords.

Now everyone believes they can win. If not a title, then at least enough to better their station. Every competitor is all in, all the time.

In North America, we've grown used to the dreary up-down, contend-rebuild cycle that sports franchises have convinced us is inevitable. The advantage to business is obvious - teams can tightly control costs while simultaneously feeding fans a line about needing to lose in order to win (see under: Toronto Blue Jays).

Premier League teams have no such luxury. Their contending moment is right now, year in, year out, an absolute constant.

The relegation model gives the whole thing a Hunger Games feel.

One awful month won't just ruin your year. It might kill your club for a decade.

A while back, the superlative most often applied to the EPL was that it was the most watched sports league in the world.

Thanks to the intruding hand of the market, and to a disastrous chain of decisions by Manchester United, it is now indisputably also the world's best.

Associated Graphic

Man United finished sixth last year and took no trophies - one of its worst results in 30 years. Paul Pogba, centre, the club's best player, made it clear he wanted to leave but didn't get his wish and is set to return the club, Cathal Kelly writes.


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