These are strange times at Manchester United. Strange and unsettling times. The worst that could be said about United’s defeat at Fenerbahçe on Thursday is that the result wasn’t unexpected. Victory would have been met with relief such has been United’s form and poor away record in Europe. Instead, José Mourinho will have to pick through the wreckage of this latest set-back and try to steady the ship.
In all the hoots of derision that met Thursday’s result journalist Raphael Honigstein most accurately summed up the problem at Old Trafford. Manchester United, he wrote on Twitter, “are run by people who have no idea about football” who simply “chuck lots of money” at the problem.
Indeed, the club has embarked on reconstruction in a piecemeal manner, with reforms in the football structure seemingly being done independently of each other and not in sync. It’s been noted more than once that the commercial wing is a slick machine, but the sporting side is nowhere near as organised.
On paper things look fine: United secured a big name manager in the summer, recruited star players, restructured the youth set-up, and continue to sign the brightest young talents from across the globe. The executive can boast about how the club has been remodelled, but the achievements listed look increasingly like a box-ticking exercise and not a concerted effort at change.
[blockquote who=”Raphael Honigstein (@honigstein) ” cite=””]It’s almost as if ManUtd are run by people who have no idea about football and simply chuck lots of money/different managers at the problem[/blockquote]
It is, of course, easy to blame the board for United’s on-field plight. Ed Woodward has been a lightning rod for criticism, but he can justifiably point to a successful summer in the market and argue that he delivered transfer targets and hired a manager with a trophy laden CV.
Yet, more than once, this column has argued for the club to recruit a sporting director – a move that would give United a sense of footballing continuity. Mourinho’s arrival has put any notion of a director of football on ice.
So the onus falls on the United’s Portuguese manager to get things right. He may need to reassess his role if he wants to realise his dreams of an Old Trafford dynasty. The United job is the one Mourinho truly wanted and, perhaps more pertinently, it’s the first time he’s in a position where he is in full control.
At Chelsea he had to battle the whims of Roman Abramovich and the influence of Michael Emenalo, while at Real Madrid Mourinho fought nasty battles with Jorge Valdano and key players. During Mourinho’s time at Inter José enjoyed a relative spell of serenity, although his focus was purely on the first team.
José is discovering that the job at United is truly all-encompassing. It is a responsibility that has already crushed the hapless David Moyes and wilted the Iron Tulip Louis van Gaal.
Take a step back
On the same day that ‘sources’ told the press that Mourinho is willing to let Wayne Rooney go, other stories emerged that some players are concerned about the stand-offish nature of their Portuguese boss. Mourinho’s attraction is the bond he forges with players. Yet, there is a sense that the loyalty between him and his playing staff isn’t there at Old Trafford.
There are valid arguments to suggest that Mourinho has changed after being burned at Chelsea and Real Madrid, but perhaps another reason for his aloofness could be the size of the job at hand. Mourinho is the manager and not just the head coach and, in such a demanding position, he cannot purely focus on the first team. Not least if he’s truly wants to stay at the club for the long-term.
In that José is his own director of football and, given the task at hand, it makes sense that he takes a step back. Sir Alex Ferguson and even Van Gaal recognized the value in delegation, knowing that the task to run a behemoth United’s size is too large for one man. Of the many disastrous mistakes that Moyes made perhaps the most damaging was the belief that he had to handle everything himself.
In a sporting director’s absence the responsibility for the football side of operations lays with José, a role that he is not wholly familiar with. By contrast, Ferguson was capable of doing it all and the years since his retirement has highlighted just how much the Scot actually did.
It’s a daunting task; one the requires José to define the role before it defines him.
Pathway to the starting 11
This week Mourinho took the encouraging step of meeting with United’s under-14 and under-15 players before they flew to Portugal to play Benfica. If anything it demonstrates that the Old Trafford boss now understands his role extends beyond the first team.
United’s proud tradition of including a youth team product in the first team match day squad, starting in October 1937, came perilously close to ending last season. Had Andreas Pereira not been available on the 26 September 2015, the extraordinary streak would have come to an end against Sunderland.
Since then Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard have graduated into the first team squad. More could follow if talent is nurtured correctly, although for that to happen Nicky Butt, United’s new Academy head, must quickly find a coherent strategy.
On the plus side Kieran McKenna is doing a good job with the under-18s, coaching exciting talents such as Tahith Chong, Nishan Burkart, DJ Buffonge, Callum Gribbin, Indy Boonen and Angel Gomes. Warren Joyce’s departure as Reserves coach is a blow, but it will leave Mourinho free to recruit somebody on his wavelength – a coach who will prepare young for the Portuguese’s preferred systems.
Over the past year the overhaul of the Academy looks to be bearing fruit, but it’s only useful to United if it can produce players who will challenge for first team spots. This is a challenge that Mourinho knew he must face when accepting the United role.
Models, Models, Models
United are exclusive amongst the big clubs insofar as they still operate with a traditional manager model. It has many problems, not least consistency of approach. Ferguson’s three successors offer no continuity in terms of style or philosophy. Then there is recruitment, with the strategy now focused on working with the biggest agents, Jorge Mendes and Mino Raiola. It all seems a little patchwork, flimsy and fraught with danger.
There are some elements of United’s structure that will not change any time soon. Woodward will be the main negotiator on all first team recruitment, assisted by head of football development John Murtough, and Matt Judge, who leads corporate development. The best case scenario is that the trio learn the nuances of the transfer market quickly.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]With each bad result the pressure is ratcheted up, but unless United spiral out of control José will be afforded time to shape his side.[/blockquote]
José can influence the sporting structure, although that is another major and timely task. There are key questions: can Mourinho ensure Woodward hires people the Portuguese trusts, to build an infrastructure that overseas everything from recruitment to youth? Does the United boss work closely with Murtough to implement his vision of what United should become, or adopt a more hands off approach?
Then there’s the debate about how to construct the model: with former players in administrative roles, mirroring the structure at Bayern Munich; or filled with specialists who do not necessarily possess a high level playing background.
From a recruitment point of view United’s approach is increasingly “Zidanes and Pavones,” mirroring Madrid’s Galatico era. Yet, Mourinho has typically also preferred tried and tested, functional players. These are questions that José must address, because with the power he has been given, comes the responsibility to execute properly.
All he needs is time
With each bad result the pressure is ratcheted up, but unless United spirals out of control José will be afforded time to shape his side. Shaping a team won’t be enough though. The new manager has a more holistic duty to execute on a well-planned strategy that sees the club as a whole in rude health.
He still needs to deliver trophies, of course, to install a winning mentality, and set-up his teams to play in an eye-catching manner. United fans are patient if they see tangible progress, but that support cannot be taken for granted.
In the absence of a sporting director it is up to Mourinho to rebuild the club into the successful, trophy-winning beast that it once was under Fergie. If that means he needs to alter his approach to management then so be it. The emphasis is on him to adapt to United and not the other way around.
Power and responsibility. Being the United manager is José’s dream job, now he needs to grasp the reality of the task at hand and ensure each part of the club works for each other in synchronicity.