It’s kind of cute, if in a sad sort of way. Manchester United, once the biggest name in the game, chasing after superstars in the press like a giddy child racing after lightning bugs in the night, hoping to nab one or two like the big clubs can but knowing deep down that it won’t actually happen.
For a good laugh, take a look at some of the headlines linking United to some of the players they’d be interested in attaining in the closing weeks of the transfer window: “United to make final Bale offer - sources”; “Is this big clue Thomas Muller is signing for Man United?”; “‘Louis van Gaal will press on with £240 million pursuit of Neymar.’” Quite the shopping list there, van Gaal. Too bad not a one of them makes a lick of sense, let alone has a chance in hell of actually happening.
While Bale’s time in Madrid has been a bit shaky—and only a bit; remember, they did win the Champions League the year before last thanks to a Bale goal that broke the draw in extra time—he still has no reason to leave. United would have you believe that Bale has yet to fully acclimate to life in Spain, doesn’t feel valued by the rest of his teammates, sees the competition for attacking midfield places, and would prefer to go where he could be the unquestioned talisman at another big club as the first name in the team sheet and first name sung by adoring fans.
But then you remember that he’s already at the most famous club in the world, remains the pet project of the all-powerful club president who will stop at nothing to see his Chosen One succeed, has a new manager who has promised to do everything to get Bale back to his Tottenham best, and has a way, way better chance of winning hardware with Real Madrid than with Manchester United. There’s not a chance he’d give up Madrid right as they are doubling down on him.
Thomas Müller’s case makes even less sense. The given reason he’d want to leave Bayern Munich is that he reportedly doesn’t get along too well with manager Pep Guardiola and...well, that’s literally the only reason. He’s the German national team’s best player, features for his country’s best team, the only club he’s ever known, and is still regarded as a critical component of Guardiola’s Bayern team. Plus, Guardiola doesn’t look likely to stick around in Munich after this season, so even if Müller doesn’t get along with his manager (a situation I think is vastly overstated) he just has to bide his time. Everyone with the club knows Müller will be with Bayern way longer than Guardiola will, and unless United bowled over the club and the player with outlandish transfer fee and salary offers, it doesn’t even make sense why anyone would even take their call.
The Neymar rumors are probably the most laughable of all, because of the obvious reason it’s even been floated. United would naturally love to have the best young player in the world, along with all his marketability. Neymar, on the other hand, has zero realistic temptation to leave the best team in Europe, one of the best forward lines in the history of the sport, all so he can play alongside Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata.
Neymar does, however, have his own good reasons to be mentioned in headlines with United: for a little over a year now, he has been negotiating a contract extension. In the earlier parts of last season, it made sense that Barça’s leadership was cautious about giving the Brazilian a huge raise coming off his first season in Spain. As the year progressed, Neymar, Lionel Messi, and Luis Suárez reached their potential as the deadliest attacking trio in the world. Neymar began to prove all the hype surrounding him has been justified, which made Barcelona more inclined to lock him down for a couple more years. Everything we heard toward the end of the season was that Neymar’s extension was a matter of when, not if.
Since the end of the year, we haven’t heard too much about it. Next thing you know, United are “interested” in Neymar, who “would be open” to a move, and here we are. Manchester United are something like the New York Knicks are to big-name NBA free agents: they’re always there lurking in the background, supposedly ready to offer all kinds of cash and glory; an offer that’s just realistic enough to put doubt into the team the player really wants to go to. United are merely leverage; Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos have used them the same way.
None of this is quite United’s fault, outside of their culpability for letting their team drop from Champions League finalists just a few years ago to what they’ve become in the post-Alex Ferguson era. Before you can sign great players in their prime, you’ve got to be mentioned with them, so the rumors really do further their interests to some degree, even if they’re obviously nonsense. And if the players they have managed to bring in—guys like Memphis Depay and Ander Herrera and Morgan Schneiderlin—do continue to progress, it will be easier to convince real stars to sign up.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t laugh at them until they do get back there, though. Manchester United, the club that not that long ago was the hottest date in town, now finds itself hoping to merely get turned down by the most desirable players just so people think they’re in their league.