There are many ways to describe Manchester United’s latest performance in a season littered with setbacks. “As timid as a mouse,” comes to mind, but that might be disrespectful to the little critter that made its way onto the pitch at Old Trafford this past Sunday. It certainly moved with more purpose and adventure than United’s players.
As for Louis van Gaal and his team it’s back to square one after a game of yet more bizarre decisions. Playing a back three; negating Jesse Lingard’s threat by constraining him to a right wing-back role; the baffling insistence on deploying Marouane Fellaini as a holding midfielder and then, in Van Gaal’s own words, taking a “risk” by bringing on Adnan Januzaj at the end of the game. That an undercooked Januzaj’s most significant contribution was to give away the free kick that led to Southampton’s winner says much.
The goal also happened to be the Saints’ first shot on target. When it rains it pours and, in an interesting footnote, Charlie Austin’s winner continues a remarkable record in the Van Gaal-Ronald Koeman rivalry. Whenever the two have squared-off the away manager has always emerged victorious.
In the run-up to United’s FA Cup fourth round match with Derby County – far from a formality – Van Gaal must once again pick up the pieces and halt the slide that the Dutchman’s philosophy has seemingly buried deep into the club.
United’s deficiencies are glaringly obvious and it’s hard to point them out without sounding like a broken record. The play is too slow, it’s not penetrative, there’s no adventure and there are not enough shots. That’s to say nothing of the structural and boardroom mess that has engulfed the club.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]As the Guardian’s David Conn noted on Twitter the Glazers deserve more scrutiny for their stewardship of the club. The family probably isn’t losing any sleep after United’s defeat to Southampton, though, as the club rapidly announced a commercial partnership with Columbia Sportswear. Profit has long been prioritised over performance.[/blockquote]
Amidst stories of a six-page long letter sent to the Old Trafford hierarchy by José Mourinho, and an admission from David Gill that Van Gaal’s side has under-achieved this season, the question now becomes where United goes from here? Van Gaal, to his credit, at least recognises that he’s fallen short of supporters’ expectations.
It is nearly three years since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement and the club has gone alarmingly backwards. With rumours of politicking going on behind-the-scenes it could yet be another turbulent summer at United. There’s still no sporting direction, with the powers that be only just addressing the deficiencies in United’s youth academy and scouting network. If a series of commercial partnerships have been groundbreaking, then United’s football operations are stuck in the dark ages.
It’s a crude comparison, but if one looks at Barcelona, a club that possesses a solid sporting set-up, the Catalans have managed to win two La Liga titles, the Copa del Rey, the Champions League, the European Super Cup, the FIFA Club World Cup and the Supercopa de España since Pep Guardiola’s departure.
Barcelona entrusted Tito Vilanova to carry on Guardiola’s good work. Vilanova, who was Pep’s assistant, led the club to the La Liga title before his career was cruelly cut short by cancer. After Tata Martino’s failure, Barcelona recruited Luis Enrique, whose coaching career up to that point wasn’t exactly stellar, but he managed to win a treble in his first season and could repeat the trick whilst having lived through a transfer ban.
The conclusion? Barcelona has a strong sporting structure in place; United does not.
Scrutiny of Ed Woodward’s role is becoming more forensic, with United seemingly plumbing new depths under the executive’s ‘leadership’. Woodward’s desperation that Van Gaal succeeds is looking more forlorn with every passing match. His colours have firmly been nailed to Van Gaal’s mast and the executive vice chairman’s loyalty is seemingly more the result of self-preservation than any deep-rooted belief in the Dutchman.
Should Van Gaal leave, which looks very likely, who does Woodward turn to next?
Ryan Giggs, who reportedly has Ferguson’s backing, will surely angle for the hot seat. For all the worries about the Welshman’s lack of experience he will at least provide a feel good antidote. If Ferguson offers himself as a football ‘godfather’ then the case to appoint Giggs could become irresistible, potentially forcing Woodward into a corner that leads to the Welshman’s ascent to the Old Trafford throne.
Woodward’s own position on the sporting front has been weakened as a result of Van Gaal’s struggles. The 44-year old former banker can wash his hands of David Moyes, claiming that the Scot was Ferguson’s pick, but that certainly isn’t the case with respect to Van Gaal. Woodward is not in a position to make a left-field appointment when Van Gaal exits United. He has to bring in, to use footballing parlance, proven quality.
That dilemma leaves Woodward in a pickle. If he’s not keen on appointing Giggs to whom can Woodward turn? The answer could be the man described by Forbes magazine as the most powerful football agent on the planet – Jorge Mendes.
The Portuguese super-agent enjoys a good working relationship with United – a number of his clients have come, and gone, at Old Trafford, while the 49-year-old swiftly negotiated a new contract for David de Gea following the collapse of the Spaniard’s move to Real Madrid.
Mendes could be the kingmaker at Old Trafford as he holds a potential ace: Mourinho. It’s no secret that Mourinho is after the United job and that Woodward is keen on securing star names. On the surface it appears to be the perfect match.
On top of securing one of the world’s super-coaches, albeit one smarting from his first major setback, it opens the door to facilitate moves for more of Mendes’ clients. Whether that scenarios is desirable or not is another question, but whenever Woodward has struggled in the market Mendes has come to the rescue. The club has been linked with Mendes clients such as James Rodríguez, André Gomes, at one point Fábio Coentrão, and most notably Cristiano Ronaldo.
[lead centered=”yes”]Given the football vacuum at United, Mendes may well fill the gap for his financial benefit. From Woodward’s point of view a tie-up with the agent also brings him closer to landing the marquee player that he craves. Ronaldo may not be on the cards, but Rodríguez is a possibility. [/lead]
Turning to Mendes is a quick-fix solution, and with neighbours Manchester City likely to land Guardiola, Woodward is under pressure to keep pace. By authorising Mendes to facilitate Mourinho’s move to Old Trafford, as well as a number of players, Woodward would be seen as decisive, strengthening the first team and buying time for the overhaul of the youth academy and scouting set-up.
The downside of this hypothetical tie-up is that it gives Mendes far too much influence at United and could potentially cause a schism within the club. One only has to look at Valencia, coached by Gary Neville, to see how such an arrangement can create division among the ranks.
It is also a scenario that places United in a classic Catch-22 – caught between losing out on Mourinho again and handing the Portuguese super-agent the keys to Old Trafford in the hope that his stable of stars can bring success back to United. Mendes, by contrast, is in a no-lose situation. The club is now desperate, on a sporting level, to drag itself back onto a par with England’s top clubs. Woodward will have to throw the dice.
Yet, if United really did want to move on from the monolithic Ferguson model the Board would have developed a more modern sporting structure long ago. What United fans are now witnessing is a club unraveling on the pitch and off it. Glazer mismanagement in all its glory.
In this Woodward’s short-term desperation could be Mendes golden ticket to becoming United’s true kingmaker.