The Bare Minimum
Monday’s victory against Everton saw United break a disappointing run of draws in the Premier League, but the stark reality is a team is struggling to keep hold of City’s coat tails, with the noisy neighbours embarking on an unprecedented run.
December was a disappointing period for United and it marked the start of Mourinho’s latest assault, focusing his ire on United’s efforts in the transfer market. Mourinho’s go-to scribe, Duncan Castles, revealed as much as far back as October, stating that the Portuguese boss isn’t impressed with the “bureaucratic” nature of the club nor the “inefficient” way in which it is operated.
"Sympathy wasn’t forthcoming when Mourinho bemoaned United’s relative lack of spending. Under his stewardship the club has spent £314 million."
It’s fair to say sympathy wasn’t forthcoming when Mourinho bemoaned United’s relative lack of spending compared to rivals. Under his stewardship the club has spent £314.46 million in total and £261.67 million net. Hefty sums by any reasonable standard.*
Mourinho has also pointed to the inherent difficulties in renewing the squad, arguing that the first priority is to replace departing players before any improvements can be made.
“If, next summer, we are going to sign a midfield player, it’s to replace Michael Carrick,” he told the club’s website. “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.”
Some pundits broadly agree. Speaking after United’s victory over West Bromwich Albion last month, Gary Neville highlighted that United’s starting back five of David De Gea, Antonio Valencia, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Ashley Young were all recruited by Sir Alex Ferguson. He described the club’s recruitment policy as “disjointed” and “not good enough.”
Neville’s comments were enough for the Mourinho camp to argue mitigation with respect to the manager’s needs in the market. In particular, Mourinho pinpoints City’s ability to recruit and replace with ruthless efficiency, with the Blues spending £150 million on full-backs alone last summer.
“Without taking any credit away from Manchester City and Pep and his staff and the players,” Mourinho said last week. “But Pep arrives, he has the goalkeeper of England, he doesn’t like him so he buys the goalkeeper of Barcelona, and he doesn’t like him so he buys another one. He has Zabaleta and Kolarov – two very good players but more than 30 years old. He wants to replace them, he doesn’t replace with two, he replaces with three. One from Tottenham, one from Monaco and one from Real Madrid.”
In once sense, Mourinho’s appeal lacks a sense of self, especially when it comes to recruitment. After all, he chose to target just four signings in each summer window when he certainly could have demanded more by accelerating sales. And the manager could have been more ruthless with players at his disposal, especially in the run-up to his second season. Mourinho certainly has little trouble isolating players from the squad, but he could also have pushed for a greater turnover. Paul Scholes recently comments that Mourinho has “whatever money he wants wants” for transfers if only he spends it “wisely.”
Despite this, Mourinho has managed to successfully turn the spotlight on Woodward and the Glazers. He may well be right. Whisper it, but the outlay that Mourinho has enjoyed in the transfer market is probably the minimum that he should expect from the club’s hierarchy.
After all, United is now spending the money the club has earned despite years of Glazernomics under Ferguson. The notion that the owners have in any sense backed the new manager financially is a flawed. The Glazers have not pumped a penny of their own money into the club, 12 years after the takeover. Quite the opposite in fact. The family has finally allowed United more freedom to flex its muscle in the transfer market. That should be expected, not celebrated.
In fact, given United’s commercial income, handing Mourinho a more than sizeable transfer fund to cover his needs should be within the club’s grasp. The club was crowned by Forbes as the most valuable football team in 2017, with a nominal valued of $3.69 billion by the magazine, against a market cap of $3.29 billion at the time of writing.
Nothing describes United under the Glazers better than the opening line of Forbes’ football rich list: “No soccer team has done as good a job as Manchester United at turning a storied history of success on the pitch into profits.”
Or in other words, the club is a phenomenally successful financial machine so there should be no reason why it cannot exercise its clout in the transfer market to an ever greater degree, even taking into account the mythical “United premium.”
That the club has been made to play catch-up is an indictment of a lack of planning on the sporting front and if there’s an individual more culpable than most in this regard it’s Woodward. United’s executive vice-chairman is the club’s de facto Director of Football, but though he has made a fair number of signings, Woodward has been caught short in the market too.
"Woodward has brought in big names, but that is more to do with his decision to outsource the majority of recruitment needs to super-agents, such as Jorge Mendes and Mino Raiola."
It’s no stretch to imagine that if United had City’s sporting structure and network Mourinho’s fourth target last summer, Ivan Perišić, would be at Old Trafford already. Instead, Woodward managed to antagonize Inter by trying to exploit the Italians’ Financial Fair Play position and ended up empty-handed. Whether the Croat would have significantly lifted the quality of United’s squad is another question, but if that saga proved anything it is that Woodward’s haphazard approach breeds little success in the market.
Woodward has brought in big names, but that is more to do with his decision to outsource the majority of recruitment needs to super-agents, such as Jorge Mendes and Mino Raiola. The idea behind this strategy is to speed up transfer activity by placing trust and power in the hands of a few individuals with a large roster of players.
The strategy appeared to work relatively well in Mourinho’s first season in charge, but that certainly wasn’t the case last summer. If any narrative summed up United’s 2017 summer window it was Woodward attending a British Lions rugby match as José was heading into the club’s pre-season tour of the US with only one signing in the bag – Victor Lindelöf. The optics of Woodward’s Lions jaunt as his manager was implementing pre-season preparations was not a good look.
Given United’s Director of Football-less sporting structure, total competency in this aspect is a must regardless of whom is manager. It is in the area of recruitment that the club is falling well short. The hierarchy cannot expect to challenge for trophies by doing the bare minimum, if indeed they are interested in garnering silverware at all.
In fact, the Board is taking the easy way out by laying all sporting responsibility on the manager and it doesn’t look like that structure will change any time soon. Many observers feel that this area is one that must be addressed the day Mourinho departs, if not sooner.
Yet, there is a question as to whether the Board is ready to embark on this overhaul. United has revamped its out-dated youth system, but there is little time, patience or willing to implement something more radical. Remodeling the sporting structure would require upheaval at a time of rebuilding on the pitch, and could entail Woodward losing a measure of influence on the football side of the business.
It is unclear that anybody in United’s executive has the vision for change. Indeed, Woodward once pitched United as an “adult version of Disneyland,” according to Raphael Honigstein’s biography of former Dortmund boss Jürgen Klopp. Woodward and the Glazers may be living in their own version of the Magic Kingdom under United’s current construct, but the sense of fantasy doesn’t currently extend to the sporting side of things. Managers, it seems, will receive just enough backing to ensure that the pressure falls squarely on them and nowhere else.
That said, Mourinho should be doing a lot better with the resources available at his disposal, but by that same token Woodward and company are obliged to back the manager to the fullest extent. Unfortunately, United’s executive vice-chairman and the powers-that-be are falling short of what’s required of them as well.
* Data sourced from Transfermarkt