MARTIN SAMUEL: Man United in 2022 – a club of Twitter transfers, TikTok trials and Facebook football

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Ismaila Sarr scored for Watford from the halfway line. Almost instantly it was made known that Darren Fletcher of Manchester United was in the stand at West Brom, watching. 

In the second-half Sarr took a poor penalty, easily saved. Is that United out now? Have they checked the reaction on social media? This is what seems to matter most these days. 

It’s the logical journey. United increasingly appear to sign players for their social media traction, so it figures that they will ditch others for the same reasons. Marko Arnautovic wasn’t exactly trending positively at the start of the week, before that deal went dead. 

And, no, it wasn’t just United loyalists who were unimpressed with Arnautovic. In a summer when Manchester City have secured Erling Haaland, Liverpool bought Darwin Nunez and Chelsea prised Raheem Sterling from the champions, a 33-year-old late of the Chinese Super League seemed to sum up United’s malaise. 

Yet Erik ten Hag wanted him, and he’s the manager. It’s bad enough that his employers have failed to attract his prime target Frenkie de Jong, now he gets his homework marked by Twitter? What message does this send? How can anyone run a football club via a committee of 100,000 or more?

Social media played a part in Manchester United not pursuing a move for Marko Arnautovic

Social media played a part in Manchester United not pursuing a move for Marko Arnautovic 

United fans on social media were not disappointed at news Adrien Rabiot’s move has hit a snag

On Thursday, the move for Adrien Rabiot of Juventus looked to have hit a snag over personal terms. This did not meet with social media’s disapproval. It’s fair to say some think United could do better. Maybe they could but, either way, that’s what it’s like out there, a swirl of opinions, not all of them educated. 

So what are United supposed to do now? Celebrate with those that are happy the deal could collapse? Post a drawing board with a new list of targets and see who wins the vox pop?

Louis Van Gaal advised Ten Hag to join a football club, not a commercial club, but even he may have understated the absence of identity at United. 

United manager Erik ten Hag wanted Arnautovic before the club backed out of any move

United manager Erik ten Hag wanted Arnautovic before the club backed out of any move

They have long been a club wedded to commerce but at least they made their own mistakes. This has been coming. 

Remember when Alexis Sanchez signed and United boasted to shareholders about how many hits the video announcement received? That’s the beginning of the end right there. That’s what happens when a club has few real achievements to trumpet, so places importance on trivia. Cynics would argue Cristiano Ronaldo’s social media profile made him attractive last summer, too.

So now, here we are. Facebook football. Twitter transfers. Trials by TikTok. This is Manchester United 2022, enjoying the choices they have made. 

Sympathy but no solution for Serena on having more children

Biology is important; or at least it always seems to be when writing about transgender participation in women’s sport. Yet when Serena Williams announces she is stepping away from tennis to have more children, suddenly, biology is bunk. 

Williams says it is unfair to have to choose between tennis and a family and plenty agree. So what is the alternative? We can discuss fairer deals for women in many workplaces but, in sport, certain boundaries will always remain. Even if Williams employed an army of helpers, even if her partner stayed home, the potential effect of pregnancy on an athlete’s body is inescapable. 

Williams had three bouts of emergency surgery as a result of her first pregnancy. She had her stomach cut open, her womb cut open, a filter inserted in a major vein to prevent blood clots and a hematoma removed. She was six weeks in bed, she had a Caesarean section, she suffered a pulmonary embolism and, later, postpartum depression. Any and all of this would be hell for a person in a desk job; for an elite athlete it is potentially career-changing. And, yes, it’s different for men. 

Tennis star Serena Williams announced she will retire from tennis to try for a second baby

Tennis star Serena Williams announced she will retire from tennis to try for a second baby

Roger Federer is father to two sets of twins and won three Grand Slam titles after they were born. 

As Williams pointed out, Tom Brady is 45 and still quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Justin Verlander of the Houston Astros is 39 and the best pitcher in baseball right now. Both are fathers. It doesn’t matter professionally. They are men.

And it isn’t fair; but it’s biology. We may have sympathy for the choices facing Williams but we do not have solutions. Even more than the way the world works, it’s the way we work as biological specimens that disadvantages women. 

Equally, at 40, Williams is not winning as many tennis matches as she used to, either. She leaves as the greatest of all time – but this gradual retreat is biology, too. 

Timo failed but at least he tried… unlike Rom 

It didn’t work out for Timo Werner at Chelsea, and that is a pity. 

The fans recognised how hard he tried, though. They always cheered his appearance from the bench, commiserated rather than mocked, when once again it didn’t go right.

Romelu Lukaku was different. He was a high maintenance, and very expensive, pest, who didn’t look fit enough and showed no great desire to prove otherwise. 

The only thing he had in common with Werner was an underwhelming goal total; Lukaku 15 across all competitions last season, Werner 11.

Timo Werner was a failure at Chelsea but in a more admirable way than Romelu Lukaku

Timo Werner was a failure at Chelsea but in a more admirable way than Romelu Lukaku

Both men are now at their former clubs, Werner back at RB Leipzig, Lukaku with Inter Milan. Unsurprisingly, though, it is Lukaku who is more outspoken about the way his move panned out. He says he feels anger. 

‘In one year, everyone has forgotten about the things I am capable of doing on the pitch,’ he says.

And whose fault is that? The way of ensuring your skills are not forgotten is to demonstrate them, regularly and Lukaku didn’t. He lost his way with Manchester United after a blistering opening spell, too. 

Inter suits him because Serie A is a weaker league and he was hankering for a return before last season was halfway done. He lost his place in the starting line-up and demonstrated little inclination to work to regain it. So, yes, much of his worth as a striker has been forgotten in England; because he so rarely showed any. Werner was a failure, too – but in a much more admirable way.

Winks shows how quickly it can all go 

When Harry Winks made his England debut in Lithuania he was lauded for a man of the match performance. In his second game, England beat Spain in Seville. 

His next eight starts were against United States, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Kosovo, Wales, Republic of Ireland, Belgium and Iceland, ending in eight wins and an aggregate score of 32-0. Yet that last game was November 18, 2020, and Winks hasn’t played internationally since. 

He’s now so far out of the reckoning at Tottenham, he no longer trains with the first-team as the club looks for buyers. Things can go very wrong, very quickly, in football. 

Listen to Karim and stop using Ronaldo as a handy excuse 

Karim Benzema scored again this week, as Real Madrid lifted their first trophy of the season, the UEFA Super Cup. 

More than any player he has blossomed since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo. And no doubt he is asked many times if his former team-mate held him back. 

‘It’s true I’ve scored many more goals,’ Benzema said. ‘But when Cristiano was here we had a different style of play and I was providing more assists. But he really helped me, on and off the pitch.’

Karim Benzema picked up from where he left off with a goal in the Super Cup against Frankfurt

It was Gareth Bale’s agent, Jonathan Barnett, who started this preposterous notion that Ronaldo’s brilliance came at the expense of those around him. Then Ronaldo left and Bale singularly failed to fill his shoes. 

The same argument has been advanced at Juventus – who didn’t improve one place, or win a trophy, without him – and now at Manchester United, who started him on the bench on Sunday and promptly lost at home to Brighton.

Ronaldo has been a nuisance this summer. He is undoubtedly not the force he was. In his prime, though, at Real Madrid it made perfect sense that the team worked to serve him and Benzema recognises that. He knows his goals are all the more vital simply because Ronaldo has gone.

Elation around women’s Euros triumph could deal a blow to hockey and netball

England’s hockey teams have written to the Prime Ministerial candidates, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, urging them to guarantee two hours of physical exercise for schools each week. 

The women’s team won gold at the Commonwealth Games, the men bronze. 

‘We want to inspire the next generation and make real change in this country,’ the letter states. 

Yet where is all this sport going to sit, given that the women’s football team are also demanding prominence and opportunity for their sport? 

There is a very real danger that the euphoria around the women’s Euros will deal a blow to hockey and netball. We get it, football is more accessible – but not every girl wants to play it. There has to be opportunity for all and that means finding a balance. It’s never been our strong point.

England's women's hockey team won Commonwealth Games gold in Birmingham this week

England’s women’s hockey team won Commonwealth Games gold in Birmingham this week

Rugby’s schools of hard knocks 

What a ludicrous insinuation from Eddie Jones that independent schools fail to build character and leadership.  

Given that rugby, hockey and cricket are staples at many of them, it seems the whole curriculum is about developing the sort of chaps that charge towards the enemy without a backwards glance. Rugby: stand underneath this dropping object as six blokes run at you full pelt. Hockey: charge towards a rock hard ball which a chap is about to wallop with a stick as fiercely as he can. Cricket: stand at that end while this fellow slings down a small red missile in an effort to rearrange your face. 

Many private school parents would be highly delighted if junior did not ever again come home with multiple concussions, a dislocated finger, a broken toe, a broken nose or two broken ribs from his efforts on the playing field*, and if Jones would like to ban all public schoolboys from England’s age group sides, one imagines he would have their full support. But he won’t.

*List of injuries sustained by A. Samuel playing school hockey (the toe) and school rugby (the rest).

England head coach Eddie Jones sparked controversy with his comments on private schooling

England head coach Eddie Jones sparked controversy with his comments on private schooling

Qatar World Cup deserves drab curtain-raiser 

With the contempt for the paying customer that is their trademark, FIFA has brought forward the start of the 2022 World Cup by one day. 

It is because the hosts, Qatar, felt slighted at not being offered the traditional grand opening slot. So here it is: Qatar v Ecuador, Sunday, November 20. Arguably the least anticipated curtain-raiser in World Cup history, and no competition deserves it more. 

Water companies show football the perils of Government regulation 

As Britain heads towards a widespread hosepipe ban, taps run dry in Oxfordshire and Thames Water admits losing almost a quarter of its supply in leaks, do not forget this is another industry graced by a government regulator of the type now heading football’s way. OFWAT in this case. They seem to be missing a T. 

It’s the curse of the Everykits… 

Newcastle will wear training shirts at Brighton on Saturday. 

Their first kit, black and white stripes, is considered to clash with Brighton’s blue and white strip. Their second strip is blue, and their third white. Both have been ruled out. Newcastle will now wear a pale blue training shirt. 

Leaving aside that there seems no reason why both clubs couldn’t wear their first choice kits, how ridiculous that teams should have three strips these days and not find one that is a distinctive, unique change? The rise of the Everykits is to blame; everyone looks the same. 

Newcastle will wear their training top against Brighton in the Premier League on Saturday

Newcastle will wear their training top against Brighton in the Premier League on Saturday

BBC’s football results axe will erase smaller teams from memory

One of the reasons the demise of football clubs is so sad is that, however lowly, league status puts a town on the map. 

How often do you hear of Rushden or Workington, now their teams are divorced even from the National League? So that is another sliver of identity lost with the end of the football results on BBC Radio. 

Those broadcast minutes were wholly egalitarian: Rochdale afforded the same time as Arsenal. Slowly, these names will be erased from memory. There was once South Shields, Merthyr Town, Ashington, Nelson – and they all still exist. We just don’t hear from them any more. 

Ashes scheduling shows where the ECB’s priorities lie 

For the first time in 139 years, the 2023 Ashes series will not have a Test starting in August – to make sure there is enough room for The Hundred. 

The ECB were embarrassed that Jonny Bairstow and Ben Stokes pulled out of the competition this year, to focus on the Tests with South Africa. It shows where the ECB’s priorities lie now, when it is up to the players to defend what is truly the essence of the game. 

Sven’s former flame back on our screens 

Preparing for another stint on reality television – wasn’t she supposed to be a lawyer? – Nancy Dell’Olio is once more in the public eye. 

‘Being single is a state of mind,’ she explains. ‘I am in a relationship, but I consider myself a single person.’ Say what you like about Sven Goran Eriksson – you can’t claim he couldn’t get a message across. 

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