[dropcap]It[/dropcap] is a team is stumbling towards the season’s end, the Premier League is a long forgotten dream, and the campaign will conclude successfully only if the Reds emerge victorious in next week’s Europa League final. There is glory, Champions League qualification, and tens of millions in revenue at stake. Yet, whatever the outcome of the Stockholm final few can conclude that José Mourinho has delivered on the promise offered last summer. It’s going to be a C plus season, with yet another a rethink in store over the break.
The answer cannot just be for the club to spend yet more millions in the transfer market, liberally throwing money at the symptoms and not the cause. Nor can the season end without the conclusion that the manager needs to adapt his approach as well. In short, the club must find a new long-term strategy to regain preeminence and Mourinho needs a fresh plan.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]The answer cannot just be for the club to spend yet more millions in the transfer market, liberally throwing money at the symptoms and not the cause.[/blockquote]
No longer should a United team lose meekly at rivals, as Mourinho’s team has in the past week. Long gone should be the tactical pragmatism currently on offer. Banished must be the excuses and blame. In must come a new hope, fresh ideas, and a structure that once again leads to glories of the past.
This is, after all, Manchester United, a club that can boast the world’s largest supporter base, a history that demands success, and the financial clout to support those lofty ambitions.
In short the club needs a manifesto – a new declaration, a vision for greatness.
Deliver consistency of thought, from the top down
United’s challenge in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson, post-David Gill era has been to define an identity and approach. Gill and Ferguson may belong to a different era, as the collapse of United’s network since the Scot’s retirement demonstrates, but they had a distinct methodology. In the intervening years United’s management has been chaotic – and not just on the pitch.
Ed Woodward’s approach to the transfer market, squad development, contract negotiations and manager recruitment has been a disaster. Indeed, last summer’s recruitment of four fine players is anachronistic, an unsustainable strategy driven by United’s willingness to hand over millions to agent Mino Raiola. It is no kind of plan.
The generous of spirit may claim that Woodward is learning – that last summer’s activity brought greater balance and quality to the squad. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Paul Pogba and Eric Bailly are fine players, yet it remains a challenge to identify the pattern in United’s operations or recruitment. It is a club without a vision, aside from making millions in sponsorship revenue for a family that is distant and absent.
It is time for the club, Woodward down, to articulate a clear strategy – a roadmap to success. One that will return United to the very top.
Install a holistic management structure
United has for too long insisted on retaining a structure that is archaic when set against the strategies of Europe’s biggest clubs. Structured for commercial interests first, the club has effectively outsourced strategic management of the squad to agents and a legion of middlemen. It is an institution finely tuned to leverage United’s global profile, but poorly built for a long-term football strategy.
This summer, the club will once again recruit according to Mourinho’s whim, with no discernible plan beyond the Portuguese manager’s tenure. It leaves an obvious problem: if the Portuguese fails again next season, the club will be back at square one – resting on the altar of whatever superstar coach comes next.
For all the mess that Ferguson left behind in 2013, the Scot had an instinctive nose for long-term planning. Mourinho does not. Nor did David Moyes or Louis van Gaal. It is, after all, a rare commodity for managers to stay in post over the long piece, let alone be incentivized to think far ahead.
Yet, United remains almost alone among the continent’s biggest clubs in working without a sporting director – an employee in charge of planning beyond a single cycle, or any one manager.
The counter-argument that a strategy cannot be formulated by committee holds little water. Nor does a middle manager between the club’s executive and head coach add bureaucracy or uncertainty. The rejoinder is simple: it is a structure that does not appear to hold back Chelsea, Monaco, Juventus, Bayern Munich or Real Madrid – they are the likely winners of Europe’s biggest leagues.
Empower Mourinho to a bold tactical approach
The club made its bed, now it must lie in it – or so the theory goes. It is not as though Mourinho’s history of pragmatism was a secret. This is the coach who invented anti-football and takes pride in a bus well parked. Yet, there was also a sense last summer that the club could change Mourinho as much as the Portuguese would impose his will on a 139-year-old institution. And while it is churlish to talk of a United Way, a fiction long abandoned during the Ferguson era, there is also an enduring demand: that whatever the mythology of United’s glamour, its legions of loyal fans deserve an entertaining team.
There have been moments in which Mourinho has delivered on that promise over the past few months, but it is increasingly infrequent and rarely to design. Instead, as the season has drawn to a close, Mourinho has become entrenched inside his own destructive tendencies, with an approach that focuses on the opposition’s strengths and United’s weaknesses. It has produced a meek side, fragile of confidence.
In matches over the past month against Manchester City, Celta Vigo, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, Mourinho has driven the ambition out of his team and the hope from supporters. He has sought first not to lose, with thoughts of victory coming a distant second. It cannot last.
Retain the players that matter and develop those that count
The club is set to face a significant choice this summer: whether to enforce David de Gea’s contact or finally sell the player, with Real Madrid ready to turn a long-held ambition into a major transfer. It is a move that holds no merit for United, even if it brings a world-record fee for a goalkeeper.
After all, whatever money is lavished on the 26-year-old Spanish goalkeeper, much of it must then be spent on a replacement. Short of luring Manuel Neuer, any replacement will be a downgrade – and another learning curve. David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo have trodden the path from Manchester to Madrid. This time resistance may not be futile; perhaps it is time to raise Ferguson’s old adage and refuse to “sell that mob a virus.”
Then there is the question of generating benefit from the millions spent in the market since Ferguson’s departure. Not every purchase is a Memphis Depay or Marouane Fellaini. Yet, if United’s profligacy in the transfer market truly does match that of its strikers on the pitch then the money spent on – for example – Luke Shaw, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Anthony Martial may well be without merit. That trio is yet to deliver on more than £100 million invested. They are not the only examples of value for money not yet gained.
Yet, Mourinho is seemingly without a plan to fix the problem, bar to isolate those that he believes have failed, and sell on those he deems not good enough. The world’s top coach can do better. Ferguson knew when to throw his players under the bus, and when to place an arm around the shoulder. It is a skill Mourinho must quickly learn.
Recruit for balance, not just profit
Then there is the vexed question of United’s summer recruitment, which promises to be complex and expensive. Mourinho may well need a central defender, left-back, defensive midfielder and new star striker. It is a substantial shopping list.
And yet for all the challenges faced by an archaic structure and intransigent manager, United will do well to resist old urges. Not everything that is shiny is golden. Not every poster child will fit into a squad benefit of winners and confidence. Not every lead will be real.
Mourinho insists that the summer’s recruitment will be resolved on his direction. It needs to be right.
“I’m sure we’re going to do something interesting and something to improve our team for next season,” Mourinho said. “I give the names, I give the options, I give the second options in case the first options are not possible, but I give all the information based on my analysis, my experience and projections for the future.”
It is a future that supporters trust will become a little brighter after four frustrating years.