Once upon crisis, at the close of an underwhelming summer transfer window, the spotlight turned to Ed Woodward, the Manchester United executive vice chairman. Woodward decided, in all his wisdom, to announce that the club would recruit a Director of Football.
Over the course of a thus far disappointing campaign Woodward has managed to reel in talk of a complete overhaul by ‘clarifying’ the club’s position. Firstly, insisting that a Technical Director would be hired and not a Director of Football and then confirming that any appointment would be made once José Mourinho leaves Old Trafford.
The thinking behind the staged rollback is that Woodward and the board do not want to impose a new structure on Mourinho unless the manager explicitly approves. All in all, it seems to be a rather convenient excuse. For the time being at least.
No matter what side of the Woodward-Mourinho divide you find yourself, it’s probably fair to say that as a football entity United are being run in a haphazard way.
If history is anything to go by, Woodward will fire Mourinho should the club fail to secure a Champions League berth for next season. So far, so normal. Yet, the difference between Mourinho’s potential sacking and those of David Moyes and Louis van Goal before, is that Woodward might find himself in a position where he is almost obliged to change the sporting structure of the club along with the manager.
If the executive vice chairman’s dalliances with the topic are anything to go by, it would be an issue he will tackle with extreme reluctance.
There could be many reasons why Woodward wants to keep things as they are; he may believe that a restructure is unnecessary, or that modernizing the sporting side of the club is a long-winded process too far. Woodward could also be concerned about his image. After all, ditching three managers in the space of six years is not a good look. Perhaps the most likely argument, is that he simply just wants to retain overall control of football operations and not dilute his power.
This leads to the obvious question: could United retain Mourinho by default? Granted, the odds of this scenario playing out seem remote at this stage of the season, but this is a club that runs on the principle of playing performance not having “a meaningful impact on the business side of things.” It is not unreasonable to think that Woodward will opt for the path of least resistance.
If United and Mourinho do part ways in the summer then a narrow range of options are available to Woodward. Zinedine Zidane is the bookmakers’ favourite, but there is no guarantee that the Frenchman would accept the position. Meanwhile, Antonio Conte is no shrinking violet and has never been afraid to air his gripes in public, much like Mourinho. Leonardo Jardim would require a new sporting structure built around him to succeed. Then there is Mauricio Pochettino, arguably the best equipped to operate in United’s current set-up, who would be extremely hard to extricate from Tottenham Hotspur.
Thus, the idea of “Mourinho – Year Four” is not as outlandish as it may first seem. While Woodward has options who could be procured, with varying degrees of difficulty, there are very few clubs in world football that fit a man of Mourinho’s profile. Florentino Pérez has entrusted Real Madrid to Santiago Solari for the time being, Thomas Tuchel will be into year two of his stint with Paris Saint-Germain, while Bayern Munich could sack Niko Kovač, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’d turn to Mourinho given that Zizou is on the market. Even a return to Inter could be difficult should Luciano Spalletti depart. The Milanese club are on the verge of appointing Beppe Marotta as the sporting director, who may choose to lure Massimiliano Allegri to the Nerazzurri instead.
Though it’s not impossible for United and Mourinho to mutually-consent themselves into different directions this coming May, there’s also an argument that the split might be a year too soon for both parties. It may even suit Woodward and Mourinho, though maybe not United, for the Portuguese to complete his contract and then sever ties.
After all, Woodward would not have to worry about making a hefty payments to dismiss the manager and if the Portuguese manager turns things around there’s the option to trigger a one-year extension. On top of that the executive vice chairman could put off restructuring for another season at least. Mourinho, for his part, may want to use the extra year to salvage his reputation before moving on to pastures new.
If Mourinho does stay that would send both manager and United into near unprecedented territory. Mourinho’s first stint at Chelsea remains the only time in his managerial career that he started a fourth season at a club – the 2007/8 campaign – and even then, he lasted only until September. United would take the chance only in the hope that José rediscovers his mojo, while Mourinho would need to rethink his methodology if he wants to turn things around.
What the coming summer offers both Mourinho and United is time to prepare, with no major international football tournament to worry about. There’s a full pre-season as well, in which, theoretically at least, the club can execute a well thought-out transfer strategy. In dreamland, Mourinho would have his strongest possible squad available to properly prepare for the 2018/19 campaign. In short, the excuses he has made for United’s poor start this season, will not be available for the beginning of the next.
In this scenario, Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna would have the opportunity to solidify their positions and extend their influence behind the scenes. Replacing Rui Faria, Mourinho’s long-time collaborator, was never going to be an easy proposition, but with a year’s experience under their belts Carrick and McKenna will be more confident in implementing their ideas.
Of course, this is an ideal scenario and does not take into account the futures of Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial, a pair of sagas waiting to happen that could disrupt United’s preparations next summer if not managed swiftly and decisively. If Woodward and Mourinho want to extend their partnership into a fourth year then it’s critical that there are no disruptions with which to contend.
The January window may shed more light on José’s future and it could be bleak, especially if there’s a repeat of what happened in the previous summer. That said, it will be understandable if the club refuses to splash out in January given the relative lack of value in the winter window and – more importantly – Mourinho’s less than spectacular transfer record since he arrived at Old Trafford. Perhaps the only scenario where Woodward and company backs the manager in the market this winter is if the club is desperate in the search for a top four position.
All indications suggest that come the end of the season United will call time on Mourinho’s tenure, but do not underestimate Woodward’s appetite, or lack thereof, to change the club’s sporting structure. The task of making United successful again on the pitch will take more than a mere managerial change and that could mean Woodward’s role changes as a result.
Under Woodward’s stewardship the club have pretty much taken the path of least resistance when it comes to the sporting side of things. That means there’s always the danger, remote as it is, of United coasting into José, year four.