Nobody is bigger than the club at Manchester United, we're repeatedly told. Not even Sir Alex Ferguson. Certainly not David Gill, statue or no statue. At an autocratic but continuous institution, the speculation about what makes the new man tick can often lead to chaos, confusion, and disaster. Sometimes this can have terrible consequences - the Byzantine Empire were never quite sure about the Ottomans, and when Mehmed II ascended to the throne, figured that he was at best a peaceful, amiable guy, and at worst completely incompetent. Two years later, Constantinople fell, the Byzantines were gone, and their sons were making up the numbers in Mehmed's harem.
The English press may be unlikely to suffer that fate (despite the parallel financial decline), but the changing of the guard at United has led to a lot of confusion behind the scenes. Not only has Ferguson gone, but so has Gill - and thus not only the ends, but also the means by which United go about their business have changed drastically. We still get the briefs, and the dog-whistling in press conferences, but we can't read it with quite the same clarity.
That made today's fiasco an almost impossible one to get to the bottom of. The press, very obviously briefed by United, claim Chelsea have offered £10m plus Juan Mata or David Luiz for Wayne Rooney at Manchester United, and the bid has been rejected. Chelsea then come out and claim they didn't offer any players, that it was just a straight cash offer. The assembled hacks then split ranks - The Guardian backed up Chelsea's report, saying no players were offered. The Daily Mail claimed that two offers were made, the initial one and then one of just £22m, both rejected. That leaves plenty of speculation left over what the hell is going on.
Firstly, it's a certainty that the initial reports were briefed by United. It was obvious to begin with, and all but confirmed with Chelsea directing their anger towards Old Trafford rather than Fleet Street. That means that it's either 100% true, or that United have some ulterior motive in completely inventing a rumour linking them to Luiz and Mata.
If it was true, it also raises the question of why the hell United turned the bid down. The best possible reason is that United believed that since it was an opening gambit, another, better offer was in the pipeline. Chelsea's statement, of course, couldn't be taken at face value - what clubs say on the record is rarely worth the air into which it is uttered, and if they were trying to get rid of Mata and Luiz, they'd obviously reject the notion they were doing so. Clubs never, ever admit to wanting rid of players, because it weakens their negotiating position with potential buyers.
Then we move onto the alternative - that United simply made it up. This is why United's recent briefings have been so confusing. We never wanted Thiago anyway, we thought he was rubbish. We've made a bid for Fabregas, he wants to sign for us. Chelsea just offered us their best player and ten million for a player we want out of the door. It's very bizarre, and liable to frustrate the hell out of journalists who are forced to risk their reputation in pushing such crazy briefings, even if they do turn out to have an element of truth.
When you're United though, you're the biggest show in town - it doesn't matter if journalists get upset, because what are they going to do? Refuse to cover you? The only possible motivation for United claiming Luiz and Mata were offered is a particularly devious one - Juan Mata is vastly underpaid at Chelsea, with contract negotiations potentially in the pipeline as he's linked to a host of other clubs. David Luiz has been mooted as a potential signing by both Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona. These are players Chelsea really don't want unsettled, should they wish to keep them, as seems very likely. If this version of events is true, they're not included because Chelsea want them out - they're included because Chelsea desperately want to keep them.
It's the latter version which seems the most likely at this moment. United almost certainly want Rooney out, but the story of them not wanting to sell to Chelsea now appears legitimate. The move appears to be a calculated blow to Chelsea, a warning shot about the dangers of their approach. If true, United will be holding out for some interest from other clubs, whether Arsenal or abroad. Yet at the same time, their position is somewhat weakened - if they now fail to sell Rooney, they'll look very silly having claimed they could have traded him for Juan Mata. The striker is ever more likely to leave, but it seems that Stamford Bridge is now an unlikely destination.