It might seem like the unfashionable thing to say, but Manchester United remain a team in turmoil on many fronts. Problems on the field have masked issues arising elsewhere during the summer, but troublesome issues continue to manifest in Manchester. United fans are currently optimistic; positive following their win over Newcastle and buoyed with the knowledge that José Mourinho has reportedly issued the club with his transfer targets – Lazio’s Sergej Milinković-Savić and Inter’s Milan Škriniar. These are the players whom Mourinho has reportedly decided can shore up the shaky spine of his team and rescue a thus far disappointing season.
There is a reality however that these fans are actively choosing to ignore. Newcastle United have made one of the worst starts to a Premier League season in history and United struggled until the dying moments of the game to defeat them. In terms of transfers; Milinković-Savić and Škriniar may indeed be fine players, but there are problems at United too big for players alone to solve.
There is something rotten in Manchester. The problems at Manchester United are not only on the playing field but are evident at boardroom level. The board refused to back Mourinho and his transfer targets in August, then spoke to the media about their reasoning. Whether the board were right or wrong to dispute Mourinho’s targets is trivial; they should have either backed Mourinho or sacked him then. Choosing neither left Mourinho in an untenable position.
Alternatively, if José Mourinho knew that the club would not sanction signing his targets (namely Harry Maguire and Toby Alderweireld), why did he not change his approach and attempt to sign the two Serie A based players then?
The lack of a Director of Football has been highlighted as a problem; the lack of a person to orchestrate the footballing philosophy and direction of the club’s transfers. Until now, Ed Woodward and Richard Arnold have been making these decisions – such as deciding that Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba would be seen as central to the club’s future despite the manager’s wishes, and that Alderweireld and Maguire would not be signed.
The disparity between the Woodward and Mourinho camps, along with the notion that both these two would speak out against one another in the media makes this role even more important and necessary. But can a Director of Football come in and unite these factions? It seems like a historic détente is needed between the board and Mourinho for them to proceed together.
A similar détente might be needed across the globe. Perhaps the most worrying thing for United fans is that the same problems can be seen in Tampa Bay at the Glazers’ other ‘franchise,’ the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Like José Mourinho, Dirk Koetter was hired in 2016 and his Buccaneers team have failed to prosper in much the same way as Mourinho’s. Koetter started September, much like Mourinho, as the coach believed to be next to be fired. The lack of direction in the Glazers’ worldwide organisation clearly goes beyond just Woodward and Mourinho.
It is problematic that many current Manchester United players have been signed by different managers for different purposes. The Director of Football ambition is that this person would remain in situ at United long term and dictate not only the playing philosophy of the club, but also decide the players needed to fulfil this philosophy.
It is a skilled role requiring diplomacy and knowhow of world football, one far more nuanced than mere Championship Manager style tactics. Despite suggestions, both Gary Neville and Paul Scholes are far too unprepared for such a role, a role that requires more than good punditry and a passion for the club.
While fans might see Milinković-Savić and Škriniar as the solution to United’s problems, these same fans once saw Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelöf as the heirs apparent to Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić. Many players have been linked with United over the years; players like Geoffrey Kondogbia who recently played at Old Trafford for Valencia, Koke of Atletico Madrid, Fabio Coentrao of Real Madrid and John Stones, then of Everton. Jack Rodwell was once heralded as the heir to Michael Carrick. These were all players who were seen as a solution for United’s fans; and while many of these players might indeed have been successful at Old Trafford, it would only have occurred provided they had the correct conditions in which to prosper.
Similarly, the likes of Adnan Januzaj, Wilf Zaha and Memphis Depay have departed Manchester United because they did not have the best environment to succeed at Old Trafford. These same problems persist for Bailly and Lindelöf and will for Milinković-Savić and Škriniar until the overarching hierarchy of the club is solidified. The fact that doubts remain about the manager at Old Trafford is hardly helping create stability at the club.
As of early August, the club appeared to decide that José Mourinho would no longer control transfer acquisitions. It was reported in the media that a new person would be hired to oversee the footballing philosophy, yet the stories this week, in which United are linked with two Italian based defenders, appear to completely contradict this. It is hardly surprising. It plays into the recent narrative of chaos.
Regardless of whether Manchester United beat Newcastle or not, they remain a club in turmoil; a club with more questions than answers with many structures needing to be put in place to achieve success on the pitch. The two Italian-based players may well strengthen the first team, but they are not a panacea. The greatest indictment of the United management structure at the moment is that they appear unsure of whether to fire Mourinho or not, let alone where to back him in the transfer market. One thing for certain however is that more than a new manager is necessary to cure all the ills in Manchester.