Bleak probably best describes the mood of Manchester United fans as the club enters another transfer window looking to reboot, this time under the auspices of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The Norwegian, for his part, is hoping that executive vice-chairman, Ed Woodward, will be able to deliver the players required to move United forward – and let go of those who are below the requisite standard.
But does anyone expect Woodward to run the football side of the club with any degree of competency? The one constant in United’s slide to mediocrity has been Woodward who has no vision for how the club should operate on a sporting front.
Indeed, this week former manager Louis van Gaal put the boot in, claiming that Manchester United’s focus on commercial priorities has been its downfall. “Ed Woodward was installed as CEO,” said the Dutchman. “Somebody with zero understanding of football who was previously an investment banker. It cannot be a good thing when a club is run solely from a commercially-driven perspective.”
The lack of vision has never more apparent than in the club’s haphazard approach to finding a new sporting director. It is a search during which the club have turned down some of the best sporting directors in the world, according to Andy Mitten, in favour of traipsing down a nostalgic footpath. The obsession with optics could see the club sink to an even lower ebb.
The question of what Woodward wants is key because the only thing that seems certain is his lack to desire to relinquish any semblance of control. The role vaguely seeks a technical director to fill the gaps in knowledge that currently exist, assisting Woodward and Ole on an overall sporting vision. The reasoning behind recruiting former players, if the rumours are to be believed, is to install those already steeped with the values imbued by Sir Alex Ferguson. Crucially, though, it appears that any power to influence player recruitment is going to be minimal. It begs the question: why bring in a technical director if they’re going to be powerless to enact any meaningful change?
From the outside, looking in, it appears that all a technical director can practically achieve is to curb Woodward’s worst excesses and try to suggest how the club could move forward from a footballing perspective. The new TD, who is expected to be appointed after the transfer window, could arrive at a club in upheaval and dealing with significant unrest, especially if player recruitment is once again underwhelming and there’s a poor start to the season.
United’s lack of vision has never more apparent than in the club’s haphazard approach to finding a new sporting director.
It’s naïve to think that United’s executive vice-chairman will suddenly see the light and relinquish control of all football matters. Perhaps the best scenario is the technical director acts as a ‘Woodward whisperer’. If the TD is persuasive, they could effectively shape the footballing vision of United and impress upon Woodward the need to recruit the right players. Ones that suit the head coach and system, rather than grabbing the shiniest trinket in the window.
It is unclear whether a technical director will be given the remit to set out a football vision for the first team. Woodward has been extremely reactive when it comes to hiring coaches, employing three men with completely differing outlooks on how the game should be played. Theoretically, if the TD does have any influence then they can try to foster a sense of continuity that has been so lacking at Old Trafford since Ferguson’s retirement.
The broader issue is that the seems to be a perpetual work in progress. The executive vice-chairman is still learning about football, there is a novice manager in charge, who is under immense pressure to grow into his role in double quick time. To throw into the mix an inexperienced technical director with very few decision-making responsibilities only adds to the perception that United are an unsteady club struggling to find a sense of direction.
An optimistic outlook is that the new TD could settle in and take stock of how United’s season unfolds in order to outline a strategy for improvement. Given the reported lack of power, the role may only be advisory. Knowing that Woodward is in the job for the long haul, unless there’s a takeover, the main hope is that the technical director will be given more responsibility over the course of time.
The fear is that the situation at United will only get worse is evident among the United fanbase. Given how the team finished the season under Solskjaer there is reasonable cause for concern that the club will be left further behind if decisive action is not taken this summer. The sense of dread for the coming window is further exacerbated by the fact that once again Woodward will be the man tasked with bringing in new faces.
Federico Pastorello, Romelu Lukaku’s agent, has predicted that United will have “a lot of success in the summer bringing in players,” but it’s safe to say that he’s in a minority.
In a pivotal summer it is baffling that United heads into June with the same sporting and recruitment structure that brought them to this point in the first place. Woodward has enjoyed plenty of time to address the issue of revamping the sporting structure, but chose to ride the wave of optimism created by Solskjaer. Appointing a technical director after possibly the biggest summer window in recent years seems as counterintuitive as closing the stable door long after the horse has bolted.
The fact that the club doesn’t ye know what the role entails suggests that Woodward is struggling to find a way where he can restructure the sporting side of United without diluting any of his power or influence. The latest rumour is that John Murtough, the head of football development, could be appointed as United’s first technical director. After all, he does know how to work with Woodward and, crucially, he possesses a level of football administration experience that the likes of Darren Fletcher and Rio Ferdinand lack.
Yet, if the end of this process leads to the club reshuffling existing staff and handing them effectively cosmetic duties then questions must be asked as to why this exercise was conducted at all.
Plus ça change, plus ça meme chose.