If any Manchester United employee has proven to be worth every penny the club has spent on him, it’s Neil Ashton. Coming off a week that culminated in the closing of the transfer window — the official marking that Ed Woodward completely failed at his job this summer — less than a week later, Ashton’s PR machine has successfully steered the conversation away from Ed Woodward and onto “Ole in or Ole out.” Remarkable.
In football, a public vote of confidence usually means you’re about two weeks away from getting the sack. Though to be fair, this happened last year and Solskjaer survived.
Solskjaer has managed this entire year with the shadow of Mauricio Pochettino looming over his shoulder. To no one’s surprise, reports have been dropping all week that United have been in contact with the Argentine about potentially taking over.
It is disgusting that this is how the club operates. They fired Louis van Gaal while he was celebrating winning the FA Cup, because they had been negotiating with José Mourinho for months. Despite all the public backing of Solskjaer last season and acknowledging that he was working on a three year plan, it’s well known they were flirting with Pochettino throughout last season, ready to throw that three year plan away at a moment’s notice.
This summer has seen fans begging the club to just ‘have a long-term plan,’ but having a long term plan has never been their issue. Sticking to a long term plan has. They hired David Moyes on a six year deal and (rightfully) gave up after 10 months. They hired Louis van Gaal with a plan of ‘you’ll be in charge for three years and then we’ll hand Ryan Giggs a three year deal’ — another six year plan. They gave up on that one after two years.
At least United made it two and a half years into a dumb José Mourinho plan. That was a three year plan that they extended to four. When Solskjaer got off to a hot start after first taking over for Mourinho, Woodward said the club would wait until the end of the season to hire their next permanent manager. That was a six month plan and it only took him three months to change his mind. Now they’re ready to bail on the next long term plan before it even reaches its halfway point.
United are a mess on the pitch right now but that’s not the direct fault of the manager. Every manager who has walked into Old Trafford since 2013 has been set up to fail. The problem is above them.
Ed Woodward has all the patience of a child with ADHD. He starts a project and obsesses about it, diving into every detail. But when it starts taking a little longer then he’d like and a new shiny project emerges, he’s ready to drop everything and switch.
United are about to become the ‘sacking club’ that the fanbase worried about becoming back in 2014. Many other clubs sack managers willy nilly and have success, but those clubs have sporting directors calling the shots. Those sporting directors sign players with the club’s long-term plan in mind, they hire managers with the club’s direction in mind, they make sure the style of the manager, the club’s direction, and the players at hand all fit together.
Ed Woodward hires the big name. He’s been seduced by Louis van Gaal, José Mourinho, and now Mauricio Pochettino. Each one comes with their own style, their own philosophy. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer did too. And you know what, Woodward bought in to all of them.
He was too easily swayed and that meant changing directions less than every three years. He backed Mourinho by spending £292 million in transfer fees alone his first two years (PLUS Zlatan Ibrahimović, PLUS Alexis Sánchez), the second highest net spend in Europe. Of the players Mourinho signed, only Paul Pogba, Victor Lindelöf, and Eric Bailly lasted more than two years at Old Trafford. The former two may two of the most disliked players by the fanbase.
This year Woodward failed again. After Ole Gunnar Solskjaer delivered on his first season targets, Woodward failed to sign any of Solskjaer’s preferred targets, specifically Erling Haaland in January and Jadon Sancho this summer.
According to ESPN, Ole is frustrated over failed moves for Haaland and Sancho, after he struck an agreement with Haaland, only to have a move cancelled by Woodward— Stretford Paddock (@StretfordPaddck) October 9, 2020
Another manager let down. #MUFC pic.twitter.com/6MVQfxgdOP
United may have been right to walk away from that Haaland deal, but Sancho rests solely on Woodward’s shoulders.
Though Solskjaer has a right to be annoyed — to play devil’s advocate — when you put it a different way, it does look a little ridiculous.
Manager Outraged That His Club Didn't Sign the Two Best Young Soccer Players in the World— Ryan O'Hanlon (@rwohan) October 9, 2020
The difference here is that Solskjaer had an agreement with Haaland, only for Woodward to pull out. We also know that Jadon Sancho was keen on a move to United. Another difference is whereas Chelsea signed players like Hakim Ziyech, Timo Werner, and Kai Havertz, and now have to figure out how to use them all, Haaland and Sancho fit perfectly into Solskjaer’s existing system. They’re exactly the type of player he needs. He’s not just asking Woodward to ‘sign him good players,’ he’s asking for very specific players for very specific reasons.
Woodward has let down another manager. Ole did what was asked of him last year and Woodward has left him out to dry this year. The deadline day additions are helpful pieces but the reality is Woodward still left Solskjaer with a black hole at right wing. Mason Greenwood isn’t good enough to play there every week. That’s a pretty big problem given the system Solskjaer wants to play.
Solskjaer has earned the right to fix this poor start. He’s had things go south on him before and has shown the ability to fix it before.
That’s not going to be easy. This was expected to be a really weird season and is already proving to be. Manchester City have also gotten off to a slow start. Chelsea have stumbled a bit and Liverpool have some serious defensive problems of their own. Everyone is struggling but no one has looked like a bigger mess than United.
If the results don’t improve quick the board won’t be saying “Well hold on, we kind of left Ole out to dry this summer and didn’t give him the backing he needed. That’s not fair to him.” No, they’ll be more than happy to pass the blame onto him and go to the next guy.
After all, at the end of the day it’s a results based business. But what about the results above the manager? Getting results doesn’t seem to be a two way street.
With Borussia Dortmund not backing down of their evaluation of Sancho — essentially pricing him out of a move — United ultimately couldn’t afford Sancho. That’s partially because of COVID-19 and partially because the club’s financial situation (on the football side) is a complete mess.
People really underestimate the dire financial situation this club is in. Complete lack of understanding as to the money they do have, where it's going, and how much of it is tied up. They have no flexibility #MUFC— Pauly Kwestel (@pkwestel) October 6, 2020
That is solely the fault of Ed Woodward. People love to harp back on his 2014-ish quote about how United will be able “to do things in the transfer market no one else could even dream of.”
He never should have said that because the egg is entirely on his face but he wasn’t exactly wrong (in a pre-Neymar market). What made him wrong was that he wildly misspent that money.
£59.7 million for Angel Di Maria tied the books up for five years. A further £25 million for Memphis Depay a year later. Neither of those players fit the style of their manager, but if those moves worked out how do United look in the future? They probably don’t need to spend another £26.3 (pre-Neymar) million on Henrikh Mkhitaryan. If Di Maria and Memphis are holding down the wings there’s no need to waste money on Alexis Sánchez.
Jadon Sancho is better than Memphis Depay, but if Depay was still at Old Trafford United would at the very least have a decent right wing option.
If Morgan Schneiderlin turns into the midfielder we hoped he’d be then they wouldn’t have had to spend another £40 million on Nemanja Matić. Maybe Mourinho signs him anyway because he’s a favorite but they wouldn’t have needed to spend another £52 million on Fred. Either way that’s at least £40 million saved.
The popular narrative is that the Glazers don’t spend money after qualifying for the Champions League. It’s not true. They backed Van Gaal with £105 million after he finished fourth. They backed Mourinho with £145.7 million after qualifying for the Champions League. When Mourinho had the team in second place in January, they signed Alexis Sánchez in a deal that ultimately would have cost just £1 million less than Romelu Lukaku’s.
They didn’t spend money in 2018 because they couldn’t. They didn’t have the financial flexibility — which was directly caused by Woodward swinging and missing on so many signings.
The same thing happened this year. They couldn’t make deals because they didn’t have liquid cash. Need an upgrade at center back? Well you can’t sign one when you have eight of them on your books. Another problem entirely of Woodward’s creation thanks to the ridiculous contract extensions they handed out to Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo.
Loaning them out doesn’t exactly help if United are eating the wages. They did that with Rojo last year and he’s back. It may lower the wage bill this year but you can’t sign an actual replacement. The club offered them out for free transfers but neither player wanted to uproot their families and take a pay cut. That’s on Woodward for putting them on astronomical wages.
Those are results that Ed Woodward has brought. In a results oriented business they aren’t good enough to keep him in the job. They haven’t been for years. That’s not going to matter though. His job isn’t in jeopardy and if you don’t believe that just google the name “Jason Licht.” You’ll figure it out pretty quickly.
More importantly though, only a small part of Woodward’s job has to do with securing transfers. His main job is to make the Glazers money, and at that his results have been fantastic. Why would they fire someone who makes them so much money?
So Woodward will stay in charge and he’ll get to pass the blame. Eventually he’ll move on from Solskjaer and bring in Pochettino. Tactically he’s very similar to Solskjaer so it won’t take long for the players to grasp his system. But is that going to solve the problem?
Pochettino would do great things with this squad, but he’s a manager that knows you have to change things up every few years.
During his time at Spurs he shunted Kyle Walker, Toby Alderweireld, and Christian Eriksen off to the sidelines. When he does that at United to a Bruno Fernandes, or Anthony Martial, or Marcus Rashford, do you trust Ed Woodward and the board to successfully move those players on? Do you trust them to bring in replacements?
Or do you think that in two years that we’ll be sitting in the same boat? There will be some new hotshot young manager available that everyone thinks will be the answer. And there will be Woodward, fawning over him and ready to throw yet another long term plan away.
We know Woodward loves Mauricio Pochettino and thinks he’s the guy. He also loved José Mourinho and how’d that go? Third (sixth) time’s the charm right?
If you want to sack Solskjaer and bring in Poch, that’s fine. But that decision has to come from a director of football. If you’re sacking your fourth manager in less than eight years, the problem isn’t the managers — it’s the man picking them.
Until that changes, round and round this cycle will go.