Cancer from the top: Van Gaal the symptom not the cause in United’s ruinous regime

April 12, 2016 Tags: , , Reads 31 comments
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Everybody hates Louis van Gaal, and rightly so. In the stands, in the press, probably even in his own house. After all, since the Dutchman’s appointment in May 2014 he has taken it upon himself to tear apart the Theatre of Dreams. Whether its analysis that insults the fans’ intelligence, or the insipid football on show, Van Gaal has successfully alienated the world’s biggest fanbase. Yet, it is not only mistaken to think that all Manchester United’s problems lie at the Dutchman’s feet, but naïve as well. The cancer comes from the top.

Make no mistake, Van Gaal’s regime has been a disaster. The majority of signings handed to the manager have proven to be hugely expensive or commercially driven to the point where on-the-field requirements were ignored. And the results secured with those players have been universally disappointing.

Anger and tension around the club is at an all time high, but it is not all directed at Van Gaal. While many believe that sacking the manager is a cure for the club’s ills, it is also clear that it is no panacea. José Mourinho’s probable appointment this summer brings a sense of renewed optimism to a club that is in free fall. Yet, the detritus of the men who hired Van Gaal, and the equally disastrous David Moyes, will continue to haunt the club into the future: Ed Woodward and the Glazer family.

Despite Sir Alex Ferguson’s support for the Glazers, the family’s ownership continues to poison England’s most successful club. The family has taken more money out of the club than they ever put into it – which, by the way, is zero – and has used United as a cash cow not a football club.

Blame can be placed on the manager for his failures on the field, but it is United’s structure, or lack thereof, that has set up both Van Gaal and Moyes for spectacular failure.

It is a structure so incompetent that, for example, it even allowed its youth system to go without a director for close to a year, before Nicky Butt was hired in February. It is a damning indictment of a club that is proud of its youthful traditions – and happy to promote its mystique. The carelessness with which these traditions were handled is disgraceful, but no surprise. After all, there is little immediate profit in a system whose outcomes are unknown – even if it remains the foundations on which the club was built. The money men who now run the club do not realise what is truly important.

Beyond the grassroots the club is in deep trouble. The cancer that the Glazers’ ownership creates is reflected in the role that Ed Woodward performs – as Chief Executive, Director of Football, and Commercial Director wrapped into one. While Woodward drives millions in sponsorship revenue, he is failing at the most important aspect of his role – footballing matters.

Directed from above, Woodward has focused on an approach that prioritises profits above all. While many clubs are run to make money, the balance at Old Trafford is now so off that is not hyperbole to suggest that United is a commercial giant that happens to run a football team.

"It is two years since Moyes’ dismissal, but the club has stood still while rivals have overtaken United in the table and humiliated the team on the field."

Woodward has chosen glamorous signings such as Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao, shiny new toys that sell shirts, over pressing requirements such as a central defender or retaining home-grown talent. Local boy Danny Welbeck was sold off for something supposedly more profitable – global reach.

The Executive Vice-Chairman’s handling of two managerial dramas is also damning of his performance. Woodward sat quietly through Moyes’ shambolic 10 months, waiting until it was mathematically impossible to obtain Champions League qualification – all so the club could sack him at a cheaper price.

The incident speaks much to United’s focus – a club that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. After all, in the last reported financial year United generated £433.2 million in revenue. Penny pinching at the top saves little when failure on the field costs so much. Sacking Moyes sooner might have saved a season – and not forced, for example, Patrice Evra to take up a new challenge elsewhere. Restricting the transfer budget over many seasons ultimately handed Moyes and then Van Gaal a substandard squad.

Revenue Operating Profit
2012/13 £363.19m £62.01m
2013/14 £433.16m £67.92m
2014/15 £395.18m £31.65m

It is two years since Moyes’ dismissal, but the club has stood still while rivals have overtaken United in the table and humiliated the team on the field. Tottenham were just the latest example – a young, exciting, attacking team that tore apart Van Gaal’s slow and ultimately low quality Red Devils side.

In this Van Gaal’s incompetence cannot be understated. His side averages one shot on target every 63 minutes in the Premier League this season, while scoring only 39 goals in 32 games. The team is unlikely to make top four, while an FA Cup win seems just as improbable. Van Gaal’s team has long been eliminated from the Champions League and Capitol One Cup. None of it is acceptable.

Yet, the club continues to embarrass itself on the field thanks to the incompetence of the men charged with making decisions off it. These are the same men that wade into battle behind the scenes, with factions of the club holding very different visions of the future. None of it is conducive to United’s return to the top.

While Woodward and the Glazers focus on cash, others are transfixed on power. Whether the intentions are good or not it cannot help that Ferguson and Sir Bobby Charlton drive their own agenda – to place Ryan Giggs in the managerial hot-seat. This decision would keep the pair involved at the club, and it offers the impression that Sirs Bobby and Alex are placing self-interest ahead of the club.

These issues: neglect of youth, focus on profit, chaos in the market, a lack of a sporting structure, and in-fighting in the Boardroom are not happening elsewhere in the Premier League. Leicester City, Manchester City, Arsenal, even Liverpool and the once laughable Tottenham, have now built stronger foundations than at United. With manager and executives on the same page the quintet is heading in the right direction, on and off the field.

It’s no coincidence that clubs such as Chelsea and United face such pressing questions this summer and beyond – it is a result of questionable on and off field decisions that date back years. The question now for United is whether those at the top can offer the cure to remedy the symptoms below. Not all that ails United can be fixed overnight, but the club is staring into an abyss from which it might not swiftly return.


bruce - April 12, 2016 Reply

Excellent piece. Depressing — because it’s true.

Rob M - April 12, 2016 Reply

Very well written article. Thoroughly agree with everything that is said.

Alan - April 12, 2016 Reply

The club is in complete disarray and will be until someone buys the Glazers out. There business model is based on Ronaldo, buy the most promising youngsters and sell them for a huge profit to Real or Barca, United ‘s days as a force in Europe are history.

Raymond Watson - April 12, 2016 Reply

superb piece, with a piece of wilde.

Dee - April 12, 2016 Reply

Absolutely brilliant article been saying this all year man utd are in such a terrible state right it’s unbelievable a club of our stature is at where it is. It’s time for a fan revolt

Navnit Nandhe - April 12, 2016 Reply

very well written mate, so depressingly true. Unbearable at the moment how much of an embarrassment we are.

Clement - April 12, 2016 Reply

Alan. Ronaldo always wanted to leave. Ferguson left a shite team who punched above their weight. The current manager is clueless. He has had more than enough to spend on new players.

Geoff good - April 12, 2016 Reply

how did we get her ? The Rock of gibralter, 850 million in debt, no value in transfer market,Bebe, I love horses and wine , I got 3 mill compensation from magnier( tax free ) he got me back and sold to the glazers, I’ve sold my wine for 3 million, money money money, it always came first, busby or Ferguson ? Busby every time, he put club first, not personel interest !

Tony - April 12, 2016 Reply

United have spent hundreds of millions since Fergie’s exit. Indeed LVG is castigated in this article for wasting it and in others for wasting talent like Di Maria’s. Yet somehow the conclusion is that the board is not backing the team. That doesn’t really follow does it? Youth is in disarray, yet the only positive from the debacle at Spurs was Fosu-mensah, a youth player brought in by van Gaal; then there’s Rashford and others. Yet the conclusion here is that our youth system is dead or merely a matter of ‘mystique’. While the Glazers are only really interested in the commercial value of the ‘brand’ and it leaves a bitter taste, there is no real lack of support for managers; it is clear that the youth system is being rebuilt too, aided by signings like Mensah, Olusonde, Chong etc. We are in a period of trying to rebuild a team; some players like Depay may be expensive mistakes; we may not have found the right manager yet. However I really don’t think a club that is about to overtake Real as the richest in the world is in dire trouble. We may not like the rampant commercialism, LVG may be wrong, Mourinho may be wrong for us, but I feel it’s much more likely that the financial strength of the club will see future success than chronic decline. That does seem to add up. The Edwards family were no saints and I remember fans despising them and accusing them of taking money out of the club, but they played a vital role in getting and sticking with Fergie, as did Sir Bobby. Moreover I’m afraid we just have to accept that big money and commercialism is part of the game at the top level. Even FC United are feeling the pressure now, and accused of compromising their anti-corporate, anti-commercial, pro-democracy principles. It’ll come good again, but we can never be the same club as existed in the 1960s.

Ed - April 13, 2016 Reply

It absolutely does follow. There were years of under-spending when United’s investment in the transfer market basically equalled that of Stoke City. Post Fergie the club started spending, but with no really system in place to do it the players brought in have been poor quality or overpriced or both.

On youth there’s plenty of evidence of the club cutting back spending. Read around a bit. There’s penny pinching going on. And the mystique… wonder if you misunderstand the point. There is a certain sense of glamour associated with bringing youth players through. But its a juxtaposition with the actual business focus.

Marco - April 12, 2016 Reply

To paraphrase Denis Healey, the Glazers have squeezed us until the pips squeaked. What will our sponsors think of the shambles on the pitch. They’ll want their products associated with champions not a team that’s foundering in the doldrums in the hope of a Europa League place. The carpetbaggers moved in gambling on continued success under Fergie and it paid off in spades. A lack of success on the pitch could well impact our ‘global fan base’, a percentage of whom may decide to switch allegiance to a more successful team. Could the cow be starting to dry up? There’s lots at stake for the ugly brothers. They can’t afford to get this one wrong.

Subterranean Steve - April 13, 2016 Reply

How is Sir Bobby Charlton ‘placing self-interest ahead of the club’ by supporting Giggs? Regardless of who the next manager is, Charlton’s position on the Board is unlikely to be affected. Why would his place at the club be on the line, if, for instance, Mourinho were to become manager? The Glasers pick the Board.

Having a pro-Giggs position is a legitimate one and it’s not all about keeping Mourinho out.

Subterranean Steve - April 13, 2016 Reply

Meant to mention that the rest of the article is excellent. A good read.

Ed - April 13, 2016 Reply

I think the argument made is that infighting doesn’t help United’s board focus on the real prize. More specifically that Mourinho will demand the kind of control that sidelines other voices in United’s football board, while Giggs is compliant with his former manager.

Pete Naphasorn Webb - April 13, 2016 Reply

The poison of our great club,they have to be removed,and take that pimp ED with you.How they! ever got to own our club is beyond comprehension,great piece btw guys,we are UTD we will rise again

Rich - April 13, 2016 Reply

Commercially, the club have done very well. That’s not to be sneered at; it’s really the only realistic way we can keep competing with the oil money. Is the alternative of being bought by a Saudi sheik better? That’s modern football and yes it’s morally bankrupt and yes it’s demoralising but that’s what it is.

Consolidating our position as the world’s richest club is incredible, and gives us more stability in the modern game than any manager or player or youth set up. I agree the board doesn’t seem capable of spending effectively at this stage and the clubs financial position has hardly translated itself onto the pitch, but it’s wrong to think that the club is in shambles.

The Van Gaal project has not worked, and I’m sure the club are frustrated that they haven’t been as dangerous in the transfer market as they had hoped. But they’ll get there through expensive trial and error, luck and time.

Julian - April 13, 2016 Reply

Continuing to blame the Glazers is not helpful. The issue is really all about how the football club is being run. That is solely down to Ed Woodward and on the pitch, Van Gaal. With the NYSE listing the financial stability of United as an enterprise was improved greatly with a substantial reduction in debt. As some have mentioned, the commercial side has grown and there has been no discernible fall off in gate receipts. After years of team under spend in the latter part of the Ferguson reign when the financial position was more precarious, substantial money has been made available for team strengthening. However, that money has not necessarily been wisely spent. No, this debate should centre solely around Woodward and Van Gaal and those who are giving them unqualified support. The whole Ferguson succession has been botched so far and large amounts of cash wasted on duds – eg Di Maria, Darmian and Memphis although the latter has time to rectify things. The club’s immediate future depends on how Woodward tackles the VG situation and if he has the guts, to go against his fellow local directors and hire Mourinho, give him the financial wherewithal and hope for the best! An announcement to that effect must be made as soon as it is clear 4th spot is unattainable.

Denis - April 13, 2016 Reply

“Continuing to blame the Glazers is not helpful.”

Oh really?

“The issue is really all about how the football club is being run. That is solely down to Ed Woodward and on the pitch, Van Gaal.”

Who hired Woodward and continue to employ him?

“With the NYSE listing the financial stability of United as an enterprise was improved greatly with a substantial reduction in debt.”


Ed - April 13, 2016 Reply

Julian, I don’t want to be rude but some of this really is nonsense. The Glazers are hands on owners, they direct strategy and have placed Woodward in charge of executing it. I agree, badly in many instances, but they do decide who the CEO is, and they want one that focuses on revenues first. TO divorce them from any responsibility is incredibly naive. On to debt, which is currently at £380 million and actually increased last year. Debt paydown was helped much more by rounds of refinancing (for which the club paid significant fees) than the IPO, since only half of the proceeds went on debt and the other half into the Glazers pockets. It was at zero the week before the Glazers turn up with a pile of borrowed money.

Julian - April 13, 2016 Reply

Rude? I’m not saying that the Glazers are ideal – obviously they aren’t. I never said they were “divorced from responsibility” either. Are you suggesting they should have fired

Julian - April 13, 2016 Reply

(cont) Woodward by now? Why should they when he’s been a highly successful CEO as regards the business side? What happens now is another matter. Given current revenue, the debt is more than manageable when a few years back it wasn’t. How we got to this improved situation doesn’t really matter. The Glazers as principal shareholders are surely entitled to some form of return on their investment – even if the latter was highly leveraged. When the club was a PLC who do you think were the recipients of those dividend pay outs ? Pension funds and many others totally unconnected to the football club – that’s who. We could have used that money to get the likes of Zidane and many other top players but couldn’t afford them. Now we have enough, it seems, to consider outrageous bids for people like Neymar! As a shareholder myself in those days, I remember writing to Martin Edwards to complain about under-investment in the team and that was the season after the treble win! He told me, inter alia, that the money had been spent on Carrington. I don’t like the Glazers particularly but it seems to me that we are now better off with more money available for players than we were then. So long as the Glazers don’t interfere in the day to day running of the football club and provided money is available for players , then I am not that bothered. In this day and age, we could be owned by any number of others whom we might not like. No, the focus is on Woodward and Van Gaal. I will agree with you more if this time next season nothing has changed but that is highly unlikely. Something will happen soon.

Ed - April 13, 2016

“Fire Woodward” – seems to me that the Peter Principle is in play with Woodie

“Their investment” – you mean Deutsche Bank’s investment? Where do you think the debt came from

“Dividends” – not even nearly in the order of magnitude. I believe, Andy Green calculated it, that the total dividend payouts under the PLC totalled less than £15m in aggregate for all the time United was a PLC.

I think the defocus on the role of the Glazers in United’s decline is criminal. Their LBO has cost the cost the club in the region of £800 give/take some saved in taxes. That’s money not spent on ongoing strengthening of the squad. Money spent now is not their money, it’s money generated through a massive TV contract (not their work), through the global rising tide of sponsorship (Real, Barcelona, Bayern make more), and through in the early days ticket price rise (rinsing the fans is always a genius commercial strategy isn’t it)

We could be owned by all sorts, but we’re not. We’re owned by the Glazers who are proven leaches.

Denis - April 13, 2016

“Given current revenue, the debt is more than manageable when a few years back it wasn’t.”

…but it’s still not anywhere near as manageable as when there was no debt at all.

“The Glazers as principal shareholders are surely entitled to some form of return on their investment – even if the latter was highly leveraged.”

What “investment” did they make exactly? The loans and PIKs that they secured against the club and now cream off the profits to pay off? And you have no issue with them taking dividends on top of that? Blimey.

Drhuffuffersazalias - April 13, 2016 Reply

a few bad redblood cells in that pic

Ryan - April 13, 2016 Reply

Probably worth noting as well that in the last 3 months, the DJI (market proxy) has risen 8.8%, while MANU stock is down 10%.

IE, Ed is failing at running a business as well as a football club.

Julian - April 13, 2016 Reply

The stock price reflects what is happening re: getting knocked out of the Europe and possible non qualification for the ECL as well as a drop in sponsorship money if lack of success continues. The drop in the stock value is pricing in a potential drop in revenue as a result of the current poor results by the tea,. So from a purely business perspective, Woodward is not failing – yet!

Adam Joseph - April 13, 2016 Reply

Julian i’ve read all of your comments, and to be honest the only thing they resemble is a dire state of naivety and ultimately nonsense. whilst i appreciate you reading my work, you are in denial my friend.

Julian - April 14, 2016 Reply

Not in denial at all. I think there is still an almost total antipathy towards the Glazers – part of which is perfectly understandable historically and part not in keeping with the current reality. Even Andy Green acknowledged many moons ago that the business model was sound. Anyway that’s not the issue. The real concern is what is going on at Old Trafford and not Delaware. As Fergie ackowledged many times the Glazers have never directly interfered with the running of the team and have always been supportive of the manager. I think that is correct although in previous years there was a shortage of funds in the transfer kitty. Nowadays , we as fans have nothing to complain about on that score with huge amounts of cash made available for strengthening the team. The real issue is how that money is spent and how successful the team is. Those are the principal issues here and Woodward and Van Gaal bear primary responsibility – not the Glazers. That’s the current reality and it shouldn’t be too difficult to comprehend in the cool light of day instead of reverting to the easy excuse of simply blaming everything on the Glazers – no matter how widely appealing such a viewpoint may still be!

Adam Joseph - April 14, 2016

the piece doesn’t blame everything on the Glazers. like i said, your view point is very, very naive. pointless to keep engaging.

Austin Reds - April 13, 2016 Reply

Fosu-“Immense”ah was cheeky and brilliant.

Julian - April 13, 2016 Reply

The trouble is when it comes to the Glazers it is such an emotive issue that it is well nigh impossible to have a sensible and logical discussion on it. They are “leeches” – end of story.

Anyway, looking back at the annual reports, in the years 1995-1999 inclusive, dividends declared by the PLC amounted to 24% of net after tax profit. Make of that what you will.

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