It has been billed as Manchester United’s worst ever transfer window. Completing a mere three signings, United’s summer has been panned as an abject failure. What has emerged is an apparently terse standoff between manager José Mourinho and chief executive Ed Woodward, played out in the public arena and arguably damaging the reputation of one of the world’s biggest clubs.
Manchester United went into the final day of the transfer window linked with five central defenders - Toby Alderweireld, Harry Maguire, Jerome Boateng, Yerry Mina and Diego Godin. Apparently negotiating with all five players and clubs, United’s failed to complete a single transfer. Earlier in the window United had been linked with wing backs Alex Sandro and Danny Rose but interest in those players had long faded by August.
One of the strangest issues however has been the intense obsession with the signing of a centre half, an area of relative strength in depth for United. United have five centre halves in their squad - Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Eric Bailly, Victor Lindelöf and Marcos Rojo.
Alternatively, United genuinely lack depth in their wing back positions with great importance placed on the ever present availability of the aging Anthony Valencia and Ashley Young. Mourinho has also long bemoaned the lack of a right sided winger.
The laziest of interpretations of United’s woes would highlight two potential causes of concern; namely, either incompetence or frugality at boardroom level. With reference to the former, the final day scramble to sign Diego Godin was an avoidable embarrassment. After previous missteps with Sergio Ramos and Cesc Fabregas, falling for another agent’s ploy was a mistake Ed Woodward should not have made for the third time
Financial frugality is a luxury Manchester United have not been able to afford in recent seasons. While Real Madrid signed Theobold Courtois this week for £40m, it seems laughable that United would be able to sign as outstanding a player at such a hospitable price. Since the departures of Alex Ferguson and David Gill, United have become accustomed to paying a premium on players and while it is admirable that they would fight against this, it has done little to appease the fans.
Similarly, Woodward’s attempts to save £5m-£10m in the pursuit of Toby Alderweireld might have made financial sense but it is has left the club without a significant central defensive signing — which, rightly or wrongly was apparently the directive from the manager — and has done little to help the standing of the club in the eyes of the media or fans.
While the Glazer family are the only superiors to whom Woodward answers, and financial stability is important, it is worthwhile remembering that the allure of clubs like Manchester United is built dually upon football success and successful management. As United await on-pitch success, they will lose their lustre and worldwide respectability scrambling for five different defensive options on the final day of the transfer window. This apparent lack of vision is the anthesis to how clubs of Manchester United’s pedigree ought to be run.
In Woodward’s defence, it could be argued that by United signing Alexis Sánchez in January — a marquee signing by any metric — and by splashing a further £70m+ on new players this summer, Mourinho should be satisfied with his spending.
The problem Mourinho faces is that he has struggled to successfully integrate his new signings at United. The likes of Lindelöf and Sánchez have faltered while Henrik Mkhitaryan and Zlatan Ibrahimović are already departed. Additionally, Paul Pogba has struggled to produce his best form and Eric Bailly has often been injured.
Yet despite these failings, Mourinho has publicly called on Ed Woodward repeatedly to sign new players. These recommended signings — Willian, for instance — have also spoken publicly about how Mourinho is keen to sign them.
It is interesting that Woodward has withheld the purse strings this window, perhaps no longer trusting Mourinho’s judgement in the market. Woodward refused to sanction the moves for Willian and Ivan Perišić as they didn’t fit the age profile of players United would target.
So perhaps we should take a somewhat less lazy interpretation of the quagmire transpiring at Old Trafford. Should we pivot from the notion of frugality or incompetence, a third option reveals itself: a power struggle from within.
Mourinho has used the media this summer to put pressure on his CEO. Mourinho blatantly lied in an effort to undermine his boss, telling the media that Woodward was “gone on his holidays” when Woodward left the tour to complete club business.
Mourinho’s willingness to sell the talented Anthony Martial has long been public knowledge, yet despite interest, United have refused to sell the Frenchman. Woodward has taken the higher ground in his dealings with Mourinho - never publicly responding - but refusing to bow to his manager’s requests on purchases and sales is a clear indication that he will not be bullied by the Portuguese manager.
What remains is perhaps the outcome Ed Woodward wanted all along: José Mourinho with his back to the wall, forced to manage the team Woodward wants him to manage. The likes of Luke Shaw, Andreas Pereira, Martial and Pogba have all remained and will have to play. The onus is upon Mourinho to solve the right sided attacker problem from within.
The 2018/19 season will probably only answer the question of whether Ed Woodward’s vision for the club is accurate. Woodward has fought hard against Mourinho this summer refusing to sanction the transfers demanded. Woodward seems determined to win his power struggle with Mourinho and not bow down to any media pressure that may be imparted.
We are left with the interesting question: has José Mourinho been demoted? Does Ed Woodward now see himself as a de-facto Director of Football, partially relegating Mourinho to the role of “head coach?”
José Mourinho is a long time fan of the “enemies beyond the gate” narrative to motivate his players and there is plenty of fodder for that in this weekends media. Whether Mourinho likes it or not, Ed Woodward has given him his greatest enemy narrative to date.