Zinedine Zidane may be out but Julien Lopetegui, Luis Enrique, Erik Ten Hag, and even Mauricio Pochettino have all emerged as viable names to the be the next scapegoat for Manchester United’s board.
Whoever is chosen will have an extremely tough job given the imbalances that exist in the current squad. Even if they can work magic they’re inevitably destined to fail because the structure they’ll be working within is so poor that even using the word ‘structure’ in this sentence seems to be giving the Manchester United board far too much credit.
Like Jose Mourinho before Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, eventually the manager may have been a problem, but he was never the problem. United’s problem has always been the men chosen to hire and fire the manger, the men who seemingly have control over the clubs recruitment, the men in charge of creating a plan, a direction, or simply an identity for the club. Ed Woodward, Richard Arnold and all those other high ranking executives who rose to power in 2013 when Sir Alex Ferguson retired.
Since then they’ve presided over a club that has fallen from summit of English football. That wasn’t completely their fault - Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t leave behind the best of squads and sports in general are cyclical, teams will rise and fall and rise again - but these men have shown to have zero idea how to get United to rise again. You can even question if they know which way up is.
Over the summer Carl Anka of The Athletic joined The Busby Babe podcast (Part 1 linked there, part 2 linked here) and described Manchester United as “like a startup company.” The analogy worked well at the time, but now feels like even that is giving the club too much credit. The club has even less structure than that.
Darren Fletcher is the technical director but according to The Athletic he spends more time on the training pitch than in the office. What other technical director does that? He’s become very involved in helping lead the pre-match warmup on the pitch and has recently moved from the directors box to the dugout for matches. On Saturday during an injury break he was on the touchline giving instructions to United players.
Again, he’s the technical director.
Fletcher is just one of several people who’s roles are unclear. What exactly does John Murtough do? Several people have fancy job titles but there’s constant confusion over who is calling the shots at United. It all keeps leading to the same place. The top.
At the very least Ed Woodward is finally resigning. Or is he? On Monday morning Sky Sports News announced that Woodward may not be leaving by the end of the year after all!
BREAKING: #MUFC's executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward could delay his departure from the club.— Sky Sports News (@SkySportsNews) November 22, 2021
Nevertheless once Woodward does in fact leave, he won’t be going far. According to The Athletic he’s in line to be retained in a consultancy role - which is not just beyond ridiculous but also adds to the confusion of who’s really in charge. This is a move that you would expect from Barcelona, a club that is also run terribly who are just beginning their post Messi fall from Europe’s summit. And while I believe that Barcelona are in fact a poorer run club than United, the fact that United are somehow a not too distant second is very alarming.
The thing about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was that - at least for the first two years of his reign - it seemed to be the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson left that United had some semblance of a plan. Ok that’s a bit of a stretch, United have had plans before, they’ve just either been impatient to see them through or they had bad plans.
They had a plan when they gave David Moyes a six year contract and I’ll give them credit for bailing on that in 10 months when it was crystal clear that plan wasn’t going to work.
Then they turned to Louis van Gaal because, I guess because United had picked him to be Ferguson’s successor when he nearly retired in 2002? Again they had a six year plan, Van Gaal would be in charge for three years before handing things over to Ryan Giggs. They gave up on that plan after two years.
Part of the reason for giving up on that plan was the incredibly boring football United were playing. The other was because of the availability of Jose Mourinho. Ed Woodward moved swiftly to hire a man who was available because he had been sacked in December for being bad at his job. It’s true there’s no denying the C/V of Mourinho, but by the winter of 2015/16 it was clear he was a different man than the one who took England and Europe by storm a decade earlier. By then just like the trophies were on his C/V, so was a well established pattern of creating rifts, flaming out, and leaving a mess in his wake.
That didn’t stop Woodward.
But hiring the manager is only one part of the job. Given United’s archaic back room structure that Woodward made no attempt to modernize, the job of recruitment also fell to these imbeciles with no footballing background. And while they might have had some semblance of a plan with the managers, the recruitment made no sense.
The disconnect was apparent right from Woodward’s first summer in charge. He spent the summer going after big names like Gareth Bale and Sergio Ramos, even perusing a spectacular homecoming for Cristiano Ronaldo. David Moyes’ targets were far different, Leighton Baines and Marouanne Fellaini. United’s failure to land anyone other than Fellaini was written off as inexperience for Woodward, he’ll learn and he’ll get better. It turned out to be a preview of things to come.
Not only was it the perusing of the big name but there didn’t seem to be any connection between the players and the manager. Juan Mata was signed in January when Moyes had already shown he had no idea how to use Shinji Kagawa. It was no surprise he had no idea how to use Mata, often jettisoning him on the right of a 4-4-2. That summer Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera were signed before Louis van Gaal walked in the door. Both would eventually work their way into favor with the Dutchman, but neither were viewed highly when he first arrived. United also needed a center back and somehow it was Marcos Rojo who came in.
As deadline day crept closer Angel Di Maria arrived. A sensational dribbler now playing for a manager who hated dribbling. Then came the big name but very injured Radamel Falcao. A year later the signings of Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial were good future investments, while Morgan Schneiderlin was a complete flop, he was coming off a great season and was highly coveted that summer. But along with him came a very washed up and finished Bastian Schweinsteiger. United never bothered asking why such a ‘great’ player was available on the cheap from Bayern Munich, they saw the name and moved.
Their next managerial hire only highlighted the lack of cohesion between recruitment “strategy” and managerial strategy/philosophy. Martial, Memphis, and Shaw, all bought with eyes on being the very near future of the team were never players that suited Mourinho and all of them struggled. Mourinho seemed to have more input in transfers but his choices were just as much for the now as they were questionable.
They spent over £22m on Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a player who’s game didn’t match the other players in the squad, knowing they’d just have to bring in a new striker the following year. They spent big on center backs his first two seasons - only to still need a new center back in year three.
All of this points back to a serious disconnect between the manager, the scouting department and whoever the hell is in charge of recruitment. Ultimately that points back to Woodward.
Under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at the very least the transfers started to make sense. Despite the constraints placed on him by lack of structure you could start to see what he was trying to build. Then United dropped everything at the chance of perusing the big name again and re-signed Cristiano Ronaldo.
For what Ronaldo does - and whatever he doesn’t do - he’s a player that commands the team be built around him. After all, he’s the best player in the world at putting the ball in the net, it would be foolish not to build a team around trying to get him to do that as much as possible.
But United didn’t have a squad that was built to play the way you need to play to get the best out of Ronaldo, and given that he arrived four days before deadline day, bringing in the necessary players wasn’t going to be easy (or even an option). If this was a decision that was forced upon Solskjaer by the board, that just shows how difficult the next man’s job will be as his plans are liable to be suddenly interrupted at any time. If this was something that Solskjaer was actively perusing (based on what I’ve heard both on and off the record this is the more likely scenario) then he made his bed and wasn’t able to successfully incorporate Ronaldo into the team and ultimately paid the price.
It would however be naïve to say that United’s board completely lacked a plan. They had one, it was just a dumb plan, as Chris Winterburn laid out.
Actually trying to copy the model of Real Madrid in the least successful era in their modern history, but crucially, copying it on the cheap. Yes they might spend 89m of the club’s money on Pogba, but then they’ll never spend the additional 60-80 on two midfielders to make— Chris Winterburn (@cmwinterburn) November 18, 2021
In this era with clubs spending so much money on data analysis, it’s much harder to offload players with their bloated wages, something that Manchester United makes look even more difficult than the average club. If you can’t change the squad then change the manager, because for the board, blaming the manager is far easier than looking inward or at the very least just taking a look in the mirror.
Whether it’s in football or outside of it people in power will always pass the blame whenever they get a chance. These guys have cushy jobs with cushy salaries. Ed Woodward makes £4m a year and the other executives are probably not far off. Most of them weren’t even football fans before they joined United so they don’t even care about the on field success the way you or I do. Success to them is viewed by whether or not United are a commercial success, and in that regard they’ve been wildly successful. If success isn’t coming on the football pitch it must be because someone isn’t performing.
Make no mistake, hiring five (and possibly even six!) managers in the last eight years is a failure. But it’s clear the board isn’t going to acknowledge that that failure is on them, just as they never did before, and in that case there are people that can point fingers and shake things up. That’d be the Glazers, but since these guys make them a lot of money, they won’t be holding them accountable either. On pitch success hardly matters in that regard when the Premier League is signing $2.7 billion (with a B) deals just to show games in the United States.
And so the Glazers will keep the current board in place so long as they keep the money flowing into their pockets. On the pitch the strategy will continue to be the same. United will sign that one star player in hopes they can turn it around themselves. When they don’t, they’ll sign the next one. Maybe every so often they’ll hire the big name star manager in hopes that’ll do the trick.
On and on this cycle will go and when each star player proves to not be enough on his own to get the job done, the manager will pay the price. It’s just so much easier to do that than look inward.
So good luck to whomever gets chosen to be the next scapegoat. I’ll be rooting for you to have success, but the odds are stacked against you.