They support Manchester United, but they are anything but united. The vocal and fractured fan base of one of the world's best supported football clubs did not hold back after the club announced that its storied No. 7 shirt—worn by club legends like George Best, Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo—was being handed to new signing Mason Mount.
Across social media platforms, the announcement yielded more than 85,000 comments in the first 20 hours. Even while scrolling through them rapidly, some of the comments were hard to miss. “Won't be buying a united shirt this season, absolute joke of a team,” said one fan. Another said that even the United social media manager who posted this should be fired. While one fan said this was the worst decision in modern football, another said that United were just the worst-run club in the world.
It was not all bad. There was the occasional welcome message. “Robbo's (Robson) vibes aye. Bring that energy to the pitch Mason,” wrote one fan. However, even in many of these more positive messages, there was a hint of apprehension. For instance: “Number 7! Wow!! The pressure!! Welcome Mason!”
For the uninitiated, no, it not just a shirt number. It is a vital part of Manchester United lore and “NO. 7 AT OLD TRAFFORD” is an official trademark registered with the UK's intellectual property office. Moreover, it means a lot to the only group of people who have kept United relevant in recent years—the fans. As a result, “the pressure!!” is huge. A concrete example is former United captain Antonio Valencia. The Ecuadorian was United's player of the season in 2011-2012. As a result, Sir Alex Ferguson offered the vacant No. 7 to the 26-year-old. But, the weight of expectation proved too much for Valencia and his form fell off a cliff. He decided to revert to his old shirt number ahead of the 2013-2014 season. Later, in the same season, big-money signing Juan Mata, who arrived from Chelsea in the winter transfer window, opted for the No. 8, instead of the vacant No. 7.
In fact, since Ronaldo left United in 2009, only one player has performed well while wearing the No 7—Ronaldo himself in 2021-2022 (Edinson Cavani was decent, but not elite). But, Ronaldo's second spell ended with an acrimonious exit in late 2022. So, the concern is warranted.
Mount himself is coming off the back of a poor season. The transfer to United in itself is a difficult move to cope with, so, taking on the additional burden of the No. 7 is not the smartest decision. But, the 24-year-old, who was Chelsea's player of the year for both 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 and was key in the London club's Champions League triumph in 2021, seems confident.
“I am hugely ambitious; I know how amazing it feels to win major trophies and what it takes to do it,” he told the club website. “I will be giving everything to experience that again at Manchester United.” But, the biggest obstacle for Mount and manager Erik ten Hag's is the club itself. The upper management reeks of incompetence and the club has been left without sufficient funds to reinforce the squad after a brand that generates over $600 million dollars in revenue a year was run into the ground over the last 18 years.
Around £55 million pounds have been spent on Mount from a reported budget of around £120 million. United needs to add at least one first-team quality striker and a top-class goalkeeper after club legend David de Gea was pushed out disgracefully—the right call, but handled horribly. There is also no back-up defensive midfielder to deputise for Brazil captain Casemiro.
Though there is still hope that the club hierarchy will deliver before the end of the transfer window to get ten Hag the players he needs, for now, they have resorted to what they usually do after getting mediocre deals done—pat themselves on the back. John Murtough, United's underperforming football director, for example, said that Mount was world-class. Mount is by no means a bad signing and still has time on his side. But while it could be argued that he has the potential to be among the best in the world, he is not world-class. There is still a lot of work to be done by ten Hag to mould Mount into the best version of himself.
The positive is that ten Hag, over the past decade, has proven himself capable of doing just that. And Mount has the technical ability and the football intelligence to make a huge difference to this United team. Of the club legends to don the No. 7, Robson, United's longest serving captain, was a central midfielder. But, he was also an absolute machine and a much more complete player than Mount, who has always been more of an attack-minded player. Incidentally, Robson also joined United aged 24, in 1981, for a then British transfer record of £1.5 million. While it is exciting to imagine that would mean something, it probably would not. Firstly, it remains to be seen what role Mount would play.
Logic dictates that it would be a box-to-box role in a three, with Casemiro and Bruno Fernandes. But, Mount would have to learn to play that role. He is already capable of doing it occasionally, but playing against the best teams will require him to improve his defensive actions considerably. The good news for United fans is that he is an incredibly hardworking player and an intelligent presser. Also, you cannot put it past ten Hag to use Mount in a different role.
Despite the backlash against giving Mount the No. 7, there is also cautious optimism about the signing. Primarily because ten Hag pushed for it. After a first season that exceeded expectations, the fan base is largely ready to trust the Dutch coach.
So, does Mason Mount deserve to be United's No. 7? Some of the arguments against the decision include the suggestion that ten Hag does not understand the importance of the No. 7 shirt, having been in Manchester only for a year, and that this may have led to him offering the shirt to Mount; the fact that Mount is a “Chelsea boy” and that it should have gone to Argentine teenage sensation Alejandro Garnacho.
The last two arguments can be dismissed quite easily. If Mount is a Chelsea academy product, then among the legends mentioned above, only Best and Beckham came through the United academy. Even Garnacho was signed by United's youth setup from Atletico Madrid. Moreover, giving the No. 7 to Garnacho this season would not have been the right decision because he is at an earlier stage of his development than Ronaldo was when he received the famous shirt. Also, the situation at United is now much tougher for a young player to come in and perform under than it was when Ronaldo came in. So, not receiving the No. 7 this season was in the best interest of Garnacho. It would enable him to continue his development without the additional pressure.
It is possible, though not likely, that ten Hag does not fully understand the weight of the No. 7 shirt. However, he, reportedly, used the shirt as a negotiating tactic. If he knew Mount would be tempted by being offered the No. 7, he also has to be aware of the shirt's iconic status. That also implies that Mount knows what he is walking into. And he still had the courage to take that on. Therefore, he has the character that the current United squad lacks.
So, even if he does not perform anywhere near the level of Robson, he can still be a vital player for the current United squad. Whether he goes on to become worthy of the shirt will be determined by how well he handles the pressure. But, it is encouraging to see that he had the confidence and the courage to take the No. 7 even in the less than desirable situation that United are in. Just for that, he deserves a chance in the No. 7 shirt.