Manchester United are still waiting for an end to their takeover saga nearly a full year after their owners, the Glazer family, announced they were exploring options for outside investment.
After a protracted saga in 2023, it appears that British businessman Sir Jim Ratcliffe is the man most likely to buy a stake in the club. With Qatar’s Sheikh Jassim withdrawing his offer to buy 100 per cent of United, Ratcliffe’s approach is said to be worth around $1.57 billion for 25 per cent of United’s shares.
As part of his bid, the INEOS founder is reportedly interested in being granted control of the footballing side of the business. While it might sound absurd for the owners of a football club to give up management of the football, it makes sense for the Glazers: such a deal would allow someone else to front the most scrutinised area of the business, while the American family retains overall control.
The club’s board will need to ratify any bid from Ratcliffe, though, and this still has not happened. It means a cloud of uncertainty still hovers over the 20-time champions of England, and results on the pitch are suffering alongside this. United’s 3-0 home defeat to Manchester City on October 29 was bruising, embarrassing and laid bare all the footballing problems at the club.
If he watched the game at Old Trafford, Ratcliffe may well be wondering if a change in manager is warranted. Erik ten Hag had a good first season at United, but, amid an injury crisis and the uncertainty of the ownership, United’s performances throughout 2023/24 have been desperately poor. They lost half of their opening 10 games of the league season, which hasn’t happened since the days before Sir Alex Ferguson became manager; they exited the Carabao Cup to Newcastle United in humbling fashion; and their Champions League campaign is all but over after three defeats in four group games.
If he takes control of the football side of things, Ratcliffe is going to face a serious challenge. So, what will he do? Will Ten Hag be sacked? Will there be a new sporting director? Will United make any signings, or sell any star names?
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Erik ten Hag is undoubtedly under pressure at United. After nine defeats in all competitions in 2023/24, they already look a long way short of challenging for the Premier League or reaching the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League.
There are also growing concerns about the style of play under Ten Hag – or lack of it. United have not been on a consistent run of form since March 2023: after a run of just one defeat in 20 games, and victories over Manchester City, Barcelona, and Newcastle United in the Carabao Cup final, the Red Devils were destroyed 7-0 at Anfield by Liverpool. Their performances have deteriorated since.
Defeats this season to Crystal Palace, Brighton and Hove Albion, Bayern Munich, Galatasaray, Man City and Newcastle have laid bare the issues in the team. So, too, did the 4-3 loss at Copenhagen, in which they had complete control until Marcus Rashford’s red card. While Ten Hag has had to grapple with a truly appalling injury crisis — even emergency loan signing Sergio Reguilon has been laid low — there are legitimate concerns that he is not getting more out of his players. That means talk of him being fired is growing.
Of course, it’s not clear yet whether Ratcliffe would make that decision, but if he watched the derby defeat to City, it would surely be on his mind whether Ten Hag is right to lead the team going forward. Even before he came the Glazers’ apparent preferred bidder, there was speculation that Ratcliffe wanted to put Graham Potter, the former Chelsea manager, in charge of the United first team. However, the Daily Mirror claimed prior to the Copenhagen loss that Ratcliffe’s priority will not be to look for a new manager once his investment in the club is ratified. It was also reported in The Sun that former manager Alex Ferguson will push for United to keep Ten Hag in place and give him time to turn things around.
Ten Hag certainly needs improved performances and results to ease the pressure on his shoulders and he may have a 1-0 victory over Luton Town helped somewhat. But viewed through a ruthless business lens, it would not be too surprising if Ratcliffe came on board and decided he wanted his own appointments in key positions. He is already reportedly planning to make Jean-Claude Blanc, the man in charge of INEOS’ sporting portfolio, the new United CEO, to replace Richard Arnold.
Regardless of Ratcliffe’s bid being ratified, United’s transfer business in January is going to be difficult. Simply put, the money isn’t there.
Their most recent financial accounts laid bare that the combined sum of money they owe now exceeds $1.3bn despite the club making record revenues for the year ending June 30, 2023 (and they still made a loss for the year). They owe around $384m in transfer payments for previous signings and their gross debt ($650m) is greater than their revenue.
There is also uncertainty around how exactly Ratcliffe will fund his $1.57bn investment in the club. If INEOS does not front the cost, he will require financial backing from third parties; how such loans could be repaid is unclear. Some reports suggest Ratcliffe will at least commit around $307m to improving the football structure at United — a sum that he will pay himself, or via INEOS.
Under Ten Hag, United have spent roughly $467m on signings and only recouped around $83.6m in sales. For comparison, over the same period, Manchester City have spent around $419m in transfer fees but generated $292m in player sales to offset that expense. United must now tread very carefully not to fall foul of financial fair play regulations set by UEFA and the Premier League.
Simply put, this means United will have very, very little to spend in the January transfer window unless they are able to generate funds through player sales, regardless of Ratcliffe’s potential deal.
*Fees via transfermarkt
United have found it very difficult to get good value for players leaving the club in recent years — another indicator of their underperformance on the pitch and their inability to find a coherent transfer strategy.
Yet they must sell, and sell well if they want to sign more players in January.
Harry Maguire and Scott McTominay were the most likely to leave in the previous window but the only interest came from West Ham, which never materialised into anything concrete. Maguire in particular did not want to leave anyway and both have since got back into the first team.
Anthony Martial is now a back-up striker to Rasmus Hojlund but his wages will put off suitors. The same can be said for Jadon Sancho, who has been frozen out by Ten Hag after publicly accusing the manager of lying about why he was dropped from the matchday squad to face Arsenal. Of course, he may well come back into the picture if Ten Hag is replaced: there are suggestions Sancho will refuse any permanent move away from United in January as he believes he will outlast the manager at the club.
Otherwise, United’s options to raise cash are slim unless they want to part with key players. Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford and Alejandro Garnacho are three stars who would earn a sizeable transfer fee despite their poor recent form, but selling any of them would weaken United significantly.
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Ratcliffe, 70, is a British billionaire best known as the founder of chemical company INEOS. He also claims to have been a boyhood Manchester United fan.
He hails from Oldham, Greater Manchester and is a trained chemical engineer — his entry point into the industry where he has made his fortune.
In 1992, Ratcliffe mortgaged his house to lead a buyout of a BP chemicals business, laying the foundations for INEOS, the chemicals giant he founded in 1998 when he purchased a BP plant.
Headquartered in London, INEOS manufactures a wide range of products, including synthetic oils and plastics and solvents used to make antibiotics and insulin.
It is also a significant presence in the shale sector in the UK, boasting 600 ft “Dragon Ships” that were the first vessels to transport shale gas from the USA to Europe.
INEOS’ growing scope and Ratcliffe’s burgeoning wealth gave him the opportunity to invest in various sporting passion projects.
According to Forbes, Ratcliffe has a personal fortune of $18.7 billion.
As of October 2023, this made him the richest person in the United Kingdom and the 86th richest in the world.