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.