United’s sporting dilemma
“Until the club understands what it stands for, and how it operates beyond making deals with regional noodle vendors, any manager will struggle.” – United Rant Twitter feed, 22 December 2015
Manchester United is now a fully blown Glazer entity, a cash cow being milked to the nth degree and then some. The club can boast a total of 21 global, 16 regional, 15 media and 14 financial partners; more than 60 partners in total. Talk about leveraging an asset.
Whilst Sir Alex Ferguson was in charge United had a distinct identity. At its peak his side was a vibrant attacking outfit that stirred the blood. During the final few seasons of his tenure United adopted a more pragmatic approach under the Scot as Glazernomics started to bite. But it was still a feared winning machine.
The Glazers, needless to say, made their money off the success Ferguson built. The Scot, let’s not forget, was more than willing to hop on the Glazer bandwagon and is complicit in the transformation of United from a successful football club/business to a hyper-commercialised, moneymaking juggernaut. With Ferguson and David Gill taking care of football matters the Glazers had the perfect balance between the sporting and commercial set-up of the club.
Then came news of the twin departures. Gill announced in February 2013 that he would step down from his post as chief executive in that summer. In May of the same year Sir Alex decided to draw the curtain on a glittering career. It was a seismic change that United is yet to come to terms with.
The football once identified with United has fallen by the wayside, with the club clinging on to the traditional managerial model. So far it hasn’t worked. David Moyes was an unmitigated disaster and Louis van Gaal has practically undone all the good work he achieved in his first season at the club.
Such has been the downturn under the Dutchman over the past few weeks that the result and performance against an ordinary Chelsea team was met with a level of relief if not satisfaction. Unless he dramatically turns things around Van Gaal is a man on borrowed time.
Whether it’s been the safety-first approach under Moyes or Van Gaal’s much-vaunted ‘philosophy’ United has been lurching from one style of football to another in the hope of continuing the on-field success brought on by Ferguson.
The one constant in the transition phase, now into its third year, has been executive vice chairman Ed Woodward. The man who masterminded the leveraged buy-out of the club has been at the heart of its footballing decisions – negotiating transfers and appointing managers. With Ferguson marginalised and Sir Bobby Charlton now serving as an almost ceremonial figure, Woodward has effectively taken on a major part of the football portfolio in addition to the commercial one.
It’s a scary thought, but a man with little to no experience in football administration is now the de facto head of the sporting side of the club. He may be a wizard when it comes to generating revenue, but he’s struggled on the sporting front. Given United’s recent travails the question of whether the club should appoint a sporting director has to be asked.
The title isn’t one that still sits comfortably in the English game as the role of the manager is seen as sacrosanct with the traditionalists. There have been some failed attempts to introduce sporting directors, which may colour the views of critics. Damien Comolli wasn’t exactly an unqualified success at Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool, Franco Baldini didn’t fare too much better at White Hart Lane, West Ham United was burned when the club brought in Gianluca Nani, and Joe Kinnear was a spectacular car-crash at Newcastle United.
Among all the failures in England the role has been successfully used at other clubs. Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain at Manchester City run the football side of United’s neighbours and have overseen the recruitment strategy – playing and coaching – development of the club’s youth academy, and the overall club philosophy. Chelsea has Michael Emenalo, who became technical director in 2011, and Marina Granovskaia, who handles the club’s player transfers, whilst Tottenham has reintroduced the model at White Hart Lane.
That’s not to say that the introduction of a sporting director will suddenly be a panacea at Old Trafford. What it does ensure is a level of sporting expertise and administration that is currently lacking at United. Most of all it would allow United a measure of stability on a sporting front that the club has lacked since the retirement of Ferguson.
In attempting to persist with a model that brought trophy after trophy under Ferguson the club failed to spot the inherent dangers that such a structure can bring.
Given the lifespan of managers, it gives too much power to a position, which increasingly has a short shelf life. It allows for shifts in footballing styles, which leaves the club frantically adapting to the new manager’s direction. United’s last three bosses, Louis van Gaal, David Moyes and Sir Alex Ferguson offer a case in point: each holds a vastly different view on how the game should be played. Continuity is absent.
For all the mocking of Chelsea’s penchant for firing managers the club, since 2011, has won a Champions League trophy, a Premier League title, the Europa League, an FA Cup and a League Cup. This is despite having André Villas Boas, Roberto Di Matteo, Rafael Benítez, José Mourinho and now Guus Hiddink in charge of first team duties.
City has won the Premier League and League Cup since Begiristain and Soriano joined the club and the pair have masterminded the revamp of the club’s youth set-up, which has now surpassed United’s own system as Manchester’s premier academy.
In comparison United has won just the Premier League and, charitably, a Community Shield since 2011. United has boasted more managers than trophies since 2011.
Of course it’s too much to completely credit Emanalo, Granovskaia, Soriano and Begiristain with their clubs’ respective trophy haul, and in the case of Chelsea the sporting set-up has to take a big portion of the blame for the club’s problems this season. Yet, this role has provided an extra layer stability that United currently does not have. United’s rivals are also far savvier operating in the transfer market than United’s executive vice-chairman.
Looking across the continent, United’s contemporaries such as Bayern Munich and Barcelona have successfully run with sporting directors, with each club managing to minimise any damaging effects of a head coach departing. One only has to look at Bayern’s brutal efficiency in securing Carlo Ancelotti when the club knew that Pep Guardiola had decided to move on.
At United the club is finally overhauling the youth set-up, whilst Moyes set about reforming the scouting system during his brief tenure at Old Trafford. Add to that the scattergun transfer policy and it points to an organisation with a piecemeal strategy.
Even if United decides to retain the current model who could conceivably properly perform the tasks of a club manager? Moyes was woefully out of his depth whilst Van Gaal cannot manage on force of character alone.
José Mourinho could succeed, but there is no history to suggest that he can manage a club over a long period of time given his attritional nature.
Another point to consider is the responsibility an all-consuming managerial role entails. Will Guardiola, for example, want to take on that role at United or would he be more comfortable as a head coach at City? The best coaches in the world are not from the British Isles and more often than not they work in a structure that incorporates a sporting or technical director.
Ironically, Ferguson acted like a director of football delegating coaching duties to Mike Phelan and René Meulensteen whilst trusting his brother, Martin, with the chief scouting duties. Sir Alex could count on Gill to negotiate transfers and handle the administrative side of player recruitment.
Moyes and van Gaal are more hands on in their approach to coaching, and in the former Evertonian’s case scouting as well. Those are only two aspects of the managerial job, but given the size and demands of United it stretches thin the man at the top. In its current guise the job of manager is too big for one man to handle.
Recruiting a sporting director will not cure all ills. Indeed, Sir Matt Busby took up the role of general manager after his retirement, but his presence hindered his successors. Van Gaal also knows of the pitfalls of the technical director role having suffered a turbulent time in the position at Ajax from 2003 to 2004.
And clubs that do possess sporting directors are still capable of making poor choices recruiting players and coaching staff. In Barcelona’s case a recruitment ban resulted from the club breaking transfer regulations with respect to under-18 players – it led to Andoni Zubizarreta and Carles Puyol being dismissed and resigning from their sporting director positions respectively.
“If you have the right organisation, the highest in the hierarchy should be the football director. It is the way it is in Germany, Spain and Holland,” observed Frank Arnesen, Chelsea’s former sporting director.
“England doesn’t know yet exactly how to make it work,” he continued, “they don’t know how to make it gel with the manager and director. If the manager is the highest in the hierarchy, then the sporting director is just a head scout and that is not what you want.
“The manager should be a head coach in charge of everything around the first team. He picks the team and the squad. He makes the players better every day.”
Arnesen’s line of thinking is anathema to the traditionalists. Yet, United isn’t progressing under the current managerial set-up and, more worryingly, there is a distinct lack of football expertise at the club.
There isn’t, for example, a cabal of former United players in prominent positions within the club to protecting its identity a la Bayern Munich. To paraphrase President Lyndon B. Johnson it’s also probably better to have them inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.
There isn’t a director of football dedicated to implementing a playing style in line with the club’s traditions across all levels, from the first-team to grass roots. There is no figure in a leading capacity that has the expertise at dealing at the sharp end of the transfer market. There’s no one to oversee see the overall development and evolution of United’s playing style over the long term.
There there’s Woodward – a man who looks like he’s bitten off more than he can chew.
It is wildly optimistic to think that United’s next manager – or head coach – will be at the helm for more than a few years. Such is the nature of modern football that few head coaches can hope for a long shelf life. Given that observation a director of football is required to ensure a level of continuity that is not present at United.
Would Woodward want to look for a sporting director though? The executive vice-chairman appears to enjoy his responsibilities and it seems that he is determined to make himself a big name in the game by landing marquee transfer targets. Woodward’s eagerness to prove his worth hasn’t gone unnoticed amongst the hard-nosed agents of the football world.
This is to United’s detriment as the club bumbles in the market. It may come in time, to state the obvious, Woodward doesn’t have the requisite experience to negotiate the transfer market in a fashion that addresses the needs of United’s first team squad. Without a stable force like Ferguson or Gill, Woodward is struggling to maintain United’s identity.
And unless the club lucks out and finds another Sir Matt Busby or Ferguson there’s a real danger of moving from one manager to another in search of success. Given the state of modern football, and the need for near immediate reward, it’s inevitable that head coaches will come and go as the energy required to deliver the goods can be emotionally draining.
It’s one more reason to appoint a director of football – affording United the opportunity to make long-term plans on a sporting level, whilst providing room for the club to bring in the so-called ‘super-coaches’.
The current path offers little hope. Van Gaal could turn things around, although it looks unlikely. The job is surely too big for Ryan Giggs despite his ambitions. Guardiola, meanwhile, has never shown the inclination to settle at any club for a long period, whilst José Mourinho has never managed a club for more than three full seasons.
There is a systemic problem at the club and it will need to address it sooner rather than later. The structure increasingly looks only suitable to deliver short-term solutions.
If there’s any club that’s currently crying out for a sporting director it’s United.