The current crisis engulfing Manchester United does not come as a surprise. In fact, crises have become the norm at United.
We should not call them crises anymore: this is Ed Woodward’s Manchester United.
It is rather poetic that in a week where they lost to West Ham and needed penalties to beat League One strugglers Rochdale at home they recorded record revenues of £627million.
We should not call them crises anymore: this is Ed Woodward’s Manchester United
United lost to West Ham and needed penalties to beat League One strugglers Rochdale
And, one imagines, Woodward and United’s owners, the Glazer family, will be on the whole pleased with how things are going.
Let’s not pretend the powers that be at the club do not want United to be successful on the pitch, of course they do. But let’s also not pretend that that is their priority.
The priority is, instead, to sustain and grow the behemoth that is the club’s global commercial enterprise. And that they have done quite magnificently in the six years since David Gill departed as chief executive.
It is Gill’s departure, not Sir Alex Ferguson’s in the same seismic summer, that has shaped the modern Manchester United.
A Manchester United that has had so many slumps that the few times when things were going well on the pitch in the last six years or so are the exceptions.
The first was the last 39 minutes (including extra-time) of the 2016 FA Cup final, when United finally won their first post-Fergie trophy after a late turnaround against Crystal Palace.
Pogba hugs the post in disbelief after missing a brilliant chance on Wednesday evening
It is Gill’s departure, not Sir Alex Ferguson’s that has shaped the modern Manchester United
The second was a 15-month period from February 2017 to May 2018 when, after a slow start under Jose Mourinho, United won the League Cup, the Europa League and secured a second-placed finish the following season.
The third time lasted little more than two months when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer came in like a breath of fresh air and sent United on a 12-match unbeaten run in the league with a memorable Champions League comeback against PSG thrown in, before an end-of-season slump set in that has spilled over into a new, bleak season.
So all in all that equates to roughly 18 months of things going well in six years under Woodward. That is systematic failure, not a blip.
United’s Premier League finishes in that time read: 7th-4th-5th-6th-2nd-6th. You can blame a manager for a season going wrong but four, potentially five of them? The answer surely lies in the boardroom.
The truth is, even Pep Guardiola would struggle at Woodward’s United. Manchester City got their footballing structure in place first, poaching Barcelona duo Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain to act as chief executive and sporting director respectively.
After a slow start under Jose Mourinho, United won the League Cup and the Europa League
The truth is, even Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola would struggle at Woodward’s United
They did not reinvent the wheel, merely got experienced men in the right positions. Businessman Soriano had five years’ experience as vice-president of Barca, while Begiristain had seven years’ experience as director of football at the Nou Camp.
So there is a clear pathway from Guardiola to Begiristain to Soriano to the club’s owners, with less emphasis on football and more on business as you work up the chain.
Would Guardiola, or any manager, be able to work in a system where that structure was completely absent? Perhaps, but certainly not as well.
There has been talk of United bringing in a sporting director this year but Woodward has not yet done so. It seems as though the man with no previous football experience is doing so well at the business side of things that owners with little regard for on-pitch results allow him free rein to do as he pleases.
And he is not keen to devolve that responsibility, despite it being screamingly obvious he needs to do so. There appears to be no accountability on Woodward for failings on the pitch, just the manager and players.
Which leads us to Solskjaer’s ill-equipped squad. If agents know that there is a man running the biggest club in the world, with a blank cheque and no idea what he is doing, they are going to exploit that. Mino Raiola laughed all the way to the bank as he sold Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Eric Bailly in one summer. And he is far from the only one to have sold United a dud in recent years.
Mino Raiola laughed all the way to the bank as he sold Pogba and co to the Red Devils
No on-field issue sums up Woodward’s United better than their midfield. In Fergie’s final years, midfield was a clear issue, with no-one looking ready to step up and replace the retiring Paul Scholes and ageing Michael Carrick.
Rather than identify a few young talents to drive them forward over the next decade, as had been done with Scholes and Carrick previously, they have splashed money on players past their best – Bastian Schweinsteiger, Nemanja Matic and Juan Mata – and forked out a world record fee on a player they had let leave for nothing and who has been far more of a commercial success than a footballing one.
As if to emphasise the point, the only player to have performed consistently well in midfield in that period, Ander Herrera, left on a free after the club let his contract wind down.
There are signs that Woodward and his hapless transfer negotiator Matt Judge are, belatedly, learning on the job with moves for young, hungry talent in Harry Maguire, Daniel James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka this summer representing a change in policy.
But in truth they are probably another 10 signings of that ilk to get close to challenging City and Liverpool. And do United fans want Woodward and Judge making those signings or an experienced sporting director?
Gary Neville was right in describing Manchester United as ‘toxic’ and suggesting there needs to be a complete overhaul. The problem is, the man to make those decisions is Woodward, and to do so he will need to admit his failings. The history of the last six years says that is unlikely to happen any time soon.
Instead, United are stuck with a revolving door of managers, one that even Guardiola would be spat out of.
Gary Neville was right in describing his former club as ‘toxic’ and that an overhaul is needed