There is a scene in the American 1990s sitcom Seinfeld in which two Italian hairdressers discuss the movie Edward Scissorhands – the one where actor Johnny Depp plays a man who has scissors for hands. “I’d like to have scissors for hands,” one of them says. “Have you ever thought about what you are going do when you go to the toilet?” the other angrily responds. You wouldn’t want to have scissors for hands when you go to the bathroom. And neither would you want to have Edward Woodward in charge of solving United’s crises. No wins in seven matches, out of the Champions League, effectively out of the title race, and facing a scrappy fight with a resurgent Tottenham Hotpsur for a place among the European élite next season.
How did it all come to this? The situation was optimistic around a month ago when United led the table for the first time after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. Further back, supporters rooted for the Netherlands in the World Cup last summer because of the club’s new manager in waiting. It all seems like a lifetime ago, and there is probably no going back for manager Louis van Gaal now. Judging by the recent games it is hard to see players working for their manager.
Van Gaal almost took a limited Netherlands to the World Cup Final and his side comfortably won the bronze match against home side Brazil – all with a cautious approach. It’s hard to blame the Dutchman for taking the same approach at United – he’s trying to win the league with a limited United squad. Van Gaal’s plan was to win the league with United, retire with his wife and let Ryan Giggs take over. And Van Gaal could have have succeeded. Supporters should not have expected thrilling football under the Dutchman.
Yet, for playing this brand of cautious football, the side has certainly made a few mistakes in the defensive area lately. It leaves open questions about United’s transfer policy. Such as the decision by vice chair Woodward to not give Patrice Evra the two-year contract the Frenchman wanted. After all, Evra recently stated that he still is a United fan, and that he always will be. Even in the seasons that weren’t his best for United Evra was very much a leader in the dressing room and the side does have a serious problem with a lack of passion and leadership on the pitch these days.
Add the very unfortunate injury to Luke Shaw and United’s problems in that area grew larger. Having Evra now would at least solve the left-back conundrum. He is not – a recent Champions League final participant – a worse player than Daley Blind, Ashley Young or anyone else United has used at left back this season.
The same is true of finding a proper replacement for Nemanja Vidic. The Serbian hated life under former manager David Moyes so much that he wanted out, and his departure to Italian football was announced in February – 2014! Not that it was a secret for United’s backroom staff. There was plenty of time, then, for Woodward to work towards bringing top-class central defenders to the club – if the vice chair had had any strategy in the transfer market like he has with marketing. Defenders such as Athletic Bilbao’s Aymeric Laporte, Atletico Madrid’s Diego Godin, Schalke’s Benedikt Höwedes, or Borussia Dortmund’s Mats Hummels could have been deployed next to the improved Chris Smalling in United’s team.
After all, another injury crises could have been forecast, with Phil Jones still being, well, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo spending much of last season injured. Woodward thought he had secured a new defender this summer in Sergio Ramos – and he duly told Van Gaal that the Spaniard would arrive, only to be left with egg on his face when Ramos predictably signed a new and very lucrative contract with his club. Not exactly the first time someone has used United’s genuine interest to get a hefty pay rise under Woodward. And it won’t be the last either. There is little benefit in briefing journalists to “watch this space” or leaking transfer targets to sections of the fourth estate.
Both Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao were Edward Woodward’s signings and they were both very successful. Not on the pitch, no, but that is secondary in Woodward’s thinking. What counts is an excel spreadsheet of shirt sales, and both the South-Americans sold plenty to justify their price and salary.
Roy Keane claims Woodward told David Moyes that he could get “either Bale or Ronaldo” in the summer of 2013. Maybe that’s why the Scotsman looks so bemused at Marouane Fellaini’s unveiling. Recently sacked Chelsea manager José Mourinho says that managers who bring their former players with them to new clubs need to work on their network of scouts. It’s a fair point. If Everton was the shop of choice, then Woodward could have bought the talented Ross Barkley, but instead he overpaid for Fellaini and supporters have suffered ever since.
Not that Van Gaal has helped himself with some of his own bizarre dealings lately. What, for example, has Morgan Schneiderlin done to be dropped to the bench? United look a different side with him in it. Van Gaal’s decisions on Javier Hernandez, James Wilson, and Adnan Januzaj – is the latter not better than Jesse Lingard? – have been strange with United struggling for goals. Januzaj was widely considered to be one of the world’s brightest young stars in 2013 and Mourinho singled him out for praise after Moyes’ first game against Chelsea at Old Trafford in August 2013. “He is only eighteen but he plays like he is twenty-five! It is very impressive,” said the unemployed Portuguese manager after the young winger toyed with Branislav Ivanovic.
While Mourinho is privately drooling for the United job, sacking Van Gaal is more complicated than many fans believe. There is, after all, a massive severance package involved, and we know that the owners revere bottom line above all. That’s why they waited until Champions League qualifying was impossible before Moyes got the boot. If United had finished fourth he would have kept his job. There is also a clause or two about confidentiality. After all, the last thing Woodward wants is Van Gaal telling the world exactly what he knows about United’s chief.
Not that hiring Mourinho would solve much. He cannot be expected to magically transform the team into an attacking machine. Mourinho learned his approach from the Dutchman. And the Portuguese likes to spend money too, lots of it. Van Gaal’s net spend at United is, contrary to the way it is normally presented, quite low at ‘only’ £100 million. For an institution such as United that’s a drop in the ocean – and less than Manchester City has spent in the same period. Without a proper strategy in the transfer market it is almost pointless to talk about money spent.