Manchester United’s summer transfer window was a sorry tale and showcased how a conflict of strategies have been allowed to run in conjunction at Old Trafford since David Moyes departure in 2014.
Jose Mourinho and Ed Woodward, the executive vice-chairman, are the personification of the contradictory short-term and long-term approaches, writes Dan O’Toole for the Manchester Evening News.
The confusion has been brought into sharp focus with Woodward being unwilling to pay in excess of £50million for Toby Alderweireld, despite the Tottenham defender being Mourinho’s first choice as he sought to improve his United defence.
It is in this respect that Woodward’s approach reflects a loose continuation of that of his predecessor, the former chief executive, David Gill, whose ten-year stewardship at Old Trafford saw the strict adherence to a policy of not signing outfield players over the age of 27.
That Woodward favours tapping into value in the market – Alexis Sanchez aside – should perhaps be expected, given that the management structure of the club remains broadly unchanged from the totalitarian regime under Sir Alex Ferguson.
But this is now outdated and is certainly not conducive to success when employing three different managers with vastly different philosophies in the space of six years.
United have spent over £650million since Moyes was shown the door just months into his seven-year contract, and the incongruity between the profiles of player signed by Louis Van Gaal and Mourinho means that the club is still attempting to part ways with Van Gaal players over two years since the Dutchman was sacked.
It is thus difficult to find a common denominator in assessing United’s varying recruitment drives since Ferguson’s retirement in 2013 and it seems only inevitable that the club will seek to imitate the modern mechanisms that are garnering success at Manchester City and, to a lesser extent, Liverpool, by recruiting a director of football to create some sort of consistency in United’s recruitment strategy.
It is a move that Gary Neville might back, judging by his comments to the Second Captains podcast last week.
“The strategy is not long, the strategy is always reacting to the manager rather than the club having the values,” he said of United. “The club have the values, the club sign the players. The coach has to buy into it but should be appointed based on the values of the club.
“Don’t change. Don’t make short-term decisions. Appoint the manager who’ll stick to the club’s values. Sign players who fit the club’s values.”
It is now perhaps time to replace the Ferguson model with a structure that involves the director of football role – something that is in progress at Arsenal as the Gunners continue to move away from the all-encompassing position that Arsene Wenger held at the club.
In the modern jargon it is easy to lose track of what such roles entail, but Graham Hunter provides its most comprehensive definition.
"A Director of Football is the person who adds that all-embracing vision: the needs of the president, the needs of the club, the needs of the coach, the needs of Financial Fair Play and the needs for the future, whether the next six weeks, six months or six years,” he writes.
“Plus, if you’re doing things right, the Director of Football is the person who ensures that there is a guiding football philosophy agreed to by those above them in the organisation chart and by those who answer to them.”
Key to the role, and what United have been deficient in as Woodward grappled with the wishes of Van Gaal and Mourinho, is the idea of having guiding football principles.
United’s philosophy, once so unremittingly defined, has been lost since Ferguson retired and it is unclear as to whether it can be rekindled.
“Appoint a British manager, play great football involving wingers, bring homegrown players through. That’s it. Simple. Three things,” Neville said of what had been United’s “100-year strategy”.
That style is now over, however, and whether United could implement the role with Mourinho remaining at the helm is doubtful.
The Portuguese endured tempestuous relationships with the directors of football – or those equivalently titled – at Real Madrid and Chelsea which ended with sporting director Jorge Valdano sacked from the Bernabeu and Mourinho let go from Stamford Bridge with Chelsea’s technical director, Michael Emenalo, telling Chelsea TV that his sacking was a “decision taken to protect the interests of the club”.
Emenalo only referred to Mourinho as “the individual” in the 2015 interview, which goes some way to explaining why Txiki Begiristain, then-Barcelona’s director of football and the current incumbent at City, took the gamble on appointing the untried Pep Guardiola at the Camp Nou in 2008 after deeming Mourinho as being too much of a fire-starter for the club’s long-term health.
Mourinho thus seems incompatible with both the Ferguson model – having never lasted more than three calendar years at a club – and with the sporting director system as a manager who has been unable to cooperate with the aforementioned directors of football and spent the summer at loggerheads with Woodward over the latter’s influence in player recruitment.
If a director of football at Old Trafford is to hold a great deal of weight in transfers, as is the case at Manchester City and Liverpool, then it is essential that they have a proven track record in the transfer market to give the club the legitimacy that Woodward has lacked at times during his tenure at United.
Indeed, United have been used by Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo as a bargaining tool to secure new contracts at Real Madrid in recent years which has served as the basis for accusations of naivety that have been levelled at United’s hierarchy since Ferguson retired.
Woodward has an unquestionable commercial record at United, with the club the envy of world football in securing lucrative sponsorship deals and corporate partnerships that serves to finance the football side of the business but, studying the regime in place at Anfield, it is perhaps time to formalise the segregation between those in charge of commercial interests and transfers.
Liverpool’s fledgling system has Michael Edwards overseeing transfer activity, with chief executive Peter Moore in charge of the business side of the club.
Jurgen Klopp is particularly keen on the arrangement, having worked under Michael Zorc successfully at Borussia Dortmund, and enjoys “a really healthy relationship” with Edwards, who oversaw deals including the recruitment of Virgil Van Dijk and Naby Keita.
It seems only logical that United will pursue the system and recruiting a director of football would be the most important decision made at the club since appointing Ferguson in 1986. After all, it has worked well elsewhere.
Such was the importance of Ramón Rodríguez Verdejo, better known as Monchi, to Sevilla that the club’s president, Jose Castro, described him as “our Messi” after guiding the club from the Spanish second division to a major trophy every other season in his 17 years at the club.
Joan Laporta, the former Barcelona president, said that recruiting Begiristain to Barcelona was “the best decision I ever made”.
It is time for United to learn the harsh lessons of the ten transfer windows since Moyes’ departure and start the recruitment process for a figure that could turn out to be of far greater value than any player on the club’s books.
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