Bleak probably best describes the mood of Manchester United fans as the club enters another transfer window looking to reboot, this time under the auspices of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The Norwegian, for his part, is hoping that executive vice-chairman, Ed Woodward, will be able to deliver the players required to move United forward – and let go of those who are below the requisite standard.
But does anyone expect Woodward to run the football side of the club with any degree of competency? The one constant in United’s slide to mediocrity has been Woodward who has no vision for how the club should operate on a sporting front.
Indeed, this week former manager Louis van Gaal put the boot in, claiming that Manchester United’s focus on commercial priorities has been its downfall. “Ed Woodward was installed as CEO,” said the Dutchman. “Somebody with zero understanding of football who was previously an investment banker. It cannot be a good thing when a club is run solely from a commercially-driven perspective.”
The lack of vision has never more apparent than in the club’s haphazard approach to finding a new sporting director. It is a search during which the club have turned down some of the best sporting directors in the world, according to Andy Mitten, in favour of traipsing down a nostalgic footpath. The obsession with optics could see the club sink to an even lower ebb.
The question of what Woodward wants is key because the only thing that seems certain is his lack to desire to relinquish any semblance of control. The role vaguely seeks a technical director to fill the gaps in knowledge that currently exist, assisting Woodward and Ole on an overall sporting vision. The reasoning behind recruiting former players, if the rumours are to be believed, is to install those already steeped with the values imbued by Sir Alex Ferguson. Crucially, though, it appears that any power to influence player recruitment is going to be minimal. It begs the question: why bring in a technical director if they’re going to be powerless to enact any meaningful change?
From the outside, looking in, it appears that all a technical director can practically achieve is to curb Woodward’s worst excesses and try to suggest how the club could move forward from a footballing perspective. The new TD, who is expected to be appointed after the transfer window, could arrive at a club in upheaval and dealing with significant unrest, especially if player recruitment is once again underwhelming and there’s a poor start to the season.
United’s lack of vision has never more apparent than in the club’s haphazard approach to finding a new sporting director.
It’s naïve to think that United’s executive vice-chairman will suddenly see the light and relinquish control of all football matters. Perhaps the best scenario is the technical director acts as a ‘Woodward whisperer’. If the TD is persuasive, they could effectively shape the footballing vision of United and impress upon Woodward the need to recruit the right players. Ones that suit the head coach and system, rather than grabbing the shiniest trinket in the window.
It is unclear whether a technical director will be given the remit to set out a football vision for the first team. Woodward has been extremely reactive when it comes to hiring coaches, employing three men with completely differing outlooks on how the game should be played. Theoretically, if the TD does have any influence then they can try to foster a sense of continuity that has been so lacking at Old Trafford since Ferguson’s retirement.
The broader issue is that the seems to be a perpetual work in progress. The executive vice-chairman is still learning about football, there is a novice manager in charge, who is under immense pressure to grow into his role in double quick time. To throw into the mix an inexperienced technical director with very few decision-making responsibilities only adds to the perception that United are an unsteady club struggling to find a sense of direction.
An optimistic outlook is that the new TD could settle in and take stock of how United’s season unfolds in order to outline a strategy for improvement. Given the reported lack of power, the role may only be advisory. Knowing that Woodward is in the job for the long haul, unless there’s a takeover, the main hope is that the technical director will be given more responsibility over the course of time.
The fear is that the situation at United will only get worse is evident among the United fanbase. Given how the team finished the season under Solskjaer there is reasonable cause for concern that the club will be left further behind if decisive action is not taken this summer. The sense of dread for the coming window is further exacerbated by the fact that once again Woodward will be the man tasked with bringing in new faces.
Federico Pastorello, Romelu Lukaku’s agent, has predicted that United will have “a lot of success in the summer bringing in players,” but it’s safe to say that he’s in a minority.
In a pivotal summer it is baffling that United heads into June with the same sporting and recruitment structure that brought them to this point in the first place. Woodward has enjoyed plenty of time to address the issue of revamping the sporting structure, but chose to ride the wave of optimism created by Solskjaer. Appointing a technical director after possibly the biggest summer window in recent years seems as counterintuitive as closing the stable door long after the horse has bolted.
The fact that the club doesn’t ye know what the role entails suggests that Woodward is struggling to find a way where he can restructure the sporting side of United without diluting any of his power or influence. The latest rumour is that John Murtough, the head of football development, could be appointed as United’s first technical director. After all, he does know how to work with Woodward and, crucially, he possesses a level of football administration experience that the likes of Darren Fletcher and Rio Ferdinand lack.
Yet, if the end of this process leads to the club reshuffling existing staff and handing them effectively cosmetic duties then questions must be asked as to why this exercise was conducted at all.
When Manchester United were searching for a new shirt sponsor in 2009, the commercial team prepared mock shirts with different companies’ names and logos and sent them to executives at each of the targets. The insurance company Aon became United’s shirt sponsor after “a sample shirt had landed unsolicited on the desk of Aon’s new marketing head, Phil Clement,” wrote Tehsin Nayani in The Glazer Gatekeeper. The Glazer family’s former PR man described how United would approach potential sponsors directly, rather than wait for sponsors to come to them. “No need to imagine what it would be like for Rooney to wear your company’s shirt – we’ve already done it for you.”
Such proactiveness, however, seems confined to the club’s commercial activities. On most footballing matters, there is visible lack of foresight and ambition.
Spurs’ swanky new stadium has put the spotlight on the neglect of Old Trafford. Its crumbling infrastructure and outdated technology is symbolic of a once unrivalled institution that has been left behind as competitors have modernized. United’s youth infrastructure and training facilities fall well short of Manchester City’s and there has been little effort to develop the area around Old Trafford itself. Until recently, the club did not even feel the need to invest in a women’s team.
Spurs’ swanky new stadium has put the spotlight on the neglect of Old Trafford. Its crumbling infrastructure and outdated technology is symbolic of a once unrivalled institution that has been left behind as competitors have modernized.
The men’s first team has fallen behind as well. As four English clubs battle it out in European competition finals and City enjoy back-to-back league titles, United have been admonished to another season in the Europa League. Liverpool’s failure to clinch the league is perhaps all United fans are left to cheer about.
Unsurprisingly the players’ attitude has come under increasing scrutiny. Gary Neville, in one of his increasingly familiar rants, picked six players – Alexis Sanchez, Marcus Rashford, Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial and David de Gea – who he felt are underperforming and “deserve far greater scrutiny.” He had earlier stated that he saw players “pretending to run back” against Barcelona. Newly minted permanent United manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, when asked post a 4-0 drubbing at Everton if his players cared enough, paused briefly then said: “I don’t know”. Even more pointed accusations have been made by former club legends on television throughout the season and a fan even confronted Paul Pogba after the final league game of a miserable campaign.
Poor attitude or a lack of effort should hardly be surprising at this point. Organizational culture, after all, trickles down from the top. “Playing performance doesn’t really have a meaningful impact on what we can do on the commercial side of the business,” proclaimed Ed Woodward last year, addressing the only group he is answerable to: shareholders. Today United is a Cayman Islands-registered, New York-listed commercial entity, masquerading as a football club. It is just another financial investment in the Glazer family portfolio. Slipping standards on the football field is allowed, as long as commercial revenue keeps growing.
Aptly then, all key decisions at United – footballing or otherwise – are made by Ed Woodward, a former investment banker in JP Morgan’s mergers and acquisitions department. In his six years as Executive Vice-Chairman, he has overseen three disastrous managerial tenures, several botched transfer windows, and little on-field success.
All key decisions at United – footballing or otherwise – are made by Ed Woodward, a former investment banker in JP Morgan’s mergers and acquisitions department.
United fans now have their hopes pinned on the impeding restructure, but most managerial firings and calamitous defeats have been followed by reports suggesting “a root and branch review” or “modernization.” After United’s 2-0 humbling away at Olympiakos in the 2014 UEFA Champions League competition, Woodward took a picture of the scoreboard as a reminder that the club must never sink to such a low again. Two top four finishes in the following five seasons hardly suggests progress. United’s expansion and upgradation of the scouting network has had little impact on their scattergun transfer policy. Javier Ribalta was appointed from Juventus in a leading player recruitment position, but left after just six months.
Woodward has had half a year to start righting his lengthy list of wrongs – to appoint a Director of Football and a leadership team with complete control of footballing decisions at the club. As it turns out, a permanent manager has hastily been appointed and most reports now suggest that United will appoint a watered-down Technical Director, presumably with a final say on transfers set to remain with Woodward. He has no intention of relinquishing control.
Underwhelmingly, Sky Sports News now suggests that Darren Fletcher is a leading candidate for a role resembling the Technical Director, with Rio Ferdinand and Dan Ashworth – the Technical Director at Brighton – also mentioned. While it is hard to assess suitability for a role that has not yet been defined, Ferdinand and Fletcher have nothing even remotely resembling credible experience for such a role and there are plenty of experienced, proven candidates that can presumably be recruited. But a historic link to the club seems to have become the sole criteria for evaluation, with no credence given to a track record. In fact, astonishingly, if any of these rumored names are appointed as the Technical Director, the entire footballing structure – right from Woodward to the first team coaches, apart from Mike Phelan, will have no experience at anything close to the top level in their respective roles. It is unnecessary and unbecoming of a club this size.
Admittedly, Solskjaer and other club legends, despite their lack of experience, obviously understand United. And such institutional knowledge is certainly an asset. But such appointments only work when there is a structure to cover for their shortcomings. Solskjaer should have been assisted by an experienced Director of Football, with contacts in Europe and beyond, and with experience of recruiting world class players.
Solskjaer should have been assisted by an experienced Director of Football, with contacts in Europe and beyond, and with experience of recruiting world class players.
Now it is presumably too late for the Technical Director to influence transfers this summer and Solskjaer has never had to sign a player at this level. Real Madrid (Eder Militao), Bayern Munich (Lucas Hernandez) and Barcelona (Frankie de Jong and possibly Matthijs de Ligt) have promptly identified and signed their key targets as United tumble from one rumored target to another. The much-touted overhaul is already in jeopardy before it has even started.
Such colossal mismanagement has consequences, even at clubs with United’s financial clout. But there’s little incentive to change. “What are the odds that people will make smart decisions about money if they don’t need to make smart decisions – if they can get rich making dumb decisions?” Michael Lewis wrote in The Big Short. While commercial value continues to rise, there is little hope that United will get anywhere close to the modern, analytical operating model that Man City and Liverpool are now reaping the rewards of.
Once upon crisis, at the close of an underwhelming summer transfer window, the spotlight turned to Ed Woodward, the Manchester United executive vice chairman. Woodward decided, in all his wisdom, to announce that the club would recruit a Director of Football.
Over the course of a thus far disappointing campaign Woodward has managed to reel in talk of a complete overhaul by ‘clarifying’ the club’s position. Firstly, insisting that a Technical Director would be hired and not a Director of Football and then confirming that any appointment would be made once José Mourinho leaves Old Trafford.
The thinking behind the staged rollback is that Woodward and the board do not want to impose a new structure on Mourinho unless the manager explicitly approves. All in all, it seems to be a rather convenient excuse. For the time being at least.
No matter what side of the Woodward-Mourinho divide you find yourself, it’s probably fair to say that as a football entity United are being run in a haphazard way.
If history is anything to go by, Woodward will fire Mourinho should the club fail to secure a Champions League berth for next season. So far, so normal. Yet, the difference between Mourinho’s potential sacking and those of David Moyes and Louis van Goal before, is that Woodward might find himself in a position where he is almost obliged to change the sporting structure of the club along with the manager.
If the executive vice chairman’s dalliances with the topic are anything to go by, it would be an issue he will tackle with extreme reluctance.
There could be many reasons why Woodward wants to keep things as they are; he may believe that a restructure is unnecessary, or that modernizing the sporting side of the club is a long-winded process too far. Woodward could also be concerned about his image. After all, ditching three managers in the space of six years is not a good look. Perhaps the most likely argument, is that he simply just wants to retain overall control of football operations and not dilute his power.
This leads to the obvious question: could United retain Mourinho by default? Granted, the odds of this scenario playing out seem remote at this stage of the season, but this is a club that runs on the principle of playing performance not having “a meaningful impact on the business side of things.” It is not unreasonable to think that Woodward will opt for the path of least resistance.
If United and Mourinho do part ways in the summer then a narrow range of options are available to Woodward. Zinedine Zidane is the bookmakers’ favourite, but there is no guarantee that the Frenchman would accept the position. Meanwhile, Antonio Conte is no shrinking violet and has never been afraid to air his gripes in public, much like Mourinho. Leonardo Jardim would require a new sporting structure built around him to succeed. Then there is Mauricio Pochettino, arguably the best equipped to operate in United’s current set-up, who would be extremely hard to extricate from Tottenham Hotspur.
Thus, the idea of “Mourinho – Year Four” is not as outlandish as it may first seem. While Woodward has options who could be procured, with varying degrees of difficulty, there are very few clubs in world football that fit a man of Mourinho’s profile. Florentino Pérez has entrusted Real Madrid to Santiago Solari for the time being, Thomas Tuchel will be into year two of his stint with Paris Saint-Germain, while Bayern Munich could sack Niko Kovač, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’d turn to Mourinho given that Zizou is on the market. Even a return to Inter could be difficult should Luciano Spalletti depart. The Milanese club are on the verge of appointing Beppe Marotta as the sporting director, who may choose to lure Massimiliano Allegri to the Nerazzurri instead.
Though it’s not impossible for United and Mourinho to mutually-consent themselves into different directions this coming May, there’s also an argument that the split might be a year too soon for both parties. It may even suit Woodward and Mourinho, though maybe not United, for the Portuguese to complete his contract and then sever ties.
After all, Woodward would not have to worry about making a hefty payments to dismiss the manager and if the Portuguese manager turns things around there’s the option to trigger a one-year extension. On top of that the executive vice chairman could put off restructuring for another season at least. Mourinho, for his part, may want to use the extra year to salvage his reputation before moving on to pastures new.
If Mourinho does stay that would send both manager and United into near unprecedented territory. Mourinho’s first stint at Chelsea remains the only time in his managerial career that he started a fourth season at a club – the 2007/8 campaign – and even then, he lasted only until September. United would take the chance only in the hope that José rediscovers his mojo, while Mourinho would need to rethink his methodology if he wants to turn things around.
What the coming summer offers both Mourinho and United is time to prepare, with no major international football tournament to worry about. There’s a full pre-season as well, in which, theoretically at least, the club can execute a well thought-out transfer strategy. In dreamland, Mourinho would have his strongest possible squad available to properly prepare for the 2018/19 campaign. In short, the excuses he has made for United’s poor start this season, will not be available for the beginning of the next.
In this scenario, Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna would have the opportunity to solidify their positions and extend their influence behind the scenes. Replacing Rui Faria, Mourinho’s long-time collaborator, was never going to be an easy proposition, but with a year’s experience under their belts Carrick and McKenna will be more confident in implementing their ideas.
Of course, this is an ideal scenario and does not take into account the futures of Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial, a pair of sagas waiting to happen that could disrupt United’s preparations next summer if not managed swiftly and decisively. If Woodward and Mourinho want to extend their partnership into a fourth year then it’s critical that there are no disruptions with which to contend.
The January window may shed more light on José’s future and it could be bleak, especially if there’s a repeat of what happened in the previous summer. That said, it will be understandable if the club refuses to splash out in January given the relative lack of value in the winter window and – more importantly – Mourinho’s less than spectacular transfer record since he arrived at Old Trafford. Perhaps the only scenario where Woodward and company backs the manager in the market this winter is if the club is desperate in the search for a top four position.
All indications suggest that come the end of the season United will call time on Mourinho’s tenure, but do not underestimate Woodward’s appetite, or lack thereof, to change the club’s sporting structure. The task of making United successful again on the pitch will take more than a mere managerial change and that could mean Woodward’s role changes as a result.
Under Woodward’s stewardship the club have pretty much taken the path of least resistance when it comes to the sporting side of things. That means there’s always the danger, remote as it is, of United coasting into José, year four.
[dropcap]C[/dropcap]ast the memory back to moments after the transfer window closed in August. José Mourinho was already in a huff during Manchester United’s summer tour, holding little back in his critique of the summer’s business. The United manager also let slip that he had submitted a five-man wish-list to executive vice chairman Ed Woodward well before the end of the last campaign.
In the run-up to the window’s closure the club was linked with moves for Diego Godín, Jérôme Boateng and Harry Maguire. Meanwhile, the long-running pursuit of Toby Alderweireld came to nothing. In the end, United signed Fred, Diogo Dalot and Lee Grant, much to Mourinho’s chagrin. Rubbing salt in the wound, the only major announcement that the Old Trafford club made on transfer deadline day was the launch of a new app. It was poorly timed, but very much in keeping.
After enduring a disappointing window, the sensible position, from the board’s perspective at least, would have been to leave the past in the past, look ahead to the new season and accept the more-than-occasional Mourinho moan. Woodward and company knew, or should have known, the kind of character they hired.
Yet, shortly after the window closed, the Guardian’s Daniel Taylor published what appeared to be a classic Woodward briefing. The Board, it appeared, had “misgivings” about the United manager’s preferred targets, with the decision makers not wanting to waste “tens of millions of pounds on a short-term fix.” Farcically, the briefing also suggested that the club would have been willing to spend more than £100 million on Real Madrid’s Raphaël Varane, revealing that Woodward had breakfast with his Real Madrid counterpart, Florentino Pérez.
The aim undoubted aim was to present the club’s point of view, but the real effect was to undermine Mourinho’s authority and convey that Woodward, a man with limited experience in football, was United’s de facto Director of Football.
On the face of it there were some sensible points: that the club was unwilling to commit large amounts of money on ageing players with a limited shelf life, and that any transfer policy must encompass a long-term vision.
Mourinho wasn’t doing himself any favours either; Henrikh Mkhitaryan has come and gone, Victor Lindelöf has still not adjusted to the Premier League, Alexis Sánchez has flattered to deceive, while Paul Pogba and Eric Bailly have not always seen eye-to-eye with their manager. Even £50 million Fred has found himself in and out of the team. The only qualified successes are the departed Zlatan Ibrahimović, together with Nemanja Matić, and Romelu Lukaku. There is plenty of qualification about the latter pair as well.
However, the obvious counterpoint to Woodward’s briefing was simply this: who is the United suit to say that his judgement of a footballer’s worth is better than the multi-title, two-times Champions League winner manager? Indeed, the Portuguese made a point about the perceived lack of backing, stating that his title “should be downgraded to ‘head coach.’”
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]After enduring a disappointing window the sensible position would have been to leave the past in the past and accept the more-than-occasional Mourinho moan. Woodward should have known the kind of character he hired.[/blockquote]
Extrapolate the point further and the episode revealed a frightening truth about how the club operates. Regardless of who is managing – or coaching – the first team, Woodward will always have the final say on any football matter. Woodward’s argument didn’t have the impact it intended, with the spotlight quickly turning to executive’s role at United.
It was more than a little convenient when another briefing came forward shortly afterwards: that the club was looking to appoint its very first Director of Football. It might be a welcome move, but one couldn’t help but feel that it was a reactive decision after the heat the executive vice chairman received.
Soon enough big names such as Monchi, Andrea Berta and Fabio Paratici were being linked to the role, but then the parameters changed. Yet another United briefing suggested that the club was, in fact, after a technical director to work with both Woodward and the manager. Speculative as it may be, it’s not much of a stretch to say that the implication of hiring a Director of Football dawned on Woodward; that his influence on the sporting side of things would be severely diminished. For a man who probably now sees himself as United’s chief on both a commercial and sporting front, taking a backseat in football matters would just not do. The decision making off-the-pitch mirrors how United play on it – it is all far too reactive.
In all likelihood, United fans will not see Marotta at Old Trafford any time soon given that he would want control of football affairs, a role that Woodward now enjoys. Indeed, recent reports suggest that any restructuring will be shelved until after Mourinho leaves, with Woodward happy to promote from within.
It’s all a bit too handy, yet very believable. After all, in a time of crisis Woodward reacted by briefing, then briefed further to counteract his initial messaging. He then slowly walked back the stated goals. If this was the plan all along then it’s a Machiavellian piece of art.
Maybe Ed’s just engaging in an act of self-preservation, not with the Glazers, but with the wider public after stirring the hornet’s nest. After all, no supporter would ever feel comfortable knowing that the executive vice chairman is also effectively United’s Director of Football.
Then comes the manager. Mourinho is the most fixable problem at Old Trafford, but his eventual departure alone won’t see United’s woes leave with him. The dark mood hanging over Old Trafford may be temporarily lifted, but the systemic fault lines will still be there, especially if Woodward stays true to type and panics as soon as any negative spotlight is cast in his direction.
There is no doubt that the club’s needs somebody to provide a unifying vision but, for now, the it is being led by those prone to letting events get ahead of them. The subsequent struggle to react decisively is unsurprising.
Once upon a time, Rant mused that the Glazers might sell. Peter Lim, Chinese investors, and even the Red Knights were said to be potential buyers should the Glazers decide to cash-in on their prize asset. Conspicuous in its absence was Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth. If there’s any group that needs positive PR right now, it is the House of Saud.
The Saudi government’s strategy to increase soft power and diversify its economy away from oil has included investments in Formula One and WWE, among numerous tech investments. It won’t have escaped Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s attention that near-neighbours Abu Dhabi and Qatar have benefitted internationally from the ownership of Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain respectively.
From this perspective alone, recent speculation about Saudi interest in United makes sense. After all, there are few better ways to boost an international profile than by owning the planet’s most iconic football club.
Whatever the truth of Saudi interest, the Glazer family remains in a strong negotiating position. Now under no pressure to offload their prize asset, the Glazers can choose to keep United and milk the cash cow. Meanwhile, any sale would be well in excess of the current £3.5 billion market capitalisation – a very tidy profit on the heavily leveraged £790 million takeover 13 years ago.
Don’t expect the Glazers to make any moral judgements either; any decision will be made on purely business lines. United fans might find themselves in a difficult place, caught between vast new wealth and a pariah regime. If Bin Salman succeeds in at the mooted purchase, United’s mission could change from a being profit-making machine to a public relations institution for a country facing accusations of murdering a journalist, among other human rights violations.
The House of Saud will not run short of oil cash any time soon, but the regime is aggressively trying to improve its global image. United could focus the world’s attention away from the less savoury aspects of the Saudi government – specifically its record on human rights – much in the way City has for Abu Dhabi and PSG for Qatar.
[blockquote who=”The Independent” cite=””]Figures familiar with the area say the centralisation of power around Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in a country where it has previously been very spread out has made such moves much easier. It is the Crown Prince who is claimed to be personally interested in bidding for the Glazer family’s private shares.[/blockquote]
On another level owning United would see Middle Eastern politics potentially played out in the Champions League, Europe’s premier competition. Whether the greatest prize in the European game should turn into proxy struggle between oil rich Arab states is another question.
On the sidelines, literally and figuratively, is the United fanbase, which will have little say in any potential transaction. On a purely financial level, a Saudi takeover could see the club become debt free given the net worth of the House of Saud is estimated to be over $1.4 trillion. Moreover, a surefire way for any new owners to ingratiate themselves with the fanbase would be to pump money into all areas of the club, from investing in the stadium, building projects for the community, and into headline-making transfers.
After all, decisive action in the transfer market has worked wonders for the Abu Dhabi royals over at the Etihad Stadium. At United, new owners could put into place a proper football structure, while retaining the club’s highly successful commercial arm. Indeed, if Saud is looking for a template they only need to see how the Blue side of Manchester has gone about its business.
But then United – being the most valuable club in the world – shouldn’t be hamstrung financially with respect to the transfer market anyway. Executive Vice Chairman Ed Woodward famously boasted that “we can do things in the transfer market that other clubs can only dream of.” If anything is holding United back, it is the prioritisation of finance over football. The club has only belatedly recognized the need to revamp the sporting structure.
But what should the average supporter feel if Bin Salman spearheads a takeover at United? Certainly, there is unlikely to be appetite for mass revolt. BUT the question of human rights cannot be ignored. City and PSG are the properties of nations with questionable records. Indeed, United fans – among others – have pointed to that fact about the owners over at the Etihad. Should United be acquired by a country who’s record is perhaps even worse it should give supporters pause for much thought. Money would come at a significant price.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Whether the Glazers retain ownership at United or sell to new buyers, the club faces the prospect of continuing as a business venture for uncaring owners, or a public relations tool for new ones.[/blockquote]
Fans are powerless, and are unlikely to sway either party should a real bid come forward. Football is not known as a business that concerns itself too much with morals. The recent World Cup in Russia was hailed as one of the best in recent memory, although it was held against the backdrop of an increasingly autocratic country. Football has a habit of duping supporters and the media into focusing on the diamond without ever needing to explain how the precious stone was procured in the first place.
Whether the Glazers retain ownership at United or sell to new buyers, the club faces the prospect of continuing as a business venture for uncaring owners, or a public relations tool for new ones. It is a naïve strand of thought, perhaps, but many would welcome United becoming a football club once again.
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he recent events surrounding Manchester United – both on and off the pitch – have created an embarrassing air around the club. Gary Neville’s scathing, yet heartfelt, attack on the state of the club two weeks ago resonated with many supporters. Yet, in focusing his displeasure on Ed Woodward alone, Neville failed to address two other issues: United’s ownership and the manager’s failing performances.
While the Chief Executive and those above must take much of the blame for the failures of the past five years, Mourinho is as key contributor to United’s crisis. The drama surrounding the recent fixture with Newcastle United seemed to further draw the battle lines between the manager and his Board, with some fans bent on opposing the latter by showing loyalty to the former.
It is a no-win scenario, yet, when it comes to the state of the club, there is plenty of blame to share around. Increasingly, United fans are angry at the whole situation, recognising the need for holistic change.
The manager’s job is usually the first step in that process. After all, the Board cannot be sacked – at least not while it is dominated by Glazer children – and a playing squad requires time for evolution.
Mourinho deserves the terrace support that Old Trafford has offered every United manager, even those who struggle, but fans risk falling blindly into a trap, perhaps out of some misguided faith that Mourinho is indeed some kind of victim. It’s the narrative the Portuguese wants – his calculated, self-indulgent comments after the game attest to that.
The broader question is whether this is Mourinho’s march towards an exit, and whether United should push before the manager jumps?
Boardroom politics should not detract from the poor state of United’s performances this season, that half against Newcastle excepted. Mourinho is largely at fault for results. Recent performances against West Ham United and Valencia, for example, should have proven a nadir for the manager’s tenure, while the win over Newcastle barely papered over the cracks in his regime. That fightback and international break granted Mourinho a stay of execution. If he cannot muster an upturn in results then it should not be held for much longer.
Pressure could mount though, with a fixture list that includes games against Chelsea, Manchester City and Juventus. If United play in the same fashion that has been common of late then the misery of Mourinho’s reign should come to a swift end.
There are few indicators that Mourinho will turn it around. History says that when the rot sets in, it remains. At Real Madrid and Chelsea he lost the confidence of his squads. On the pitch his approach now feels outdated, a man wedded to his former glories, but totally unable to adapt.
Of course, United’s players and Board must take responsibility too. It leaves a sour taste in the mouth to lay all ills on the manager, yet change may well need to begin with Mourinho.
[blockquote who=”José Mourinho” cite=””]I am 55 years old. It is the first time I see man-hunting. I can cope with it. I can live with it. Some of the boys, in spite of them not being the man that is hunted, they are not coping with it. There is too much wickedness in something that should be beautiful. I cope with it, with some sadness.[/blockquote]
West Ham and Valencia showcased a manager void of ideas. The switch to a back-three in London looked like a roll of the dice, rather than a genuine plan. It is an observation confirmed by the change of shape for the following games against Valencia and Newcastle.
If the inclusion of Scott McTominay at the back in London was bemusing, then the youngsters’ continued presence is an insult to more established players. Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof have suffered poor form this season, but McTominay’s selection has reeked of a deliberate point made to the Board.
West Ham and Newcastle became the latest teams to showcase the brittle nature of United’s defence. The resolute rear guard of Mourinho’s first two campaigns has now evaporated. In fact, Marko Arnoutavic’s goal marked the 12th Mourinho’s side has conceded in the league this season. It was 17 December before that total was reached last year.
Beyond the defence, United has continued to look incoherent in attack, relying on moments of individual brilliance rather than a defined philosophy. The second half rally against Newcastle was born out of desperation, but at least the side attacked with fluidity and purpose. Yet, it is wishful thinking to believe that Newcastle will be a catalyst for change. We’ve seen this film before, against Crystal Palace and City last season. The irony that goals came from players Mourinho has often stifled should be lost on nobody.
Mourinho talks of respect for his previous achievements, but he looks far from replicating those earlier feats. Meanwhile, United’s rivals seem far more assured. Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino’s methods are now well embedded, while Mauricio Sarri and Unai Emery are implementing attractive styles at Chelsea and Arsenal.
Perhaps the most damming signal of this shift came as Liverpool recently took on City. The match between United’s two fiercest rivals has now become the Premier League’s hottest fixture. When Guardiola arrived at City, Mourinho was expected to be his greatest challenger. The Portuguese is eclipsed by Klopp.
Even Mourinho’s man management caché has taken a nose dive. For example, the decision drop Alexis Sanchez for United’s trip to West Ham was justified, but forcing the player to travel to London and watch from the stands smacked of cheap points scored, alienating another player devoid of form and confidence. The Chilean’s return against Valencia only underscored Mourinho’s scattergun approach to assembling his team.
Underperforming players are far from blameless and Mourinho cannot be held accountable for every individual errors. Yet, the notion that the manager is not responsible is naive. Mourinho’s persistent public conflict with players is beginning to have an effect on the squad’s confidence. Demotivation is now widespread. While the manager has never been afraid to employ conflict as a tool, it is a strategy that – along with his tactics – now seems outdated. Whether veiled or direct, airing United’s dirty laundry in public has added to the appearance of a circus at Old Trafford.
Some have come out of the other side. Luke Shaw has been rewarded with a new five-year contract, but the left-back felt the brunt of Mourinho’s ire for two full years. As Shaw broke into the team this season, the consistent run of games has brought improved performances.
Yet, the manager’s loyalties are as fickle as ever and his trust in players rarely stretches beyond one poor performance. Lindelof, Sanchez, Bailly, Andreas Pereira, Jess Lingard, Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba have all been subject to omissions following an off week. Bailly, substituted after half an hour against Newcastle, has not recovered from from being inexplicably left out of the squad last spring.
Mourinho demands consistency, but the manager is far from consistent in his squad management. There are those that remain in the manager’s favour, such as McTominay, but it often feels political. Mourinho’s insistence on awarding the Scot Manager’s Player of the Season last was a calculated message towards Pogba
Mourinho’s demeanour is beginning to irritate many. The Portuguese has always been slave to his ego, but when results fail to match the bravado, the act wears thin. United supporters crave a return to dominance enjoyed under Sir Alex Ferguson. Mourinho was supposed to hold the same winning mentality. Indeed, the regime began with bold claims and two trophies. After years of meek performances under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, Mourinho appeared to be a better fit for United. Yet, when things begin to go wrong, Mourinho turns inwards and the atmosphere turns sour quickly.
The manager has entered the same toxic mode that marked the end of his time in Madrid and west London: Trumpian distance from poor results, a narcissistic twisting of the narrative after victory, soundbites that from the summer onwards have become increasingly negative and self-indulgent.
Mourinho is stung over what he feels is a lack of credit for last season’s second-place finish, yet he has now presided over United’s joint worst start to a Premier League season. That is not the result of a media agenda against the manager.
There is, of course, a higher scrutiny on Mourinho. United’s history in and place in world football ensures that. The level of performance this season was always likely to bring criticism and Mourinho has struggled to deal with it.
Given the wider issues at the club, the slump in form requires a manager that breeds unity, not division. It is a squad that needs motivation and inspiration through the kind of leadership Mourinho is now unable to provide.
Mourinho deserves some sympathy, of course. The club’s owners have leached more than £1 billion out of the club in interest payments, fees and dividends since 2005. There’s an outdated football structure too, and Woodward is short of deal-making skills required in the transfer market. There are players that the club should sell and seemingly cannot.
None of those issues are going to be resolved quickly. The more immediate concern is that by mid-October Mourinho is leading United’s season beyond the point of no return. There is still time to turn results around, even if Mourinho is unlikely to change United’s playing style for the better. The upcoming run of fixtures is central to United’s season.
If United posts a series of poor results in the next month, the plug will surely be pulled. Patchy results will only deepen the toxic atmosphere that now lingers darkly over Old Trafford. If Mourinho’s team can muster a few wins, with a more positive approach, then the manager will have cause to bring forward that famous ego.
The next month may well finally prove whether the Special One is still special.
[dropcap]F[/dropcap]inancially, Manchester United is the world’s élite club. A summary of finances for 2016-17 shows revenues totalling £581 million; larger than Real Madrid or Barcelona, Paris Saint Germain or Manchester City. Despite huge investments in terms of player recruitment, contracts and signing on fees, a profit of near £40 million was also achieved. Meanwhile, the projected revenue for the current financial year is guided to reach £575 to £585 million. Noisy neighbours Manchester City may have the backing of Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth, but it is United that still leads the way on commercialisation.
In fact, the club represents an increasingly massive cash cow for the Glazer family, with revenues accelerating since Ed Woodward took on the role of Executive vice-chairman in 2012. United’s global status has been shamelessly exploited in Asian and American markets by a club willing to partner up with the highest bidder across many product and service categories. United is now a “global partner” to a staggering array of businesses and organisations that want to align with the club: Adidas, Aon, Chevrolet, 20th Century Fox, Aeroflot, Apollo Tyres, Canon Medical Systems, Casillero Del Diablo, Tag Heuer, and Uber, to name just a few. Most recently, Woodward announced a global tractor partner.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]The club represents an increasingly massive cash cow for the Glazer family, with revenues accelerating since Ed Woodward took on the role of Executive vice-chairman in 2012.[/blockquote]
Woodward and his mostly London-based commercial team led by Richard Arnold have, ethics and integrity aside, demonstrated a masterful command in maximising the brand’s earning potential. United will now proudly stand by the side of any firm that is willing to pay.
By contrast, on the pitch, it has been a very bumpy transition since Sir Alex Ferguson retired at the end of the 2012-13 season. It is perhaps all more impressive that the club can continue to increase earnings regardless of on-field success.
It is a story of constant adaptation to the market, in which all boats are rising. Global accessibility to and coverage of the game has changed irrevocably over the past 10 years. The younger audience is more comfortable with social media, memes, and soundbites than watching 90 minutes. Attention spans are getting shorter, and the desire for brand association is sought more than emotional investment and commitment. Instant gratification is demanded; if there’s no YouTube showreel of a player’s ‘tekkers’, then he cannot be a player of note.
Perhaps this explains why the business model has continued to work despite the mundanity of United’s performances in the post-Fergie era. Speaking about the acquisition of Alexis Sanchez in January, Ed Woodward gleefully informed investors that over that month, the transfer had generated three times more shirt sales than any other player in the club’s history. The transfer set new social media records for the club’s accounts, and generated “75 percent more interaction than Neymar’s world-record move to PSG last summer. It was the biggest United post on Instagram with two million likes and comments, the most shared United Facebook post ever, the most retweeted United post ever, and the hashtag #Alexis7 was the number one trending topic on Twitter worldwide.”
It is also how the club operates in the transfer market under Woodward. Players are viewed as commercial assets, and marketability takes precedence over effectiveness. Five years on from replacing David Gill, Woodward has developed a strategy that delivers high-profile transfers after his early clumsy dealings in the market. He once resembled a lonely drunk stumbling around a nightclub as he publicly failed to woo Sergio Ramos, Cesc Fabregas, Thiago Alcantara, Toni Kroos, Gareth Bale and even Cristiano Ronaldo. Woodward managed only to bag each of these world stars bumper new deals with their existing clubs.
Of course, it didn’t take Woodward long to realise that he could overcome this problem by outsourcing it to agents. He has made Mino Raiola, agent for Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and many others, the best paid man in football.
Ferguson was no fan of Raiola, once stating that he distrusted the agent “from the moment” the pair met. This ringing endorsement fell on deaf ears at Old Trafford, especially with Woodward under fire. Many of the club’s transfer dealings are now conducted with clients of Raiola and another super-agent, Jorge Mendes. The desperation of United’s hierarchy to land players of suitable fame has left the club at the mercy of unfathomably wealthy vultures, who generate offensive fees for babysitting the commodities signing huge contracts.
During the period between October 2015 and February 2016 United spent more than £10 million on agent’s fees. This was almost double the amounts spent by Liverpool and Manchester City – at £6.6 million and £5.8 million respectively – over the same period. United did not make any signings though, with the sum attributed to re-negotiating player contracts.
Meanwhile, Raiola is reported to have pocketed £41 million for his role in bringing Pogba to Old Trafford, and £12 million for allowing Romelu Lukaku to sign on the dotted line for United instead of Chelsea. More recently, between February 2017 and January 2018, United spent more than £18 million on agent fees, although this was far from the highest in the division. Raiola, as Pep Guardiola has articulated this week, has only his own interests at heart.
Paying these fees does not appear to be a problem for the club nor Woodward though. Certainly, Woodward is held in high regard by football’s super agents as he fires lorry loads of cash from his seemingly bottomless money pit. It is, of course, how things now work at the highest level of European football.
“He now has a reputation with agents for being very transparent and very clear,” noted former Inter Milan CEO Massimo Morratti, in a puff piece published in the Mirror last summer.
“He surrounds himself with experts and makes sure he is advised by the right people. He’s a very, very confident businessman and highly intelligent. He can sense what is right and what is wrong. From what I hear and what I have seen at that level, Ed is highly respected.”
United remains one of the worst offenders: a once astutely run club that maintained a level of integrity and footballing tradition, has become a global corporation, with a transfer policy dictated by businessmen with little background in the sport.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]United, once an astutely run club that maintained a level of tradition, has become a global corporation, with a transfer policy dictated by businessmen with little background in the sport.[/blockquote]
The result has been a disjointed approach to player acquisitions, where many of the stars arriving at the club over the last five years have failed to offer a return on investment. Fans have purred and social media has blown up with the arrival of names such as Radamel Falcao, Angel Di Maria, Bastien Schweinsteiger, Pogba, and Alexis Sanchez. In many cases the level of due diligence carried out in relation to these marquis acquisitions has been low. While, there has not always been a clear strategy for moulding undeniable talented into a cohesive team structure. It is also a strategy that appears to deprioritise the future in favour of short-term gratification and trending hashtags.
“I watched Gabriel Jesus play three years ago. I watched Kylian Mbappe for a year,” noted Ryan Giggs recently. “I was watching them with the scout and it was a no-brainer. It was just like ‘Get them’. It would have been £5 million or something — get them, loan them back — and that’s where the recruitment could have been better.”
There were seemingly no efforts made at Old Trafford to sign either player, both of whom would have arrived with little fanfare but offered massive potential.
This is not the players’ fault. Offer professionals crazy sums of money and they will gladly represent the highest bidder. The result, though, is the accumulation of talent, some of whom have questionable desire to play for the club.
Managerial changes over the past few years have also meant that the continuity of approach under Gill and Ferguson is now long gone. There have been material differences in philosophy between David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal and now José Mourinho. The board got these managerial appointments badly wrong. Over the last five seasons there has been an increasingly obvious lack of leadership and a high turnover in the playing squad, with a further overhaul widely reported to be taking place this summer.
This can be little surprise given the approach to recruitment is a phone call to a small group of self-interested agents. In the short-term, Woodward has created an adequate buzz to maintain the club’s status among the financial élite. The question becomes whether it is sustainable.
While Mourinho has improved United to the point where the club is a distinct second in the league table – despite Saturday’s victory at the Etihad – the team is a long way from winning one of the two trophies that really count. The longer the on-field malaise continues, the more it could eventually cut into the global intrigue that the United brand enjoys, while City, PSG, Real Madrid and Barcelona hoover up the world’s talent and trophies.
Analysing the various incarnations of team that Ferguson produced offers a guide. While the quality varied, they were always developed according to his vision and ethos. He took a personal interest in the character of the players he was signing, and ensured they actively wanted to play for the club. This included players from home and abroad, but each was acquired for what they could deliver on the pitch. Gill did not greet new arrivals with news of the shirt sales they would generate, nor the media coverage it offered the club. United paid fees and wages in accordance with the time, but not often in excess of the other leading European sides.
Consider the first title-winning side that Ferguson constructed. Relatively unheralded players were sourced from Europe at bargain prices, including Peter Schmeichel and Andrei Kanchelskis. Steve Bruce captained the side and he was probably as unfashionable as imaginable, but a critical component. Gary Pallister was the most expensive defender in Britain when he signed, but formed the base of the Ferguson’s early successes. Roy Keane was signed for a British transfer record fee, but repaid it many times over. Ryan Giggs and Lee Sharpe were exceptional young players introduced into the side to balance the experience of Bryan Robson and Brian McClair. Mark Hughes was a warrior if not quite prolific, while Eric Cantona was seen as a gamble but became one of the most influential of all Ferguson signings.
How times change. Football has evolved greatly in recent years and it is not possible to recreate the past. What has become abundantly clear, however, is that the club should rebalance its decision-making to favour football, not finance.
That opens up a separate discussion around who is best placed to make these decisions, and how this should be structured. There is no doubt that Woodward has achieved remarkable corporate success, but it is not clear who has the final say over players transfers, in and out of the club. There is also room for debate as to whether Mourinho is the right man to make those decisions given his track record of short-termism and inflated ego. Other clubs have successfully employed a director of football to offer an over-arching consistency in player recruitment. It might be that the days of the dictator-manager, in the mould of Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, are now gone.
While the shape of the future is debatable, the need to return to some of of the past is not. There remain some examples of United developing its own talent, with Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Scott McTominay featuring in the first team squad, but there is little satisfaction in seeing the regular arrivals of expensive, jaded internationals with little emotional connection to the club.
It was once thought that leaving United was a backward step. That reputation is being eroded. In football terms, the club is poorly run, if likely to finish second this season. Today’s scouting network offers little dividend, and players are brought in with little long-term thought and are often poorly treated, with some declining in quality after signing. The proud traditions and standards of the past needs to mean something or United could face becoming little more than a soulless corporate entity associated with past glories.
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he transfer of Alexis Sánchez from Arsenal to Manchester United put a spring in the step of United supporters when it was announced last month. In one swoop, José Mourinho and Ed Woodward recruited a top class player, while also dispensing, in the shape of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, an underperforming one.
“If we have in our mind in the summer to improve the team in two or three positions, basically to improve the team in all the departments, if you have the chance to do something now it means that you don’t do in the summer,” explained Mourinho in January.
“Another thing is we get one or two players just to improve a little bit the squad and then in the summer you are going to do it again,” he added. “No. In the summer, we would probably have three transfers to do. If we do one now, in the summer it is three minus one.”
“If, next summer, we are going to sign a midfield player, it’s to replace Michael Carrick,” said Mourinho. “Michael is a phenomenal player that, this season, he couldn’t give us anything at all. So if, next summer, we buy a midfield player, it’s not to improve our squad – it’s to replace Michael Carrick. So, to improve our squad in the midfield, we would need to buy two.”
But it’s not just Carrick that United could potentially lose in the summer. Marouane Fellaini looks set to leave come the end of the campaign, while the multi-functional Daley Blind doesn’t seem to have much of a future at United, and there are questions about whether Ander Herrera will be at Old Trafford next season too.
Even if only Carrick and Fellaini depart, United will be left with a quartet of Nemanja Matić, Paul Pogba, Scott McTominay and Herrera. Following Mourinho’s logic, the squad’s balance will be retained if he replaces both Carrick and Fellaini, but it will not lead to an improvement in the group as a whole. That’s to mention nothing of United’s need to strengthen in defence. It is safe to assume that the Reds will be on the lookout for more than the two players suggested.
Midfield is the critical area though, and much of United’s recruitment strategy will depend on whether Mourinho persists with a 4-2-3-1 system or switches to a 4-3-3. The United boss has more often than not opted for the former, as he clearly doesn’t feel that he has the personnel to operate with a three man midfield on a consistent basis. On the flip side, one of United’s better performances, away at Everton, came with the team operating with a three a and Pogba taking up a position on the left of midfield. It was one of his most effective games this season.
The Pogba Dilemma
In recent weeks much has been made of Mourinho’s relationship with United’s star player. Mourinho has offered Pogba a touchline lecture, launched an “explosive” press conference prior to FA Cup tie against Huddersfield, and then the Frenchman missed said match because of illness.
Aside from the drama, the discussion surrounding Pogba’s best position is the elephant in the room: should Mourinho build the team around the Frenchman’s strengths in a 4-3-3, or should the player be more adaptable and embrace Mourinho’s preferences more fully?
If Mourinho opts to build a team around Pogba then the manager will want to strengthened to the point where he is more confident deploying a three-man midfield on a regular basis. The trio of Matić, McTominay and Herrera doesn’t appear to be the answer. There has been the usual paper talk, with United supposedly signing Jorginho, Jean Michaël Seri, Fabinho, Sergej Milinković-Savić or Toni Kroos. Each would represent an upgrade on the current options, but none would be cheap either.
There might also be a need to reshape the squad’s attacking options, as Mourinho has Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sánchez, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata vying for the four attacking spots in a 4-2-3-1. The switch to a three would leave six players competing for three attacking places. That’s not even taking into consideration Andreas Pereira when he returns from his loan spell at Valencia. Lingard and Mata could arguably be moved into midfield, but then again Mourinho is not one for half-measures.
If the Portuguese coach sticks to the current system then he can leave his attacking options untouched and he can afford to reduce the number of midfield targets he needs to purchase in the window.
But then there is the question of what to do with Pogba. Should Mourinho play him in a midfield two with Matić and risk limiting the Frenchman’s impact, or does he move Pogba further forward and drop Martial, Alexis or another to accommodate?
There’s no question that Pogba needs to be in the side, but how to consistently get the best out of a world-class player seems to be eluding the manager. Yet, the Frenchman has scored three times and set-up nine goals this season. Imagine how effective he could be if he finds his groove.
Matić’s was not a stardust signing, but during the early months of the season he looked to be an astute capture and has been one of José’s “untouchables” having played 33 times this campaign. Only Romelu Lukaku has featured in more games.
Naturally, the sheer number of matches is taking its toll on the Serbian, but Mourinho doesn’t feel confident enough with his options to rest his holding midfielder. It all leads to a potentially problematic cocktail of United going into season-defining matches with a leggy Matić. It is not an ideal scenario.
McTominay’s progress is interesting, although it remains to be seen whether he can become more authoritative. The next step in the youngster’s development is to become an able deputy to Matić so that Mourinho has the option to rotate when the situation demands.
Of course, Mourinho is just as likely to bring in a more experienced player during the summer in order to relieve the Serb’s burden, but the point remains that United shouldn’t risk the burnout of a key player as the season draws to a close.
To dominate or to react?
A key tenet of Mourinho’s footballing vision is how his teams respond to transitions in play, whether losing or gaining possession. He demands a high level of discipline, plus the need to be clinical when going forward.
In that respect, Mourinho is different to his Premier League contemporaries, many of whom look to press high, force mistakes and work on attacking patterns. Mourinho relies on his team to convert any chance that comes its way, while maintaining defensive discipline and structure.
*Stats from WhoScored.com. Accurate as of 20/2/2018
It leaves the question as to whether Mourinho will ever look for his midfield to play in a more expansive manner, or place his faith in a more cynical approach? The gameplan will influence the type of midfielders that United will try to recruit in the summer window.
There may well be a larger turnover in the summer than suggested. It’s hard to see otherwise, with Matteo Darmian, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Chris Smalling, Blind, and Fellaini almost certainly leaving the club. Carrick will hang up his boots and may take on a coaching role.
Perhaps Mourinho has plans to reincorporate Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Andreas Pereira, offer McTominay more games next season, or bring some fresher faces from the Academy. More realistically he will look to the market to compensate for any departures.
Whatever the strategy, Mourinho must first work out how to shape his midfield if he is to turn United back into a victory hungry juggernaut. At this moment, it’s looking to be quite the conundrum.
[dropcap]F[/dropcap]ootball is a simple game, former England striker Gary Lineker once said in a quip about the Germans always winning. So why does José Mourinho find it so complicated? More than 18 months into the job he always wanted, Mourinho has created an expensively assembled collection of individuals. The team is perpetually over the horizon.
Manchester United’s defeat at St James’ Park on Sunday will force another reassessment of Mourinho’s performance since arriving at Old Trafford. More questions will be asked about how, after bringing in eight players and spending more than £300 million, the title-winner in four countries has built such an insipid team.
It was United’s fifth defeat in the league, but perhaps one of the most damaging. After all, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool both won over the weekend, while Chelsea faces bottom-placed West Bromwich Albion at Stamford Bridge on Monday night. If the west Londoners emerge victorious just three points will separate second and fifth.
United might not have entered Sir Alex Ferguson’s “squeaky bum time” just yet, but Mourinho’s side is now finds itself in a mighty tight spot. Champions League football next season is no longer the shoe-in that Ed Woodward presumed when handing Mourinho a new contract last month.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Questions will be asked about how, after bringing in eight players and spending more than £300 million, the title-winner in four countries has built such an insipid team.[/blockquote]
There are details and then the bigger picture. In once sense, United dominated at St James’ Park. Mourinho’s team enjoyed more than 60 per cent possession, took more shots and found the target more often as well. The team created good chances too, including Anthony Martial’s one-on-one with debutant Newcastle goalkeeper Martin Dubravka.
The record will also show that the visitors enjoyed twice the expected goals (xG) of the home side. It was one of those occasions when data fails to tell the real narrative. In truth United rarely clicked in the north east. After all, this is a Newcastle side that hadn’t won at home in the league since October, and was soundly beaten by Chelsea, United and Manchester City in recent months.
As ever, Mourinho saw fault in the details, not his strategy. Newcastle “fought like animals,” he said. The home side fought “for their point, a point is what they had in mind” and the Geordies came out victorious only because of United’s “defensive mistake.” Newcastle “had only one thing in mind and gave their lives to keep a clean sheet,” Mourinho concluded, with just a soupçon of the melodrama in which he truly excels.
Yet, the big picture does matter. It is the second time in three games that United has lost on the road, with City now 16 points ahead in the league and coasting towards the title. This was supposed to be the campaign in which United made a credible challenge, five years on from Ferguson’s retirement.
Progress under Mourinho has come, but a sound thrashing in the league to the rampant Blues was on nobody’s agenda at Old Trafford. In fact, Mourinho’s side is on course for a sub-80 point season, a total that would have taken the title just twice in the Premier League’s 25-year history. It’s all a bit middling when excellence is what the manager promised.
Some models now have United finishing behind Liverpool in third, while there is plenty of credible evidence in the fundamentals of United’s performances this season that suggest the points garnered to date are more than a little generous. Beyond results, Mourinho has built something that is less than the sum of its parts.
It is not unfair to suggest than in over 600 days at the helm, the manager has crafted a team that is overly reliant on individual brilliance, and has far less of the collective self than any other Mourinho team in memory bar his last disastrous season at Chelsea.
“The individual talent is there but to coordinate that into a team is Jose Mourinho’s job in the next few months,” believes former Red Gary Neville.
“He has to make them into a team. They look like a team that play five per cent below the intensity that they can play at and should play at. That’s what Jose Mourinho has to do. He has to mould this talented group of players into a team that can come together and can win the title. Next season will be Jose’s third season. He has to win it next season. They have to start preparing now.”
It probably doesn’t help that Mourinho is in the midst of yet another player feud, this time with talisman Paul Pogba. It takes very little guesswork to work out that while Mourinho wants his player to take on more defensive responsibility in a two-man central midfield, Pogba is seeking the kind of freedom to attack and create that he enjoyed at Juventus.
It is a notion that Mourinho dismisses. For the Portuguese coach midfielders – “and Paul is a midfielder” – must defend as well as they attack.
“For me box-to-box means box-to-box,” said Mourinho pointedly before United’s defeat at Newcastle. “You have to defend well, have the physical conditions to go to the other box, where you have to be good at scoring, creating, heading and then, when your team loses the ball, you have to go to the other box.”
It is an argument that defies much of the evidence, with Pogba at his imperious best in attacking situations, especially when given the freedom of defensive protection. He has neither freedom, nor protection at United.
To this end, it is odd, although not unsurprising, that Mourinho has failed to embrace a three-man midfield system that would get the most out of United’s £90 million Frenchman. It is a system where Pogba is free to attack on the understanding that two midfield colleagues are there to defend against any breakdown in possession. His performance at Everton in a 2-0 United victory underlines this point.
It would suit new signing Alexis Sanchez too. Indeed, the question of how to deploy Alexis, the free transfer whose stratospheric wages has been the subject of much discussion in the fourth estate, is an important one. Mourinho has seemingly already answered it by deploying the Chilean on the left in the position once occupied by Martial and Marcus Rashford.
While the young Englishman missed the trip to Tyneside with a muscular injury, Martial has been shifted to the right in recent games, a role that he neither likes nor one that garners the best from a talented player. After all, Martial’s ability to cut in off the left and shoot is the sole benefit of not deploying the forward in the central position where he is most dangerous.
If Mourinho crammed two players into one by making Martial and Rashford job-share, he has only incrementally increased his choices by recruiting Alexis at two young players’ expense. Three into one does not fit, a summary that may well come to a head in next summer’s transfer market.
This is to say little about the mess in United’s defensive – supposedly Mourinho’s specialty – or the imbalance in the squad the has manifestly not been fixed despite those eight acquisitions.
Mourinho rejects any criticism of his choices: of personnel, of tactics or of approach. United’s situation, he believes, is a work in progress, one that takes place in the spotlight that shines brightly on Old Trafford. He bemoans his players’ inability to execute his ideas, and of Pep Guardiola’s ability to spend his way out of any trouble.
Where the end-game takes United is another question though. For now, Mourinho has too few answers, although it is the very essence of management.
It was once unthinkable to question the Mourinho way, at least where it came to results or the means by which the manager obtained them. He was the master tactician, the brilliant strategist, the in-game tinkerer beyond reproach. That no longer appears to be the case.
Oh José, where art thou? Your team is in a tight spot!