Five and a half years ago, Manchester United were the dominant force in world football.
In April 2013, United had just won their fifth Premier League title in seven years. In Sir Alex Ferguson the Red Devils had one of the game’s best ever minds in charge of their squad, which contained top quality talent including Wayne Rooney, Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Robin Van Persie.
Yet following Ferguson’s retirement that summer, United have since hired three different managers, won only three trophies – none of them being the Premier League and Champions League – and endured some woeful on-the-pitch experiences both domestically and abroad over the half decade just gone.
In short, what was once the biggest club in world football is now a dwindling shadow of their former selves. And not even the experience and guileful tactics of the great Jose Mourinho can steer the ship back towards glory.
It’s been a dreadful week for Manchester United, which has not only included back-to-back defeats to Derby County and West Ham United, but has also revealed a clear and public rift between manager Mourinho and star player Paul Pogba.
Yet the failures at Manchester United started way before Mourinho arrived at Old Trafford, so where did it all go wrong?
While the omniscient figure and personality of Ferguson is always brought up when United fail on the pitch, it is important to note that the Scotsman was not the only major departure from Old Trafford in the summer of 2013.
The retirement of David Gill as Manchester United CEO has arguably been a bigger blow to United’s chances of future success post-Ferguson – and the Red Devils’ lack of prosperity proves exactly this.
Gill was a major figure in the upper echelons of the United hierarchy, playing a pivotal role in the controversial takeover by Malcolm Glazer and his family, and making sure that the club remained at the top of the football pyramid despite clear evidence of growing debt.
And the former FA vice chairman was swiftly replaced by the now-hotly-talked-about Ed Woodward, who worked alongside the Glazers in the takeover move and had previously been running the media and commercial department of the club since 2007.
Quite simply, Woodward, in his role as CEO, has failed to spot the change in hierarchical culture in English football – which had already started when he was appointed to the position in 2013.
United’s ‘noisy neighbours’ Manchester City launched their new project in late 2012, which was inspired by the success of some of football’s biggest clubs overseas, and in particular Europe.
Out went the traditionally English set-up of chairman, directors and chief executive which made up the club’s boardroom, and roles and such as ‘Director of Football’ and ‘Head of Football Relations’ started to infiltrate the football vocabulary.
One of the main personalities in City’s set-up is Txiki Begiristain, who arrived from Barcelona to take over proceedings as City’s Director of Football – a role which focused solely on player recruitment and contract negotiations. This role would allow the Manchester City manager to focus completely on coaching the team and controlling the tactical aspects of the team – a role now commonly defined as ‘Head Coach’ as opposed to ‘Manager’.
And the project at the Etihad Stadium has culminated in the arrival of Pep Guardiola in 2016, the best tactical mind of the generation, and when the rest of the Premier League’s giants stood up and recognised this behind-the-scenes revolution in the blue half of Manchester – others followed suit.
An example of this is Liverpool, who reshaped their boardroom to elect Michael Edwards as ‘Sporting Director’ at Anfield just five months after Guardiola’s arrival. Edwards’ role at the club is similar to that of Begiristain’s at City in terms of a complete focus on recruiting new players.
And the three transfer windows that the former Liverpool Technical Director has overseen at the Merseyside club has led to the arrival of high quality talent such as Mohammed Salah, Naby Keita, goalkeeper Alisson and Virgil Van Dijk.
Arsenal are another club who have followed Manchester City’s lead in terms of a behind-the-scenes restructuring as chief executive Ivan Gazidis initiated a boardroom overhaul at the beginning of Arsene Wenger’s final season in charge of the Gunners.
Gazidis oversaw the arrival of Borussia Dortmund chief scout Sven Mislintat and Barcelona’s Head of Football Realtions Raul Sallenhi to the Emirates Stadium; thereby creating a ‘transfer triumvirate’ which resembles something similar to Berigistain and Edwards’ jobs at their Premier League rivals.
Dortmund’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Sokratis Papastathopoulos, United’s Henrikh Mhkitaryan and promising midfielders such as Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi have all been the product of Arsenal’s reshaping of roles out of the public view.
So while the rest of England’s top clubs continue to develop their new and exciting ways of running their clubs, United are regressing in stature and as a football club, and a look at Woodward’s work over the past five years at Old Trafford displays exactly this.
If you look at the player incomings at Manchester United since Woodward took over, there are not many arrivals who have had a positive impact on the Red Devils’ play on the field.
Under Gill and Ferguson, United’s recruitment system very rarely faltered, with names such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Michael Carrick, Dimitar Berbatov, and Park Ji-Sung becoming not only club heroes but immediate successes.
Woodward, however, has certainly been less successful, with his most fruitful purchase so far being Romelu Lukaku who, despite averaging a goal every two games in the Premier League at Old Trafford, cost an extortionate fee of £90m which he has yet to fulfil.
The arrival Alexis Sanchez on a free transfer from rivals Arsenal was initially seen as a smart piece of business, but the winger’s career at United has yet to get started in the same way in did in north London.
Yet Woodward continues to praise the Chilean’s arrival – stating that the commercial aspect of the transfer makes it a hugely successful buy.
Speaking to United’s investors earlier this year, United’s chief executive almost celebrated the Sanchez deal, saying, “Sanchez has set a new January signing record in terms of shirt sales, three times the previous record.
“It was the biggest United post on Instagram with two million likes and comments, the most shared United Facebook post ever, the most retweeted United post ever…the announcement posts generated 75 per cent more than interaction than the sale of Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain.”
United used to celebrate Premier League titles and Champions League triumphs; now the club celebrates the social media craze of a 29-year-old who has scored just two Premier League goals in nine months.
One of Woodward’s ‘finest’ moments as United CEO was the signing of Paul Pogba from Juventus for a then-world record fee of £100m.
And while the return of the Frenchman to Old Trafford was one that wetted the appetite of United fans around the globe, his performances over the last few seasons for the Red Devils have mostly been underwhelming.
What must be even more frustrating for United fans is the fact that Pogba recently showed his potential of being a world class player – but not in the United shirt. His displays for France during their victorious World Cup campaign in Russia over the summer showed exactly the type of player he could be.
But the Red Devils’ social media team were the true winners of the Pogba deal back in 2016, as they brought in Pogba’s sponsor adidas and their fellow big-name client Stormzy to create the not-very-impressive-hashtag #PogBack. This ultimately provides us with further evidence that Woodward and co are solely interested in the marketing side of things at Manchester United.
In fact, it is appropriate to say that Woodward’s fascination with United’s commercial value has ultimately damaged the club. He sacked David Moyes during the week when the club’s value dropped when they mathematically failed to qualify for the Champions League. While Louis Van Gaal was dismissed the day after winning the FA Cup when a more marketable figure – Jose Mourinho – became available and interested in the position.
This mess started when United sacked David Moyes after 8 months and we lost all sense of the values that the club had been built on for 100 years . It’s not the manager it’s the lack of football leadership above him. They are bouncing all over the place with no plan!
— Gary Neville (@GNev2) September 30, 2018
But, looking at United’s current form, does Woodward have the nerve to sack Mourinho?