Not seeing the Woodward for the trees

October 27, 2018 Tags: , Reads No comments
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Cast 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.’”

"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."

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.

Ed Woodward, Jose Mourinho

Beppe Marotta’s decision to leave Juventus brought forward inevitable rumours that he would soon join United, along with for Old Lady manager Antonio Conte. Given United’s penchant for recruiting unattached talent in the backroom, a move for the pair seemed feasible. Yet, if there was any substance to the rumours one would have to question the club’s tact in acquiring the first available option and not settling on a vision and properly targeting the right recruits. Not for the first time, United’s strategy seems to be dependent on luck more than judgement.

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.

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