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When does drama stop becoming enough for Manchester United?

Manchester United slumped to a humiliating defeat away to Brighton and Hove Albion for the second time in just over three months, but the very next day their share price on the New York Stock Exchange hit the $24 mark, a new record high for the club.

Any team who finish runners-up to a peerless Manchester City and reach the FA Cup final are being held to a seriously high standard if they are to be considered failures on the pitch, but clearly there’s more to it than that. The style of football played under Jose Mourinho is the sticking point for many fans, whilst the manager’s behaviour is the sickener for many more. It’s impossible to paint this as anything other than a particularly testing time at Old Trafford despite the commercial success.

The choppy third-season waters have arrived and Mourinho’s angsty demeanour is doing nothing to help the mood. But United have never been healthier off the pitch, matters on it are under the spectre of a toxic cloud about to spew acidic rain.

Rarely has football seen such a counter-intuitive situation. How can a club be so successful and yet feel so utterly bereft of positive feeling? How can there be this gap between the two faces of Manchester United.

Partly that’s because results during the Mourinho era haven’t been that terrible in the greater scheme of things – United have returned to the Champions League and established themselves as the second-best side in the Premier League, at least for now. It’s also partly down to the Premier League’s TV rights deals, which are astronomical and set only to grow (even if the domestic rights have plateaued or even tailed off, overseas rights are expected to grow even higher over the next three-year cycle).

Off the pitch, though, United have also embarked on an aggressive pursuit of lucrative new sponsors in territories all over the world. They’ve also embraced their self-styled status as a ‘content’ provider: that is, as far as the suits are concerned they are an entertainment brand these days.

The interactions they can get on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are directly related to the money they can bring in from brand sponsors who want to get their product in front of millions of engaged fans; fans who may be more sympathetic if that product came with an endorsement from their football club.

The upside of all of this means that Ed Woodward and Richard Arnold, running the commercial side of the business, are able to say that they are doing their jobs perfectly; the parts they are responsible for have never been healthier. Yet Jose Mourinho might tell you that they’re ruining his chances of success by limiting the manager to playing staff who simply aren’t up to the job, despite whatever money they’ve spent in the past.

This is where things should come to a head. You’d think that United can’t continue this way forever, but they might be able to for a very long time. Football fans aren’t ‘fans’ in the same way TV show fans are ‘fans’. You might love a top Netflix series, but you might also recognise when it’s jumped the shark and become a waste of your time. Most people would think twice about calling you much of a ‘fan’ if you treated your football club in the same way.

As a result, do United really need to be successful on the pitch in order to keep up their growth off it? So long as fans keep tuning in to the soap opera they can continue to grow off the pitch without really having to worry what happens on it.

And there’s certainly drama to tune into. The question is whether that’s good enough reason to keep Mourinho in his job.

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Article title: When does drama stop becoming enough for Manchester United?

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