It was, one supporter departing Old Trafford claimed, the worst Manchester United performance in more than 30 years. Perhaps not, there have been some truly devastating defeats in that time, but few supporters can remember less entertainment on a night where United’s passivity in the face of a supposedly inferior opposition reached a fresh nadir. Indeed, the Reds’ narrow FA Cup victory over League One Sheffield United, despite a rash of defeats in December, may yet come to be seen as peak Louis van Gaal – a day when the tide finally turned in the endgame of the Dutchman’s Old Trafford departure. Read More
“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. Read More
Just when you thought the crisis has hit its lowest point, Louis van Gaal’s side found a way to burrow further into the abyss. Following another comprehensive defeat at the hands of Stoke City the club has now lost four games in a row, something the Red Devils have not suffered since 1961. The side is also now winless in seven games. Can the situation get any worse?
The answer might be yes – a home clash to finish the year awaits, with Chelsea visiting Old Trafford on Monday. Optimism hasn’t been at a lower ebb at any point during the Van Gaal era, and most fans are hoping he is either given his marching orders or falls on his own sword before the end of the year.
Criticism of the Dutchman is almost certainly justified, with defence of his methods now as flimsy as the efforts of his back-four. Despite Van Gaal’s successes in rebuilding the club from the ground up, for which he deserves credit, on-field performances have at best stalled and are arguably going backwards. Patience with the process has reached a pivotal moment.
Comparison’s with David Moyes grow by the day – the two managers records are comparable, with Van Gaal’s number no longer that favourable. Yet the common thread between the two men is less the results, but the man who hired them: Edward Gareth Woodward.
Woodward was promoted to the role of executive vice-chairman when David Gill stepped aside in 2013, following Sir Alex Ferguson out the door. Whilst Woodward is clearly a marketing guru, the former banker has essentially acted as the Chief Executive Officer, Commercial Director and Director of Football for United in the past two years. It isn’t working.
The reality, of course, is that Woodward is succeeding in running United as a business, but not as a football club. The question remains as to why Woodward appears to be immune to media criticism given that he now has two managerial failures behind him. If Van Gaal is in the firing line, then Woodward should join him.
Woodward has not been clear of blame from the club’s fans since he was promoted to the top job. He is, after all, a figurehead for the Glazer’s ownership of the club – a controversial topic within itself – whilst appearing to place financial success far above on-field performance. Woodward, it appears, fails to grasp that on the pitch success also means that the dollars will follow.
Woodward’s first window in charge was underwhelming – he hired Moyes, then failed in pursuit of a string of star players, leading to a very public display of panic on transfer deadline day. Marouane Fellaini joined for £27.5 million in August 2013 when the Belgian could have been signed for four million less had he a move been completed in July.
This followed a tortuous summer, with fruitless pursuits of players that, in some cases, were never likely to join the club. It has become an unfortunate routine, with supporters teased on an almost daily basis once transfer windows open – an embarrassing turn of events for a club of United’s stature.
Woodward chased Leighton Baines through summer 2013, although the defender was never close to a move, with the vice chair leading a naïve series of low bids for both the left-back and his teammate Fellaini. The pursuit indicated a gross lack of experience in transfer negotiation and a lack of respect for the selling club, with Everton already hesitant to join negotiations.
Then, for all of United’s spending power and willing show of financial muscle, the club could not tempt Gareth Bale to stay in England and make the move from Tottenham Hotspur. Despite reportedly offering north of £100 million for the Welshman, Bale joined Real Madrid that summer for a world record transfer fee.
Cesc Fabregas also turned his back on interest from United and a year later led the Premier League in assists as Chelsea reclaimed the Premier League. Fabregas is struggling this season, but at the time the Reds Devils were in desperate need of creativity in midfield.
Fabregas’ compatriot Thiago Alcantara also seemed to be on his way from Spain before Bayern Munich’s late interest, and Moyes’ dithering, scuppered a move. The opportunity to sign Munich’s Toni Kroos was turned down a year later, which makes even less sense now than it did then as the German flourishes in Madrid.
The list goes on. Woodward’s apparent interest in Mats Hummels and Arturo Vidal approach farcical proportions, leading to accusations of amateurism in the transfer market. It was and is unacceptable given United’s stature and does not appear to happen to other European giants. The longer the club holds am interest in Cristiano Ronaldo the more it mirrors that of the ex who cannot accept their former partner has moved on.
Worse than amateur behaviour, United’s transfer policy seems to prioritise commercial interests ahead of playing needs. It led directly to United’s acquisition of Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria, neither of whom lasted 12 months in Manchester before bolting for greener pastures. The Argentine’s departure may prove to be a mistake, but Di Maria’s signature, despite his lack of fit within Van Gaal’s system, must also be questioned.
Then there is United’s chase for a central defender over the last two summers. It is, frankly, ridiculous that someone of a suitable calibre has not yet arrived at Old Trafford. Sergio Ramos used United’s interest to secure a new contract and the captaincy at Real Madrid, whilst Nicolas Otamendi now plies his trade on the other side of Manchester – and was signed at a relatively reasonable price.
Woodward might be a lifelong United fan, whose father attended the 1968 European Cup Final, but the executive apparently does not have the nous to lead United’s transfer policy. That is not to understate his genius in globalising United’s commercial operation, but what happens on the field is more important to the club’s future.
Woodward’s failings through five transfer windows and two managerial appointments is threatening to drive United into a sustained period of failure. Meanwhile, rivals at home and abroad have progressed far beyond United on the pitch, perhaps to the point that it will be hard to attract players from elite clubs, even if they are being forced out the door, as Di Maria was at Real.
The harsh reality is that even United’s English rivals are outpacing the Reds on and off the field. Pep Guardiola seems closer to the blue side of Manchester than the red, whilst United slips further down the league table with each defeat. United risks ‘doing a Liverpool’ and being left far behind. Perhaps for years to come.
And much of this regression can be traced back to decisions Woodward has personally made. It’s surely now time to start holding United’s vice chair to account if the club wants to move forward. The best scenario might that United’s future is one without its executive chairman.
There is a scene in the American 1990s sitcom Seinfeld in which two Italian hairdressers discuss the movie Edward Scissorhands – the one where actor Johnny Depp plays a man who has scissors for hands. “I’d like to have scissors for hands,” one of them says. “Have you ever thought about what you are going do when you go to the toilet?” the other angrily responds. You wouldn’t want to have scissors for hands when you go to the bathroom. And neither would you want to have Edward Woodward in charge of solving United’s crises. No wins in seven matches, out of the Champions League, effectively out of the title race, and facing a scrappy fight with a resurgent Tottenham Hotpsur for a place among the European élite next season.
How did it all come to this? The situation was optimistic around a month ago when United led the table for the first time after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. Further back, supporters rooted for the Netherlands in the World Cup last summer because of the club’s new manager in waiting. It all seems like a lifetime ago, and there is probably no going back for manager Louis van Gaal now. Judging by the recent games it is hard to see players working for their manager.
Van Gaal almost took a limited Netherlands to the World Cup Final and his side comfortably won the bronze match against home side Brazil – all with a cautious approach. It’s hard to blame the Dutchman for taking the same approach at United – he’s trying to win the league with a limited United squad. Van Gaal’s plan was to win the league with United, retire with his wife and let Ryan Giggs take over. And Van Gaal could have have succeeded. Supporters should not have expected thrilling football under the Dutchman.
Yet, for playing this brand of cautious football, the side has certainly made a few mistakes in the defensive area lately. It leaves open questions about United’s transfer policy. Such as the decision by vice chair Woodward to not give Patrice Evra the two-year contract the Frenchman wanted. After all, Evra recently stated that he still is a United fan, and that he always will be. Even in the seasons that weren’t his best for United Evra was very much a leader in the dressing room and the side does have a serious problem with a lack of passion and leadership on the pitch these days.
Add the very unfortunate injury to Luke Shaw and United’s problems in that area grew larger. Having Evra now would at least solve the left-back conundrum. He is not – a recent Champions League final participant – a worse player than Daley Blind, Ashley Young or anyone else United has used at left back this season.
The same is true of finding a proper replacement for Nemanja Vidic. The Serbian hated life under former manager David Moyes so much that he wanted out, and his departure to Italian football was announced in February – 2014! Not that it was a secret for United’s backroom staff. There was plenty of time, then, for Woodward to work towards bringing top-class central defenders to the club – if the vice chair had had any strategy in the transfer market like he has with marketing. Defenders such as Athletic Bilbao’s Aymeric Laporte, Atletico Madrid’s Diego Godin, Schalke’s Benedikt Höwedes, or Borussia Dortmund’s Mats Hummels could have been deployed next to the improved Chris Smalling in United’s team.
After all, another injury crises could have been forecast, with Phil Jones still being, well, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo spending much of last season injured. Woodward thought he had secured a new defender this summer in Sergio Ramos – and he duly told Van Gaal that the Spaniard would arrive, only to be left with egg on his face when Ramos predictably signed a new and very lucrative contract with his club. Not exactly the first time someone has used United’s genuine interest to get a hefty pay rise under Woodward. And it won’t be the last either. There is little benefit in briefing journalists to “watch this space” or leaking transfer targets to sections of the fourth estate.
Both Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao were Edward Woodward’s signings and they were both very successful. Not on the pitch, no, but that is secondary in Woodward’s thinking. What counts is an excel spreadsheet of shirt sales, and both the South-Americans sold plenty to justify their price and salary.
Roy Keane claims Woodward told David Moyes that he could get “either Bale or Ronaldo” in the summer of 2013. Maybe that’s why the Scotsman looks so bemused at Marouane Fellaini’s unveiling. Recently sacked Chelsea manager José Mourinho says that managers who bring their former players with them to new clubs need to work on their network of scouts. It’s a fair point. If Everton was the shop of choice, then Woodward could have bought the talented Ross Barkley, but instead he overpaid for Fellaini and supporters have suffered ever since.
Not that Van Gaal has helped himself with some of his own bizarre dealings lately. What, for example, has Morgan Schneiderlin done to be dropped to the bench? United look a different side with him in it. Van Gaal’s decisions on Javier Hernandez, James Wilson, and Adnan Januzaj – is the latter not better than Jesse Lingard? – have been strange with United struggling for goals. Januzaj was widely considered to be one of the world’s brightest young stars in 2013 and Mourinho singled him out for praise after Moyes’ first game against Chelsea at Old Trafford in August 2013. “He is only eighteen but he plays like he is twenty-five! It is very impressive,” said the unemployed Portuguese manager after the young winger toyed with Branislav Ivanovic.
While Mourinho is privately drooling for the United job, sacking Van Gaal is more complicated than many fans believe. There is, after all, a massive severance package involved, and we know that the owners revere bottom line above all. That’s why they waited until Champions League qualifying was impossible before Moyes got the boot. If United had finished fourth he would have kept his job. There is also a clause or two about confidentiality. After all, the last thing Woodward wants is Van Gaal telling the world exactly what he knows about United’s chief.
Not that hiring Mourinho would solve much. He cannot be expected to magically transform the team into an attacking machine. Mourinho learned his approach from the Dutchman. And the Portuguese likes to spend money too, lots of it. Van Gaal’s net spend at United is, contrary to the way it is normally presented, quite low at ‘only’ £100 million. For an institution such as United that’s a drop in the ocean – and less than Manchester City has spent in the same period. Without a proper strategy in the transfer market it is almost pointless to talk about money spent.
Another match, another game without a win, another non-performance. Mediocrity is now the new normal at Manchester United. In truth, defeat to Norwich City at the weekend should not have come as a surprise. Nothing in recent displays suggested that Louis van Gaal’s team is on the cusp of ending an uninspiring run. And true to form, bereft of guile and confidence, the team went down to an opponent whose solid, if predictable, game plan worked.
The visitors made limited possession count at Old Trafford; United once again looked blunt up front despite hogging 70 per cent of the ball. It is no surprise that the home side enjoyed only two shots on target, and its perhaps fitting that the under-performing Red Devils should be led out by a sub-par captain who marked his 500th game for the club with a loss.
Yet, with another defeat comes a new set of questions. Some with no obvious answers.
Keeping the faith
“The night is darkest just before the dawn. And I promise you the dawn is coming” – Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight.
Van Gaal’s United tenure is now in its darkest hour. No wins in six, three defeats in succession, back-to-back defeats in the league to promoted clubs, and a first loss at Old Trafford to a promoted team since 2001. Yet, the greatest concern is not just poor results, but also the manner in which defeats are coming. United’s lack of cutting edge is astonishing and Van Gaal’s football ‘philosophy’ has clipped the team’s wings. So much so that the club’s style of play now resembles one famously epic encounter between Portugal and Mexico in … The Simpsons.
Van Gaal knows more than anyone that this iteration of United will struggle to challenge for a Champions League spot, let alone make a charge at the title. The Dutchman admitted on Saturday to being “worried” about his future as manager and so he should be.
Optimists can point to the nadir of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign, which culminated in the infamous banner declaring that it had been “3 years of excuses and it’s still crap. Ta ra Fergie.” The Scot turned it around, of course, leaving some evidence that a coach of Van Gaal’s stature is not yet finished at Old Trafford.
Then there’s the January transfer window and the opportunity it brings to strengthen a squad in need of high quality attacking and defensive reinforcements. That said, given supporters’ frustrations and rumours of discord among the players, it will take an investment of faith from the board to back Van Gaal in January. And to push the analysis to its cynical extreme, perhaps the only positive in keeping the Dutchman – for Ed Woodward and the Glazers at least – is that the focus of supporters’ ire remains on the 64-year-old and not the board.
Van Gaal may hope that the dawn is coming, but as Harvey Dent once noted “you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Van Gaal has become more a villain with every passing game.
“Jorge, get me Jose!”
“Mourinho,” wrote journalist Diego Torres in Prepare to Lose: The Mourinho Era, “thought that Ferguson was, besides his ally, also his friend and godfather. He was convinced that they were tied by a relationship of genuine trust.
“He thought that his fabulous collection of titles constituted an ‘endorsement’ unreachable to any other contenders. When he knew that Ferguson had chosen Moyes, the Everton coach, he was struck by a terrible disbelief. Moyes hadn’t won absolutely anything!”
It is the story of a man who feels that it is his destiny to manage United. It is also the story of United’s board who, despite all reassurances to the contrary, completely botched the post-Ferguson transition.
Mourinho’s character and style of football is not to everyone’s liking, but to overlook the Portuguese in favour of a manager who had no experience winning trophies, let alone managing a super-club, smacks of negligence. To miss out on Mourinho once is sloppy; to let him slip by again would be incompetence. Mourinho may be tarnished after a turbulent third season in his second stint at Stamford Bridge, but he is still a winner.
Given United’s relationship with Jorge Mendes getting a hold of the two-time Champions League winner should not be difficult. It’s a question of how much United’s hierarchy wants Mourinho at the club. After all, with the success comes the baggage. Mourinho’s ‘scorched earth’ approach brings trophies, but at the expense of long-term development.
Moreover, the former Real Madrid manager’s innate desire for conflict does not sit well at United. The 52-year-old should be under no illusions that a higher standard of behaviour is required at Old Trafford. Could Mourinho could keep his cool if Pep Guardiola turns up at Manchester City? He would certainly relish the battle.
There are potential gains for the manager too. If he takes over from Van Gaal and contrives to win the title this season he will become the “genius” of Woodward’s folklore. Whether he could deliver the Premier League with panache is another question.
Yet, it is no secret that Mourinho want the United job. Maybe the stars have aligned. United has an opportunity to recruit the manager the club once rejected. This time Woodward may just take it.
Guardiola to pep up United
The number of ‘big name’ coaches on the move this summer is significant. Guardiola is expected to leave Bayern Munich, with Carlo Ancelotti succeeding the Spaniard from the start of next season. United has already missed on Ancelotti; the club cannot afford to do the same with Pep.
After all, Guardiola has already admitted to liking the Old Trafford “atmosphere” in Martí Perarnau’s book Pep Confidential. “I could see myself coaching here one day,” he is said to add. If true, United should test that sentiment by attempting to steal the Spaniard from under City’s nose.
Guardiola may not have experience managing in the Premier League, but that is unlikely to be a barrier to success. Mourinho, Ancelotti and Manuel Pellegrini won the Premier League in their first season in the country. It’s no stretch to think that Pep could do the same.
The Spaniard inherited a mess at Barcelona, although had Lionel Messi’s genius to call on. The real credit is in fashioning the Catalan club’s midfield into one of the most efficient, ruthless and creative forces in football’s history.
Guardiola can also deliver the style of football United fans crave. Pep’s Barcelona, at the club’s peak, was one of the most spellbinding teams of the last 50 years. And Bayern comes close. Both clubs demand European success – and Guardiola’s remit at United would be to reestablish domestic dominance and return the Old Trafford club to the European élite.
Would Guardiola commit to a ‘long-term’ project or move on after three or four years? With the club having lost out on Ancelotti and Jürgen Klopp it is surely irrelevant.
Give it to Giggs
The alternative, of course, is to appoint the man Van Gaal believes is his successor. Ryan Giggs would be a romantic choice if a risky one, although there is no doubt that he wants the post. Giggs’ march to the technical area, with United struggling to break down Norwich had, to use another movie metaphor, the sense of Darth Vader turning against the Emperor.
Giggs’ appointment would not come without precedent either. Barcelona took a risk with Guardiola and Juventus did the same with Antonio Conte. Yet, for every Guardiola and Conte there’s also Ciro Ferrera and Filippo Inzaghi. Club legends do not always make the grade as head coach.
Still, Giggs is being groomed for the hot seat and his appointment would offer a boost to the collective morale. The Welshman requires no guide to the Premier League and – forgive the cliché – is United to the core, including understanding the requirement for fast attacking football. Giggs would also command the respect of players and fans – commodities that Van Gaal has seemingly lost.
Super-coaches may bring back winning football but, as pretentious as it sounds, can they bring back United’s style? Giggs at least knows what that is.
Appoint a sporting director
United might well hire one of Europe’s super-coaches; the chances that they stay on for 26 trophy laden years is non-existent. If the club is set on a course of appointing a head coach every few years then the emphasis will remain on Woodward to secure the right players and coaches. It is a goal for which the club’s executive vice chairman appears ill-equipped, with his focus on marquee signings made for marketing purposes.
Appointing a sporting director will not solve all ills, but it is a move that promises expertise lacking in the current set up. Indeed, the role of manager is probably now too big for one person, especially if Woodward continues to act as the de facto director of football.
That the club is now looking to appoint full-time scouts and revamp the youth set-up is a sign that the hierarchy recognises some faults. Should the club also appoint a sporting director he will fill a gap on the administrative and recruitment side of the club.
Plan of attack
Whatever United’s move, Van Gaal knows that he is on borrowed time. The Dutchman recently told United fans not to live in the past. If he knows his history Van Gaal will understand that the roots of mediocrity were sown when the Glazers acquired the club in 2005. The family enjoyed the good fortune of Sir Alex Ferguson’s management – and maximized growth with minimal expenditure. Now they’re feeling the pinch after years of under-investment forced a splurge over the last two seasons in an attempt to rebuild the team.
Yet, the Glazers can no longer rely on genius. If only to protect the bottom line the next move is critical if the club is to remain challengers.
Will the force awaken or will the empire fall flat? At this stage the latter appears to be more likely.
“Ridículo” ran the headline in two of Spain’s leading sports dailies last week. No translation needed there. Except that the farce surrounding David de Gea’s aborted transfer to Real Madrid extends beyond the Spanish capital to include a little too much of Manchester United’s approach to the transfer window. It is the third summer in which the club’s executive judgement must be called into question.
The window began with Memphis Depay’s acquisition in May and ended amid bickering about the intricacies of FIFA’s transfer matching system. From the hope of progress to come, to the relative embarrassment of a summer that offered a glimpse into a world of planned squad improvement, but concluded with too many questions for real comfort. It is a window that has left Louis van Gaal better off than 12 months ago, but still short of the resources needed to mount a truly effective title challenge
The club’s critics, including Real Madrid chief Florentino Perez, crudely frame the narrative of United’s summer as one of expensive incompetence where the truth encompasses a far broader story. There is a path forward to a future in which United returns to preeminence, albeit one there are few guarantees the club will take.
El Presidente was moved to labeled United’s vice chairman, Ed Woodward, “inexperienced’ following Madrid’s failed de Gea chase. The Spaniard, like many, missed the nuance in the considerable farce – one that defies the basest evaluation. After all, subtly is a quality that rarely fares well amid all the media noise that accompanies each summer’s extended haggling.
“It’s the inexperience of the new people in charge,” concluded Pérez last week. “This is exactly the same as what happened before with Coentrão and Herrera and we thought they would have learned from what happened in the past.”
Base, perhaps, but Perez’ accusation does cut to the heart of supporter concerns about Woodward’s ability to land the biggest deals. The former banker has brought in more than £250 million in new talent since taking over from David Gill, but the impression remains that more astute executives have too often outmaneuvered Woodward.
The charge from Madrid is perhaps darker still – that Woodward’s bumbling cost the Spanish giants a player, De Gea the move he so obviously desires, and United a £29 million fee.
Still, while the success of United’s transfer strategy this summer will be judged in May, a window that began with the club having planned ahead, ended with more questions laid at Woodward’s door. It is an uncomfortable position for the 43-year-old executive, who has enjoyed success on the commercial front, while being widely ridiculed for his exploits in the transfer market. Not all of it is fair.
In fact United’s riposte to Perez’ rant was sharp and, it is worth noting, credible. Briefing on the QT, United accused the Spanish giants of, essentially, bringing failure upon themselves with a bid at the 11th hour. Moreover, Van Gaal has privately expressed his delight at United’s summer business, including retaining De Gea.
“The facts speak for themselves. The documents were in on time. Real seem intent to move the focus away from their own clumsiness this summer,” a United spokesman told the Press Association. “We all like to blame others but if you let one slip through your fingers then ultimately the culpability is yours.”
Quite. Others view Perez’ agenda as less opaque than the childish sequence of claim and its rejoinder that filled the back pages last week. Some believe that the Real president was happy to leave De Gea in Manchester for another year, allowing the popular Keylor Navas to stay in Madrid, and the club to pick up a free transfer next summer.
Whatever the truth, Perez’ narrative strikes a chord with some precisely because it hints at that wider perceived truth about Woodward. It is a view that may remain the dominant assessment of the Englishman until United lands the Premier League or the executive the ‘worldie’ he seemingly craves.
Outwith De Gea, United’s summer appeared predominantly logical though. Signatures filled significant holes: Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin add class and defensive cover in midfield; Memphis Depay pace and a goal threat in the attack. Matteo Darmian has already proven an inspired signing at a bargain price to cover the hole left by the departing Rafael da Silva.
Elsewhere, United’s window has been more curious. And once again a little haphazard.
The discussion surrounding Anthony Martial has largely focused on the French teenager’s price, which could potentially top £60 million if all bonuses are paid. Even in an inflated market, fueled by an upcoming 70 per cent increase in television revenues, the figure is eye watering. But the decision to complete the deal – with Chelsea seemingly closing in – was made at the very last moment, suggesting that opportunism and not long-term planning was very much to the fore. It is not the first time that observation has been made about United’s transfer strategy under Woodward.
Van Gaal has stronger options now. No question about that. Yet, a transfer strategy is also one of balance. United’s acquisition of six players this summer – two midfielders, two young forwards, a defender and a goalkeeper – is balanced, but counter-acted by Van Gaal’s decision to let 13 players leave permanently. More still on loan.
Some departures were inevitable: the aforementioned Rafael, Jonny Evans and Nani. Tom Cleverley has long since accepted a future away from Old Trafford, while Anders Lindegaard has spent much of the past two years “picking his nose” on the bench. Angel Di María’s unhappiness in Manchester was no secret. The Argentine’s performances, if not his talent, are unlikely to be missed.
Other departures were more questionable in the context of Van Gaal’s squad. The decision to let Robin van Persie leave for Fenerbache made sense only in the event United secured a replacement striker. The club did not. That decision was later compounded by Javier Hernández’ sale to Bayer Leverkusen, which leaves Van Gaal with Wayne Rooney as the squad’s only number nine. It is an imbalance that could well come back to haunt the Dutchman if Rooney’s stark slump in form is not resolved in the coming months.
Meanwhile, United’s failure to land an experience centre-back exposed the ‘Sergio Ramos or bust’ policy this summer. With Daley Blind still occupying a central defensive berth – and brutally exposed against Swansea City last weekend – the decision not to pursue Nicolas Otamendi, or another high-class option, could well become a source of regret. Not least because Van Gaal has fallen out with yet another player, Marcos Rojo, over the Argentine’s failure to renew his passport, while Phil Jones is injured once again. Nobody should trust the Englishman’s fitness.
The most oddball departure of the summer came with Adnan Januzaj’s loan to Borussia Dortmund. The Belgian’s technical excellence, pace and potential goal threat are all qualities Van Gaal has publicly identified as missing from his squad.
More broadly, Van Gaal’s open-door policy has a led to a rapid transition in the nature of United’s squad. Just seven first team players remain from Ferguson’s time at the club: De Gea, Jones, Rooney, Michael Carrick, Chris Smalling, Ashley Young, and Antonia Valencia.
Moreover, of the youngsters offered an opportunity last season – Tyler Blackett, Patrick McNair, Reece James, James Wilson – few, if any, are likely to feature in the months ahead. Blackett and James have left the club; McNair and Wilson will enjoy only intermittent spells on the bench. The club’s proud record of having at least one player from the academy in the match-day squad for more than 3,500 games in succession is likely to be broken this season.
The changes paint a picture of a squad development strategy that does not always sit well with supporters or everyone connected with the club.
“It was always about creating players. Now it is the opposite,” said former assistant manager Carlos Quieroz last week. “There is panic buying. You have to prepare and then make the decisions together. You can still make wrong decisions but we never made panic decisions when buying players.”
And yet, with so many millions spent, the focus also returns to United’s balance, or lack thereof. Woodward’s failure to land a world superstar may haunt the executive; his inability to fill all of the holes in Van Gaal’s squad is likely to limit the team’s competitiveness. Now that’s an assessment worthy of the ridículo moniker.
He is the Glazer’s poster-child; the man who masterminded the family’s 2005 leveraged takeover of Manchester United and has executed on the Americans’ vision of a globally sponsored brand. Yet, all is not well with Ed Woodward, United’s executive vice chairman – the man who has led the club into the most troubling period in a generation.
United finished seventh in the Premier League last season and to compound supporters’ growing frustrating Woodward has seemingly struggled to strengthen the club’s squad this summer. Despite spending some £80 million on Ander Herrera, Luke Shaw and Marcos Rojo, star names have failed to appear, beaming, before the Manchester press pack holding a Red scarf aloft. It has left hollow Woodward’s hubris about United’s supposedly awesome financial power.
Indeed, with a little over a week before the transfer window closes it is hard to characterise United’s squad as stronger than the one David Moyes left behind at the end of last season. Not least after eight, mostly experienced, players departed Old Trafford this summer: Ryan Giggs, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidić, Patrice Evra, Alexander Büttner, Anders Lindegaard, Bebé, and Nani.
It was a similar story of failure in the transfer market last year, with the club humiliated by a series of failed bids for big-name European stars. Woodward then oversaw the farcical £27.5 million purchase of dud Marouane Fellaini – and for £4 million over the player’s buyout clause fee. Little wonder Woodward has become the butt of supporters’ contempt. Many, most perhaps, have begun to characterise the former JP Morgan banker as inept and naïve.
On the positive side Woodward has overseen a massive increase in United’s commercial revenue, including a £750 million 10-year kit deal with adidas that is the world’s most lucrative. The executive’s strategy has so vastly increased United’s enterprise value that the Glazer family will extract around $200 million from the sale of shares in New York before the summer is out. He is seemingly untouchable in the top post.
Yet, to paraphrase Sir Matt Busy, it is on the pitch that supporters would rather see money spent – a cause in which Woodward has failed more often than not. Should the Essex-born executive fail to secure further players before the window closes Van Gaal will be left with fewer resources than he contemplated when accepting the job in June.
While Woodward has seemingly excelled in delivering new revenues from brands desperate to be associated with the club, he has failed to replicate those riches on the pitch. It leaves an obvious question:
Manchester United’s board, it was said, moved to fire David Moyes early so the new manager might enjoy a head start in the transfer market this summer. One wonders, with just over two weeks until the World Cup begins in Brazil, whether the club’s executives have considered the meaning of irony. Indeed, Louis van Gaal’s appointment, although widely praised by players, media and supporters alike, is set to confer little immediate edge, necessitating a late market scramble in which executive vice chairman Ed Woodward is patently ill-equipped to succeed.
van Gaal’s delayed appointment, together with this summer’s tournament, means that United must instigate summer business without the Dutchman’s direct involvement – or potentially wait until late summer for the 62-year-old to start his new job in earnest. It is a crucial point, with Woodward’s lack of market connections brutally exposed last year, and Sir Alex Ferguson now largely marginalised within the United hierarchy.
In fact the club has little room for manoeuvre. van Gaal is tied up until mid-July and the club’s pre-season tour commences at the Rose Bowl just 11 days after the World Cup concludes.
United’s busy schedule will divert focus away from the market. Training will have officially recommenced for non-World Cup bound players more than a week before United faces LA Galaxy in Pasedena. The tour schedule potentially concludes on 4 August at the Sun Life Stadium in Miami. Meanwhile, the Premier League resumes on 16 August, with the transfer window closing at midnight on 1 September.
The effect, with much of the Moyes-era scouting and preparatory worked now comprehensively ditched, is to considerably shorted United’s window, decrease the margin for error, and potentially instigate a last-minute rush for talent that has terrifying echoes of last summer’s farce.
Yet, United can ill afford further transfer gaffes in the coming weeks, no matter how large the supposed budget. After all, the departures of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić, together with desperately required midfield restructuring, necessitates a significant influx of new talent.
If Javier Hernández is, as expected, granted a post-World Cup exit, or Danny Welbeck obtains an escape from his “unhappiest season,” United may well need striking reinforcements too. This is to say little about the future of wingers Nani, Antonio Valenica and Ashley Young. In an era of evolving tactics, van Gaal’s belief in width remains unshaken, but his faith in the aforementioned underperforming trio is surely far less profound.
Set aside potential disruption among United’s forwards and van Gaal is seeking an experienced central defender, new left back, two central midfielders and a wide player as a minimum. In a summer set to be busier than most the club can ill afford time lost. All of which also leaves United prey to the whims of predatory agents and rivals seeking a premium from a club desperate for reinforcements.
Still, the Dutchman’s arrival has at least brought a swift conclusion to speculation surrounding a move for Cesc Fabregas – a love long unrequited – or the outstanding Bayern Munich midfielder Toni Kroos. Reds of a more cynical bent have long suspected the latter of playing United for fools amid ongoing contract negotiations with the Bavarians. After all, the fool is a role Woodward ably perfected last summer.
Nor is the Reds move for the £30 million Southampton left-back Luke Shaw now guaranteed, with Chelsea offering genuine competition for the 18-year-old’s signature. The price, hefty contract demands, and player’s lack of top flight experience, rank the transfer as one of United’s riskiest in recent times, even if Shaw has the potential to garner a place among the game’s élite. The fall-back full-back options of Alexander Buttner, a re-signed Patrice Evra, or a plethora of alternates, brings no guarantee of renewed defensive solidity.
Meanwhile, Moyes’ answer to the club’s ongoing central midfield problem, Sporting’s William Carvalho, is now available on the open market. United is seemingly no longer the front-runner for the 22-year-old’s signature, if interested at all. And yet competition for midfielders will be fierce this summer, with Manchester City, Chelsea and Barcelona each seeking world-class reinforcement.
Predictably an information vacuum has left the international media to file a raft of stories forecasting United’s swoop for a clutch of Dutch players: Daley Blind, Jordy Clasie and Bruno Martins Indi. There are column inches to fill, but few of them are given to real substance.
The truth, however, is that United remains far from completing a significant amount of rebuilding this summer, with the new manager required to deliver Champions League qualification as a bare minimum in 2015. Indeed, the erosion of United’s brand value, if not yet the share price, leaves the club’s bean counters on sharp alert for any sign of impending failure next season. Moyes understands better than most that there is little patience for the long-term view insincerely spun after the Scot’s appointment.
Brilliant though van Gaal was proven at Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern and the Dutch national team, he has rarely suffered for a lack of raw ingredients at some of Europe’s finest clubs. The veteran secured the 1995 Champions League with a youthful Ajax outfit, but it is a process for which van Gaal does not boast the luxury of time at Old Trafford.
All the more reason to arm the new man with high-class acquisitions – and the time to bed players into club, squad, and team. van Gaal is seemingly unlikely to enjoy the latter. The former is open to significant question.
It leaves the club on the edge and supporters increasingly restless at the ongoing lack of communication, let alone market activity. Eight years of Glazer ownership has instilled an acute sense of cynicism towards the club’s penchant for transfer market spin over real substance.
This sense of distrust is now firmly bound to the executive vice chairman, who is an expert in briefing the nation’s fourth estate, but seemingly inept at executing on key transfer market deals.
Yet, amid the scrabble to reinforce United’s ailing squad it is curious that United should choose the moment to laud Woodward’s appointment as “chairman of the European Club Association marketing and communications working group.” The former J.P. Morgan banker is an expert in the global marketing of United’s brand. Communications is often lacking.
It is an observation that can also be made of United’s focus. Once again the club is seemingly left behind. Woodward has little time to prove the doubters wrong.
There have been many words written about Manchester United’s strategy in the transfer market in summer; few of them positive. It is little wonder given the club’s propensity for generating farce since the window opened on 20 May. In between there have been 106 days of such amateurish tomfoolery that by the end many supporters’ overwhelming emotion is one of relief. No, not that David Moyes finally captured the Belgian international Marouanne Fellaini, but that vice chairman Ed Woodward can cause embarrassment no longer.
Embarrassed by Thiago Alcântara’s inevitable decision to join Bayern Munch, and humiliated by Cesc Fabregas’ manipulation of United’s interest, Woodward’s dash home from Australia in mid-July has brought little but shame, especially on transfer deadline day. Six weeks of such maladroit bumbling at which it is best to laugh for the tears will otherwise flow.
Summer did not begin well, with United making little secret of the club’s interest in bringing the former Barcelona midfielder Thiago to Old Trafford. But United’s preoccupation with the 22-year-old did little but strengthen the player’s negotiating hand – an entourage including, laughably, Pep Guardiola’s brother securing a €20 million transfer that the player had always sought.
Thiago’s choice brought little need to panic. After all, United has missed out on players before, from Ronaldinho, to Eden Hazard and Michael Ballack. While United’s pull is strong, so is that of Europe’s institutional giants and the nouveau riche now inhabiting the continent.
Yet, United submitted a barely credible bid for Fabregas just 24 hours after his under-study’s arrival in southern Germany. The timing was horrible, although it was a transfer always unlikely following Barcelona’s multi-year pursuit of the midfielder. That United’s offer amounted to barely €26 million brought little but public derision.
Still, the club ploughed on failing to mentally segregate a lock out from the start of transfer negotiations. Barça had no interest in the latter and neither, as it turns out, did the player. Follow-up bids of €30 million and €35 million presumably lie dormant on the spike marked ‘no reply necessary’.
United followed a similar strategy in its pursuit of Leighton Baines, with Everton rejecting first a £12 million offer in June, a follow-up bid of the same figure a month later and two £15 million offers as the window drew in. Woodward’s assumptive close too presumptive, and never closed.
Yet, mid summer took a curious turn of what now seems like inactivity. That final offer for Fabregas came as July drew to a close – a full month before Monday’s Shakespearean farce took place. More than four weeks in which Woodward and United’s army of lawyers, agents and middlemen could activate buy-out clauses in the contracts of midfielders Ander Herrera and Everton’s Fellaini, whatever the legal complexities.
Planning, there has been none of it.
Still, nothing preceding Monday’s virtual dash around Europe prepared supporters for the tsunami of legitimate ridicule generated by United’s efforts to secure Fellaini, together with Herrera, Leighton Baines, Daniele De Rossi, Fábio Coentrão and, as the player revealed, Sami Khedira on deadline day.
Indeed, United’s story that the club tried, and failed, to negotiate Herrera’s €36 million release clause down to the €30 million on offer drowned in the comedy that followed.
Herrera, seemingly convinced the deal was on, told Athletic Bilbao of his intention to leave, while three initially unnamed suits attempted to deposit the fee and papers at Liga de Fútbol Profesional (LFP) headquarters. The men left little more than an hour later citing “bureaucratic difficulties”.
‘Impostors’ briefed United’s communication department as the deal broke down late on Monday night – a claim now believed to be false, the men acting squarely on the Reds’ behalf.
In the fallout it is hard to discern which story is more embarrassing: that United refused to increase an initial bid by just €6 million for one of Europe’s more talented youngsters; or that an institution with annual revenues approaching £350 million is unable to obtain appropriate legal advice in timely fashion.
Either way the stench of rank ineptitude permeates through offices once occupied by David Gill and Sir Alex Ferguson.
Further, as United dallied on securing Fellaini, with other targets clearly a greater priority, the club was suckered into paying £4 million over the Belgian’s release fee. Coincidentally, it seems, this is a figure not far from the additional sum required to capture Herrera this summer.
United would end deadline day, fax machine on overdrive, seeking to acquire Coentrão on loan, Baines at the £15 million sum already rejected, De Rossi also on loan, and Khedira, as the window’s embers died out, for an astonishing €34 million. None succeeded – it has become the pattern of the summer.
But Moyes did secure one major deal in the final hour, Fellaini acquired for a fee totaling more than £11 million in excess of United’s opening bid. Far more, it should be noted, than the market valued the midfielder during two months in which Fellaini’s release clause remained active.
Yet, with Fellaini’s transfer United has secured a central midfielder of international standing for the first time in six years, although the Belgian divides opinion among both fans and pundits.
Strong in the tackle, but far too loose in possession, and frequently ill-disciplined, Fellaini will add muscle to United’s midfield at the expense of subtlety. It may prove to be a frustrating trade-off for those supporters seeking an attacking side in the United tradition – the Belgian is perhaps everything that Arsenal’s £42 million capture Mesut Özil is not, and the contrary.
But in that Moyes remains short – both of stellar quality in a key area and of the numbers he had sought at the summer’s dawn. More to the point, perhaps, is that Fellaini, Fabregas, Alcântara, De Rossi, Herrera and Khedira hold such diverse profiles that there appears no clear understanding of United’s requirements anyway.
Worryingly for the new man, Moyes remains a manager unable, for the time being at least, to stamp his own mark on the team; a man failed by his board and perhaps ultimately by the owners. That others have strengthened considerably can only increase the pressure to deliver in Sir Alex’ wake.
After all, while Woodward’s inexperience in a brutally competitive market has been repeatedly exposed, money nearly always walks the talk. Certainly more than the 40-year-old’s bravado in proclaiming United’s excessive spending power earlier this summer. Bids repeatedly rejected, and competitors roundly irked, paint a picture of a club seeking bargains in a seller’s market.
And when, by contrast, even Arsène Wenger spends lavishly it is fair to conclude that United’s competitors have moved on. The Reds will now move on too. Except, this time, from a humiliating summer.
It had to happen, the confab that Manchester United fans now dread, the one that ends with ‘V’ … for value. But contrary to his predecessor United manager David Moyes apparently believes that the mythical quality exists in the transfer market. The Scot just hasn’t been able to find it. Or buy it. And with just nine days to go before the transfer window closes Moyes admitted for the first time that the club may not reinforce this summer.
Indeed, those United supporters of a more cynical bent might conclude that the club had little intention of succeeding in the market this summer. After all the far-fetched chase for Thiago Alcântara, low-balled bid for Cesc Fàbregas and, frankly, embarrassing joint offer for Marouanne Fellaini and Leighton Baines were hardly conducive to success.
Rant would comment on that particular theory, but slander is still punishable as a criminal offence in some territories.
Still, while supporters might chunter on the sidelines the benefit of the considerable doubt remains with the club for a little over a week at least, Moyes insistent as he is that United is still working on bringing new faces to Old Trafford before 2 September.
There is, in fact, a “need” to add to the squad according to the 50-year-old Scot, who identified United’s midfield as an area of weakness early in the piece. But with Fàbregas and Alcântara out of sight, and Everton unwilling to trade Fellaini on the cheap, it has remained a summer of considerable frustration. Incompetence even.
Still, it is likely to be a fascinating period both on and off the field over the next 10 days, with the seemingly impotent vice chairman Ed Woodward attempting to a close a major transfer for the first time, while United faces Chelsea and Liverpool in the Premier League. It is a period when the club could gain significant momentum, or lose more ground on rivals at home and abroad.
Running out of time Moyes admitted for the first time on Friday that the club will fall back on the promise of youth should the Reds fail to augment a midfield quotient widely recognised as falling short. It is an approach that appeals to United’s legion fans, although there are few central midfielders of quality in the Reds under-21 side.
“There is a need to do it, but there is no pressure to do it,” said Moyes of United’s plans to recruit.
“We’ve been talking about it since I took the job on 1 July. I have an idea of where I’d like to strengthen and what we need to do. We have only targeted certain players and don’t have a big, big list. There are only certain quality players we want to bring to the club.
“There is a possibility [we won’t sign anybody] but the plan is we bring in one or two if we can. If the right players are available then great, but, if not, the first thing we’ll do is encourage our own young players in the squad to do as well as they did last year.”
Moyes’ belief that United can recruit at the highest level is a theory sound on paper, but seemingly much harder to enact in practice, with Woodward green in a market still governed by old-school relationships. Indeed, while United’s efforts this summer have widely been viewed with embarrassment among the club’s supporters, a naïve approach has brought little but scorn from rival clubs.
Everton, once Moyes’ home, is now basecamp for United’s sceptics, including Moyes’ former employer Bill Kenwright and the Scot’s successor Roberto Martinez. Angered by Moyes’ admission that he had accepted the United job weeks before his contract with Everton ended, Kenwright is now reportedly enraged that United has sought to unsettle two contracted players with a low bid.
Although Moyes claimed on Friday that Everton released details of the bid, it is an assertion Martinez disputes. Further, says the Spaniard, United’s seemingly amateur approach this summer is a factor of change both in the coaching set up and boardroom. With Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill gone, 40 years aggregated experience has been lost to the club.
“I’ve never seen Manchester United working in this manner before,” said Everton boss Martinez.
“When you want a player you just do the business quietly, you get it done and that’s it. I don’t know if this is a new way of working. There’s been a previous relationship of 11 years with a manager and he had a great relationship with the chairman, so you can imagine it’s extra sensitive.
“It wasn’t even a bid because it never reached any sort of valuation. There isn’t an offer on the table where anyone would consider anything. All we’ve had is a bid that doesn’t go anywhere near the reality.”
Critics lies from closer to home as well, with former assistant manager Mike Phelan suggesting Woodward’s inexperience in the transfer market has cost United this summer. Woodward has excelled driving home United’s strategy of securing exclusive local-market sponsors in selected verticals.
After all, the list of partners signed this summer far exceeds the resources added to Moyes’ squad. But in the game of smoke and mirrors of the European transfer market Woodward has been left exposed.
“Ed Woodward has previously been on the commercial side and concentrating on bringing money into the club rather than spending it,” said Phelan, who is yet to take on a new role after departing the club this summer.
“It is a totally different outlook. He will learn that. He may be frightened by a few prices every now and again but he will have to pick that up, because you are dealing with high quality football players. He and the club have gone on record to say that money is available. That’s great, but then every price goes up a peg or two as well.”
But Woodward’s assertion at the start of the summer that the club is prepared spend upwards of £60 million on a single player has proven false – not least with United’s unusually low opening offers for Fàbregas, Baines and Fellaini. The approach, unsurprisingly, has proven unsuccessful.
Woodward is smart enough to learn of course, although he has little experience of executive management in an alien industry.
Perhaps it still comes down to that old word, the one Ferguson used to such divisive effect during seven years under the Glazer family’s stewardship. But asked on Friday whether he believes value exists in the market Moyes’ answer remains definitive: “Yes I do.”
The worry is that it may be too late for United’s to discover the Holy Grail this summer; an outcome that will leave Moyes short and vulnerable to the brutally competitive landscape domestically and in Europe.