‘We used to be giants, when did we stop?’ So goes the opening of Dermot Kennedy’s hit song ‘Giants’ from 2020. Most Manchester United fans know the answer: 2013, when Sir Alex Ferguson resigned as manager after winning the Premier League. That was also the last time United won a trophy.
Winning the Premier League this season seems like a (very) long shot. United already lags leaders Chelsea by 12 points. It just fired its manager, former Old Trafford legend Ole Gunnar Solskjær, and new manager Ralf Rangnick has yet to stamp his authority on the team.
But is United better suited to win a prestigious but more unpredictable cup tournament? What about the Champions League, the knockout stages of which it is about to enter as group winners?
What Are the Odds?
The bookmakers’ current favourites are Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Chelsea, in that order. To assess United’s probability of winning, we can compare it against those four clubs in three areas: squad value, average age, and aggregate national caps.
Most experts agree money is the most important factor of a club’s success. We chose 18 most expensive players, since that captures the players on the pitch in most games. The remaining are often younger players mainly there to get experience, only playing minor roles in their team’s success.
Average age is a useful but divisive comparison. Some argue you need a young team to play the high-pressure game increasingly popular in recent years. Others suggest a team that is too young lacks the nous and experience to win the biggest prize in world club football.
National caps, meanwhile, proxy the ability and experience at the highest level of a player whose value may have declined because of age.
The value of the 18 most expensive players in the United squad according to Transfermarkt is £827mn. That compares with Manchester City’s £1,017mn, Bayern’s £814mn, Liverpool’s £808mn and Chelsea’s £823mn. So Manchester City’s squad is by far the highest valued. United marginally beats Bayern, Liverpool and Chelsea.
The average age of United’s 18 most expensive players is 26.1 years. This compares with City (26.4yrs), Bayern (27.2yrs), Liverpool (26.6yrs) and Chelsea (25.6yrs). Therefore, United’s squad has a similar age structure to its main competitors, slightly younger than Bayern, Liverpool and City, and slightly older than Chelsea, but the difference is minimal.
United stands out as very experienced here. Its 18 most expensive players hold 51 caps, versus 44 for City, 48 for Bayern, 37 for Liverpool and 36 for Chelsea. Even removing United’s most international player, Cristiano Ronaldo, United’s average number of caps would come in at 41, largely aligned with the other Champions League favourites.
Digging Into the Results
United largely aligns with the favourites to win the Champions League next year on quality (value), experience (caps), and youthful energy (average age). Why, then, do bookmakers (and probably public opinion) think it so unlikely United will be credible challengers?
Maybe these criteria fail to capture something relevant about the team’s balance. Perhaps United’s value/international experience is skewed heavily towards attacking players, masking a glaring shortage elsewhere in the team.
This is true for United in two areas: right-back and central/defensive midfield. Here, United falls behind its competitors either on value or international experience. While right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka is valued at £40mn, he has no caps, with backup right-back Portuguese Diogo Dalot on a mere five caps and valued at a measly £10mn. This compares with City’s right-backs João Cancelo and Kyle Walker, valued at £55mn and £28mn, and with 31 and 65 caps respectively. Bayern boasts Benjamin Pavard at £35mn and 42 caps for world champions France, Liverpool has Trent Alexander-Arnold at £75mn and 16 caps, and Chelsea has Reece James and César Azpilicueta at £45mn and £13mn, and with 10 and 36 caps respectively.
A similar gap in value and international experience is apparent in midfield, ignoring the more outright attacking midfielders, where United is well stocked. Midfielders should protect the defence and start the build-up play and are key to the modern game. United’s central/defensive midfielders are Scott McTominay (£35mn, 28 caps), Fred (£22mn, 23 caps) and Nemanja Matić (£8mn, 48 caps).
This compares poorly with City’s Rodri (£70m, 30 caps) and İlkay Gündoğan (£40mn, 54 caps); Bayern’s Joshua Kimmich (£90mn, 64caps), Leon Goretzka (£70mn, 41 caps), Marcel Sabitzer (£32mn, 58 caps) and Corentin Tolisso (£15mn, 28 caps); Liverpool’s Fabinho (£60mn, 21 caps), Jordan Henderson (£20mn, 68 caps) and Naby Laye Keïta (£32mn, 38 caps); and Chelsea’s N’Golo Kanté (£55mn, 51 caps) and Jorginho (£45mn, 42 caps).
A Few Tweaks Away from Winning
What can we conclude from the above? First, United compares well overall with the teams currently favourites to win the Champions League in 2022 on quality, experience, and age. True, digging deeper, the squad is arguably less balanced than its competitors. It falls short in the right-back and central midfield areas versus City, Bayern, Liverpool and Chelsea. Nonetheless, this suggests minor changes, like Rangnick securing upgrades in those areas, could turn United into credible Champions League challengers.
Henrik Gullberg is a Macro Strategist and has previously pursued Macro Strategy roles at Nomura, Deutsche Bank and Calyon.
(The commentary contained in the above article does not constitute an offer or a solicitation, or a recommendation to implement or liquidate an investment or to carry out any other transaction. It should not be used as a basis for any investment decision or other decision. Any investment decision should be based on appropriate professional advice specific to your needs.)