Opinion: Manchester United's worries run deeper than failures on the pitch
Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United was on the receiving end of a damning defeat in their first away trip of the season as Brighton gained a deserved win in front of a joyous crowd at the AMEX Stadium last Sunday.
As could be expected, the inquest into the manner of the defeat started in no time after the final whistle, with a lot of fingers pointed at the players and in particular the manager: Jose Mourinho.
Another man to take the brunt of the blame was executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, who is the man at the forefront of Manchester United’s transfer exploits. Woodward, who took the role in 2013, has been vastly criticized this summer for failing to sign a central defender, an evident weak link which Brighton exploited brilliantly at the weekend.
However, the worries lie deeper than Woodward not agreeing to put his hand in his pocket and pay over the odds for Toby Alderweireld of Spurs or England and Leicester’s surprise sensation Harry Maguire.
Since Sir Alex Ferguson left the helm, £700million has been spent by three managers and United, the team that once was feared by every other, have never really looked close to a league title.
In the Moyes and Van Gaal era, excuses were made. When Jose Mourinho put pen to paper on a deal, it was supposed to be different. In January of this year, Mourinho signed a new deal, just days after announcing the signing of Alexis Sanchez.
The timing of that new deal seemed bizarre at the time, but even more so now. Noisy neighbours Manchester City finished a whopping, maybe even embarrassing, nineteen points ahead of the once powerhouse of English football.
Something somewhere had to change. Investments had to be made to close the gap on City, but they just didn’t come. Fred is a wise signing but aside from that, it was a disastrous window for United and Mourinho.
So where does the fault lie? Is it with Mourinho for failing to get his ideas across? Should the players take the blame for not carrying out the manager's orders? Is Ed Woodward out of his depth?
One possibility is that the whole model of managerial supremacy is flawed in modern football.
If you are a fan of football in the wider sense, you may have seen the Amazon Prime documentary extraordinaire titled ‘All or Nothing: Manchester City’. You don’t have to know much about the game to acknowledge quite quickly that United’s neighbours are a better run club, top to bottom.
In the scenes that showed the transfer of Aymeric Laporte being completed, Pep Guardiola does not feature, apart from to greet the player at his unveiling.
This is one area that the two Manchester clubs differ, or more so how Manchester United differ from many of the European elite clubs. The model of The Red Devils has been that the manager is at the forefront of ins and outs at Old Trafford.
In 1945, Matt Busby was granted complete control over the footballing activities of the club. In the biography of one of United’s most iconic men, the biographer wrote:
"Most managers were foreman draughtsmen, seeing their players once or twice a week. Busby was the first to establish indisputably that he and not the directors were in control of all team affairs, at a time when directors were all-powerful and to stand up to them was unprecedented"
Sir Matt Busby was the first United manager to assert said dominance and control, but not the last. Sir Alex Ferguson also had the role of bringing the whole thing together, and evidently, it worked. Under Ferguson, United broke all sorts of records, winning league after league in the process.
But, since Ferguson, the strategy has been completely wrong. At first, the idea was simple: find the next Ferguson. Quite literally, United did their best to imitate Ferguson, by signing up fellow Scotsman David Moyes. He failed, as did Louis Van Gaal, and now Jose Mourinho looks no better.
So, is it time for a re-think? To go back on a strategy or model that has served well for over half a century? Would a director of football like we see with Txiki Begiristain at Manchester City be beneficial?
Jose Mourinho would think so, saying after United’s opening day victory over Leicester: “I think football is changing and managers should be called head coaches”.
Whilst Jose Mourinho, Ed Woodward and the players should rightly shoulder the blame for the embarrassing performance on the south coast last weekend, the questions should be asked of the structure of the football club.
The Brighton defeat brought out and showed the problems to the football world, but in truth, the cracks were starting to show all summer off the pitch
A sporting director would bring stability and off the pitch leadership that United have lacked in abundance in the post-Ferguson era.
The search will be rigorous, but if Woodward gets it right, the burden on himself and Mourinho will be decreased, and the club can start to move in the right direction again.
Roma’s Monchi is a name that has been rumoured many times – the gritty negotiator and talent spotter, once of Sevilla, could be exactly what United need to put behind them the players and managers that have flopped since being brought in post-Ferguson.
It is early days in the league and it is far from disastrous from United, but with a sporting director at the helm, things could have been a lot different as Mourinho’s men look to close the gap on their bitter rivals, Manchester City.
The role of the sporting director may involve setting a new identity, a new ‘United way’: the general approach the club will take with signings.
Manchester City’s approach is to sign young talents with the right mindset, often not buying from the ‘top of the market’ as in the best in their position, but younger prospects who they see a plan to make them the best in their position.
The direction of Manchester United as a club has been flawed in the years following Ferguson’s departure. On the pitch it has been drab, boring at times to watch, but the problems lie much deeper than that, with inadequacies off the pitch leading to failures in the transfer market.
Appointing a sporting director will be the first step to putting this right, as United look to close the gap on their rivals and reinstall a ‘United identity’ which will bring them back to the helm of English football.