I would argue that no one who understands soccer thinks that Manchester United should play midweek friendlies abroad. However, as has become apparent, understanding soccer is not a prerequisite of being a club executive anymore. Before I outline why I think these friendlies are a bad idea, let me assure the reader that I am not a naïve soccer purist. I respect the need for commercial revenue and expanding the brand. I appreciate that without the promise of emerging markets, I would not have been able to watch my beloved club play in a sold-out Michigan stadium earlier this summer. I realize that without revenue money, we would not have been able to attract the likes of Radamel Falcao and Angel di Maria in spite of not having Champions league football. However, I still believe that the aim for United has to be quality soccer before increased revenue. And, I assume everyone reading this will agree with that.
Let’s get to why United are considering these games at all. United would play midweek friendlies to generate the additional income that would counterbalance the missing Champions League money. With the background of Glazer’s loan and the massive transfer fees paid out this summer, money needs to be generated. The next question is, where would they go? There have been reports of friendlies against Milan and other underachieving European giants, but likely destinations would be emerging markets where European soccer is hitting the exponential phase of growth. Additionally, these markets would need to have the financial incentives of attracting United. These include a large fan base, financial capital, big stadia and advertising opportunities. Therefore, the likes of USA, China, Australia, the middle east and India are possible destinations. Based on previous pre-seasons in USA, China and Australia, Manchester United’s financial-planners will consider those countries to be exceptionally good targets for hosting friendlies. The middle-eastern countries are viable candidates based solely on their incredible capital. India, on the other hand, is the sleeping giant of soccer growth. The south-east asian country is about to unleash its own soccer league which has been modeled on the vastly successful Indian premier league (cricket). There are stadia in India like ‘Salt Lake Stadium’ in Calcutta which can hold 120,000 people. And, these stadia often sell-out for local derbies, and would have no trouble selling out for mighty Manchester United.
So, yes, playing games in other countries would undoubtedly generate some serious income through tickets and commercial activities. However, the travel involved in getting to the aforementioned countries brings us to the first reason United should not be involved with playing these revenue-generating friendlies.
The toll tax of travel: While playing abroad will undoubtedly generate income for the club, it will take a massive toll on player fitness. One advantage of playing in the champions league is that unless your team is playing in Russia/Ukraine, the players do not have to adjust to marked changes in time zone. This is important as there are often only three days between midweek champions league and weekend league games. Games in the aforementioned countries would involve time zone changes of up to 12 hours. This would have a devastating effect on player performances. Additionally, long flights are far from ideal for professional footballers. Issues as serious as deep-vein thrombosis are associated with repeated long flights. Other intangible issues such as unnecessary time spent away from families, emotional stresses, etc. should also be considered.
Player injuries: Other than the jet lag, the players will be playing an extra game. Given that United’s players are rather injury-prone (especially the defenders), an additional game could stretch an already-bare squad. In fact, I cannot think of a game where we have not lost a player to an injury; which may be an issue the United staff will need to address. Based on past pre-season games, it is possible that some of the games will be played on artificial pitches, which would increase the propensity for injuries even further. Differences in training facilities, diet, etc. may also play a role in exacerbating overall player health.
The lack of challenge: One argument made for the utility of midweek games is that it would allow the squad to play in real-game scenarios without having the pressure of needing results. However, the level of opposition in these games will occlude any real progress from this United team. The big-name players are less likely to care about performances and results, thereby producing little footballing anabasis from Louis van Gaal’s side. This year’s “successful” pre-season showed us that playing inferior opposition and low-stake matches are not indicative of progress of the team. To use a wrestling analogy, United playing markedly inferior opposition will be no better than a set of squash matches.
An angry dutchman: Van Gaal hinted at his displeasure at the frenetic travel arrangements during United’s pre-season. Traveling far distances for pointless friendlies would be unacceptable to the dutchman, in spite of Richard Arnold’s suggestions that van Gaal is conscious of the commercial requirements of the club. Van Gaal is a training-ground manager who tinkers with training regimes and would consider time spent traveling as time spent away from training. Undoubtedly, this United team needs to spend more time understanding and implementing van Gaal’s many machinations.
United are poorer on the pitch than off it: On paper, United’s forward line is the best the club has seen in the Premier League era. Form aside, a Juan Mata-Robin van Persie-Wayne Rooney-Falcao-Di Maria axis supersedes the counter-attacking maestros of the ‘08 team (Rooney-Ronaldo-Tevez) or the treble winning team (Solskjaer, Sheringham, Yorke, Cole). However, it is a fair assessment that the current team needs defensive shoring up and midfield balance. Currently, the team is reliant on the individual brilliance of players, as opposed to a team like Chelsea; an efficient assemblage of individual parts. In order for United to regain a top four spot, the team will need to improve markedly. And, this is only achievable after time spent on the training ground.
Sets a scary precedent for the future: If United do play these friendlies and end up recouping most of the approximate 10% drop in European revenue, what would that mean for the future? Would clubs like United think about stepping away from the champions league and playing glorified friendlies? Would they consider setting up a mini-league with the likes of Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Barcelona, where they would play games in different countries on a rotational basis? These seem like absurd ideas to us soccer fanatics, but refer back to what I stated at the start of the article – “Understanding soccer is not a prerequisite of being a soccer executive.” The Glazers (and Woodward) have demonstrated that they are capable of out-of-the-box thinking with their revenue generation. That fact alone gives gravitas to these seemingly rhetorical questions.
We are in the midst of a mutating soccer world where financial considerations are becoming increasingly salient. United’s decision to play midweek friendlies may prove to be a tipping point. There are numerous reasons why United should not be playing these friendlies. And, yet if we find Falcao squaring up against Sunil Chhetri on a cool January afternoon in India, money will have definitively won.