Manchester United appear to be back on track after an incredibly poor start to the 2018/19 season. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s takeover has brought confidence and joy back to the club. Attacking football has led to good results, and a few moments to remember for a long time as well. Both of those things have largely been absent in the years post-SAF, but if the club want to capitalize on the momentum Solskjaer has created on the pitch, they will need to step up themselves off of it.
Following United’s epic comeback over Paris Saint-Germain last month, a reporter asked Solskjaer if this was “old school Man United.” Rather than give a simple yes, Ole took it upon himself to declare, “No, Man United. It’s Man United.” Just a year on from the infamous “football heritage” press conference, United were believing in European ambitions again. With FC Barcelona to come in the Champions League quarterfinals, United will be tested again. Solskjaer has shown he isn’t afraid to let his team go at the best in Europe, but they won’t get away with making the same mistakes they did against PSG in the first leg. To be realistic, the odds are against United going on an extended run in the Champions League.
Losing to Wolves in the FA Cup probably means another trophyless season for Manchester United. The Reds should throw everything they’ve got at Barcelona, but there’s every chance it won’t be enough against an experienced European side, who also have maybe the greatest footballer ever in their ranks. If United win it’ll be yet another memorable achievement for Solskjaer and the squad, but if they lose it will be understandable. The pressure isn’t fully on Solskjaer in Europe this season because it would be ridiculous to demand such high achievements of a manager who only took over halfway through the season. But Solskjaer’s ambitions and personal expectations for this squad far exceed the realistic expectations. Woodward needs to back those ambitions by competently meeting Solskjaer’s requests in the summer transfer window.
United’s needs include, but are not limited to, defensive midfielder, centre back, and right winger. Solskjaer stated in his introductory press conference on Friday that United will be active this summer, but United’s summer activity in recent years has shown that Ed Woodward doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. 8 of United’s top 10 record signings have occured in the Ed Woodward era, and arguably only 3 of those 8 can be considered successful (Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku, and Anthony Martial). Angel Di Maria, Fred, Juan Mata, Nemanja Matić, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan cost Manchester United roughly £230m. Mata was decent initially, but has since faded in recent seasons. Nemanja Matić still has time, but is on the wrong side of 30. Fred is young and new, but has already shown that there are glaring problems with his game. Mkhitaryan and Di Maria never finished a 2nd season at United. Then, there is the case of Alexis Sánchez, a player who didn’t cost the club an enormous transfer fee, but whose wages take up a significant portion of United’s payroll. There is no arguing the fact that he has been a disaster, probably one of Manchester United’s worst ever transfers, whose arrival has been speculated to actually have been the wish of Woodward and not José Mourinho.
Ed Woodward’s track record is hit and miss. Though some of his list of failures is certainly down to who the manager at the time wanted to bring in, Woodward’s reliance on underachieving managers for direction in the transfer market simply highlights his lack of footballing knowledge. Fans and pundits alike have pointed out the alternative route of hiring a football director to oversee sporting decisions, but Woodward has yet to float that option, despite the fact that he has several options. Edwin Van Der Sar is a rather obvious and remarkable candidate for such a role. The Manchester United legend and current chief executive of Ajax has done a tremendous job team building alongside Marc Overmars in Amsterdam, and would surely jump at the opportunity to do the same in Manchester.
Even if not the Dutchman, or even an official director of football at all, Woodward must consider bringing in more footballing minds to lessen the load. His failure in the transfer market, and now 3 coaching searches, has cast doubt over United’s future. Even with Solskjaer’s impact, some of United’s best players aren’t committing themselves to United long term. Juan Mata and Ander Herrera are out of contract soon, and the latter is rumoured to have already agreed a free transfer to PSG, while David De Gea’s contract negotiations have now dragged on for over a year. To top it all off, the annual Pogba exit rumours have started, but with Zidane back at Real Madrid on a brand new deal of his own, and Pogba’s public flirtation, it seems like a lot more than just rumours. Negotiations will likely remain stalled until Alexis’ massive contract is dealt with, either through a sale (if a buyer willing to match his wages can be found) or a contract buyout. Woodward’s folly in signing Sánchez is now having considerable knock-on effects.
For all Woodward’s considerable success in building United’s commercial revenue, his record as a football executive leaves much to be desired. He has hired poor managers, and signed poor players to bad contracts. If United are to emerge from their half-decade of purgatory, the improvement must start at the very top.