Hallelujah! From the start of February, Ed Woodward is no longer an employee of Manchester United Football Club. His departure as Exec Vice Chairman brings a particularly hapless chapter in United’s long and storied history to a close.
Notwithstanding Woodward’s alleged prowess as a commercial genius, (contestable in itself), his time at the club has been an abject failure on the single most important metric to your average fan – trophies. One FA Cup, a Europa League, and a League cup is a miserable return by any standard, let alone for a club of Manchester United’s stature. United have not gotten close to winning a league title during his tenure, and have made the Champions League knockout stages in just two of the last eight years.
Woodward has been through five managers and has presided over several embarrassing transfer sagas. From the farcical start in 2013, where Marouane Fellaini was acquired for a fee higher than his Everton buy-out clause; to the infuriating summers of 2014 and 2015 where the club splashed obscene amounts of money on players who have long since departed; to the summer of 2018 where the lack of expenditure by the club led to the acrimonious departure of United’s most successful manager since Sir Alex Ferguson.
He quite simply never got to grips with the football operation at the club. Whether footballing success was ever a priority for Woodward is questionable. As he summed up so candidly in a statement made during an investment call a few years ago: ‘Manchester United can do things that no other club can. It doesn’t matter what happens on the football pitch.’ In a way, that statement wasn’t untrue. United’s commercial strength means that only nation-state & privately owned clubs can realistically compete with them financially. The total outlay in transfers during Woodward’s period is an astronomical £1.3bn, second only to Manchester City.
However, that period has been littered with expensive, un-coordinated, over-indulgent recruitment decisions, most of which have failed miserably to live up to expectations. Woodward earned a reputation for over-paying (on salaries and transfer fees) and not signing the right players at the right time, leaving some managers dissatisfied with the squads at their disposal. A clouded vision in terms of transfer policy, one which often felt like it was driven by off-pitch metrics rather than a clear football strategy, meant the club prioritised signings that would get United fans excited, drive shirt sales, and increase the club’s social media interactions.
Probably the most high-profile example of this was the re-signing of Paul Pogba from Juventus in August 2016, who at £86m became the most expensive footballer in history at the time. From an announcement in the middle of the night, to a music video featuring a UK Grime artist, the unveiling of Paul Pogba by Manchester United broke new ground in terms of social media interactions. Pogba’s personal brand was seen to be as important (if not more important) to the club than the players’ suitability on the pitch. The squad was in desperate need of a midfield anchor to replace the ageing Michael Carrick. Though Pogba was a supremely talented footballer there were doubts even then whether he was the right fit, and there were arguably more suitable options available on the market, notably Ngolo Kante of Leicester City. Kante went on to join rivals Chelsea and helped them to Premier League success the same season. Fast forward six years and Pogba is on the verge of leaving on a free transfer. You’d struggle to think of many games which Pogba dominated for United. It’s hard to argue that his time at the club has been anything but a failure.
Blighted by off-the-pitch controversy and the impression that he never really wanted to be at Old Trafford, the player certainly won’t be missed when, as expected, he leaves Manchester United on freedom of contract this summer.
Pogba was one of many vanity signings made during Woodward’s time. Arguably the most disjointed period in terms of recruitment was during Louis van Gaal’s spell as manager where a whopping £280m was spent on 18 players. Van Gaal was probably the first manager to take advantage of the club’s financial might in the Glazer era, and he immediately set about revamping an ageing squad that had failed his predecessor David Moyes. Players brought in included Luke Shaw, Ander Herrera, Angel Di Maria, Marcus Rojo, Daley Blind, and Falcao. This was followed by Martial, Schneiderlin, Depay, Darmian, Schweinsteiger the following year. It represented a huge turnover in players and included the departure of several long-standing members of the United squad such as Evra, Welbeck, Rooney, Chicharito, Nani, Rafael, etc. Today only Luke Shaw & Martial remain from the 18 signings made in LVG’s two years as manager.
The deadline day signings of Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao in the summer of 2014 were as ostentatious as they were disastrous. In fairness, Di Maria was at the time seen as an exciting purchase having shone at Real Madrid the season prior. His start to life at the club was promising, however, his failure to settle and inability to work under LVGs structured style of play led to a swift departure the following year. Radamel Falcao’s one-year loan signing was completed by United at the same time for a loan fee of £6m and wages of £300k per week. The Columbian failed to live up to his lofty reputation, scoring a paltry 4 goals. Unsurprisingly United chose not to take up the option to purchase the player. His spell had effectively cost the club £15.8m in wages and loan fees, or £3.95m per goal scored.
With Di Maria and Falcao having left the club, United again went into the market for attacking reinforcements. Like many of their high-profile transfers, Anthony Martial came in at the end of the 2015 transfer window. Drawing out transfers appeared to be a strategy United actively encouraged to ensure that ‘clicks’ were maintained throughout a window. The fee paid for the player was incentivised but still incredibly high for a 19-year-old, who despite his undeniable potential had little top-flight experience. The same summer United had looked closely at Sadio Mane but in their wisdom, decided against the move. Martial’s story since has been of false dawns, tantrums, and unfulfilled potential. The player is likely to end his stay at United this summer having been granted a loan move to Sevilla for the remainder of the 21/22 season. If only the club had listened when Jose Mourinho suggested Martial should be dispensed with in 2018. In fact, in hindsight, a lot of the assessments made by the now Roma manager have been borne out to be correct. As per his famous line on Sky Sports: “About United, I want to say only two things: One is that time has spoken. Two is that the problems are still there.”
Amongst all the criticism, it is easy to forget that Mourinho presided over United’s most successful period in the last nine years, with three finals, two trophies, and a second-place finish. A reasonable return given the problems he so vocally highlighted at the time. The success of his recruits, especially those made in the summer of 2016, were also greater than his predecessors and successor in relative terms. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was a major force for the one season he was at United, scoring close to 30 goals. Eric Bailly at £30m appeared a bargain on the evidence of his performance that season. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, was instrumental to the 16/17 Europa League win despite failing to make the same impression domestically. The following years’ recruitment was also reasonable. Romelu Lukaku joined from Everton for a big fee in 2017 to pick up the goal-scoring slack from the soon-to-depart Ibrahimovich. Victor Lindelof came in to bolster the ranks at CB. Nemanja Matic was a sensible addition and provided some much-needed ballast in midfield. All three signings contributed to what was United’s highest league position and highest points total since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson.
The one striking exception amongst all of Mourinho’s signings was Alexis Sanchez, who joined the club in Jan 2018 after a much-publicised tussle with cross-city rivals Manchester City. It was paraded as a coup by those inside the club but smacked of a desperate attempt to keep the player out of the hands of direct rivals. Not to mention the exorbitant £560k per week wages United agreed to pay Sanchez. From a footballing perspective, the signing did make sense for once. United were acquiring a player who had lit up the Premier League for Arsenal in the previous three and a half seasons and was earmarked to fill a problem position on the right side of attack.
What truly happened to Sanchez at United thereafter remains a mystery. There was no sign of decline in the player. He had been named Arsenal’s player of the year just eight months prior, yet struggled to such an extent from the outset that it left almost everyone scratching their heads. At the time Gary Neville was quoted as saying (via Sky Sports): “He has been an absolute disaster. I have no idea what’s happened to Alexis Sanchez. There must be two of them. The one that we saw playing for Barcelona and Arsenal for years and the one that turned up in Manchester. I have no idea what it is!”
In his personal life, there were rumours of a relationship breakdown and concerns around tax issues from his time in Barcelona. It was also claimed that he had not settled into the United dressing room. Nonetheless, nobody could have foreseen quite how badly Sanchez’s move would go. After 4 goals in 45 games, Sanchez was shipped off to Inter Milan on loan.
In the summer of 2018 Mourinho was determined to try and bridge the gap to Manchester City, requesting reinforcements in several areas, specifically at centre back, right wing, right back, and left back. It became apparent very quickly however that the manager and board were not on the same page, and there was a growing tension leading into the new season, played out somewhat unceremoniously in the press. After weeks of reported haggling over potential signings the only players to come in that summer were Fred from Shakhtar Donetsk, young right back Diogo Dalot and back up goalkeeper Lee Grant. There were numerous suggestions as to why this particular window was so underwhelming. There were claims that the Glazers had turned off the faucet having spent heavily on Lukaku and Sanchez the previous year and that they felt the squad was strong enough to challenge again without further investment. The internal power struggle between manager and board had become increasingly fractious and it had become apparent that Woodward was not comfortable with ceding any more influence to the manager, even on footballing matters. In parallel, players whom Mourinho had previously called out for not being committed to the cause / not of requisite quality took their opportunity to stick the knife in. The season commenced, results nosedived and somewhat predictably, Mourinho was dismissed in December 2018. The manager cannot be completely absolved of blame. His win at all costs approach rankled with some of the playing staff. There were the usual (somewhat lazy) criticisms around his style of play and his use of young players. These were all narratives used to eventually remove him from his post by what felt like an especially hostile media. Ultimately it was Mourinho’s demand for higher standards from those around him that led to his sacking. Three years down the line it is clear that all his dismissal has succeeded in doing is set the club back a number of years by empowering players and undermining the authority of future managers.
In the latter part of Woodward’s tenure, coinciding with the permanent appointment of Ole Gunnar Solskjear as manager, there was the much-publicised decision to ‘culturally reboot’ the club. To this day it is difficult to know what the term actually means. Even more so given the current fractured nature of the United dressing room. From a recruitment perspective, the strategy was to focus on the fabric of what it meant to be ‘A United Player.’ Practically speaking it involved a reshaping of the end-to-end recruitment process within the club, with the manager and the recruitment department working in lock-step to drive transfer decisions and outcomes. “We have increased scouting coverage globally and trust our experts in all that we do” gloated the club in 2020. United possess one of the largest recruitment teams in the country, comprising of a vast team of scouts across geographies/age groups, plus an army of data analysts collating and reviewing data. The transfer of Wan Bissaka was presented as a case study in this new approach. It was claimed that the search for United’s right back involved a review of 100 candidates, with 32 scouts in more than 30 countries participating in the operation. Data on each target was meticulously reviewed by 15 analysts before agreeing on the final choice, for whom United paid a then world-record fee for a full back of £50m. For the sake of comparison, the same summer Manchester City signed João Cancelo from Juventus for roughly the same fee. Time has spoken in terms of their comparative success.
It was during the Ole era that Woodward and the Glazers decided to significantly open the coffers, with nearly £500m spent on players during his time in charge. Ironic given one of the reasons presented for Mourinho’s dismissal was that he was not getting the best out of the players at his disposal. Additionally, the players signed were in the same positions that the Portuguese had highlighted as priorities in the summer of 2018. Those purchases have, to follow the trend overall, have largely failed. Daniel James – bought in June 2019, sold to Leeds United in August 2021. Wan-Bissaka bought for £50m in Jan 2019 – currently benched in favour of Diego Dalot. The performances of Harry Maguire, bought for a world-record fee for a centre back, have bordered on disastrous at times. The highly-rated Donny Van de Beek bought from Ajax in 2020 has been loaned to Everton having barely kicked a ball for United. Talented young wingers Pellistri & Amad, signed at a combined cost of £50m, are currently both out on loan. Jadon Sancho – a player United had coveted for almost two years now finds himself on the bench and shorn of all confidence. And of course, there is one Cristiano Ronaldo – the latest in a long list of signings driven by commercial rather than football decisions. Ole Gunnar Solskjear was eventually dismissed at the end of Nov 2022 having failed to get a tune out of this expensively assembled group of players, and German Ralf Rangnick parachuted in as interim to try and bring some stability and salvage a season that had promised so much at the start.
What success means at this stage is difficult to say. Rangnick truly has his work cut out over the next five months. The United squad is as disjointed and fractured now as it has been at any stage in the last ten years. To his credit, the German has so far been true to his word in pushing to reduce what is a bloated squad. Several players have departed on loan in the 21/22 winter window. Though the mind still boggles as to why the likes of Phil Jones, Juan Mata, and Jesse Lingard remain on the books. Collective salaries from releasing these players alone would free up significant funds to acquire at least one central midfielder, even if it was on a loan. Retaining Lingard has perhaps been justified by the situation with Mason Greenwood. However, the wranglings around his contract have been too drawn out for a player who quite frankly isn’t worth the hassle. The sensible choice would have been to cash in at the peak of his value in the summer of 2021. But United are poor sellers. Since 2013 they have only sold eight players for fees of £10m or above. United tend to hold on to footballers despite them having no obvious first-team prospects. Quite inexplicably, instead of then releasing them on a free, these players are often given extensions to ensure that any potential transfer value does not diminish. Even in basic accounting terms, this makes no sense. The amortised cost of extending a contract will usually be greater than the diminishing value of a footballing asset that isn’t playing football. It is difficult to find any other top-level rival who operates in the same manner. If you compare with United’s nearest (geographically speaking) rivals, Manchester City and Liverpool, the difference is night and day. Both act decisively to offload players who are no longer required. Both follow the notion that commercial success is intrinsically linked and cannot be decoupled from what is happening on the pitch.
Perhaps I am oversimplifying and the machinations of running the football department of a club like Manchester United are beyond my comprehension. However, it’s difficult to imagine even your average football-competent supporter of the club doing a worse job in terms of handling the recruitment. The term ‘paralysis by analysis’ does often come to mind when reviewing some of the decisions United, and mostly Ed Woodward has made, in the last 10 years. It was somewhat of a relief to hear Woodward’s successor Richard Arnold claim that any attempt to involve himself in football matters would likely result in the club being relegated. Whether that plays out in practice remains to be seen. I won’t be holding my breath.