Friday, Manchester United’s executive vice-chairman/lightning rod/chief figure of fun (delete as appropriate) was ‘grilled’ by investors when he reported on the club’s financial results for the third quarter. Much like the ‘grilling’ in the second quarter there was little surprise that investor questions focus little on Manchester United’s on the pitch challenges.
Highlights from Q2 included queries about the impact of the Chinese Super League on the transfer market, prices of tickets and merchandising plans. In Q3 analysts moved on to “employee benefit expenses” should United miss out on the Champions League and the “performance of the Old Trafford store.”
Questions regarding Louis van Gaal’s future did not feature on either call. Nor did Woodward offer any insight into the Dutchman’s future. Hard hitting stuff it was not. Indeed, investors are more concerned about why the value of the club has dropped so sharply over the course of the season, without realizing the real cause of the problem.
No doubt investors will console themselves with United’s ability to make money through its many commercial partnerships and a strong showing in the only table that matters to the Glazers: the Forbes Football Rich List, with the club finishing third behind Spanish powerhouses Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Woodward, meanwhile, offered little insight into the club’s strategy to return to pre-eminence, save for his claim that the club has been a “re-tooling” in recent summers, and that it will invest with a view to challenging for the title next season.
Yet, if an investor were so inclined what football related questions should analysts really ask? Rant has a few suggestions….
Will Van Gaal be manager of Manchester United next season?
This is a question that needs to be addressed immediately. Woodward can point to the damage Pep Guardiola’s appointment as City’s next manager had on the Blues season, but the speculation surrounding the Dutchman’s future has not helped United either.
It was probably too much to expect Woodward to give an unequivocal answer, unless he is certain that Van Gaal will see out his contract. However, if Woodward is unsure about the Dutchman’s future the way he chooses to tackle the subject could have been instructive. The analysts on the call didn’t ask.
If Van Gaal stays how can the club ensure that he isn’t a lame duck?
Continuity, or lack thereof, is the key concern. Van Gaal has been adamant that after his contract is up at United he will retire. United could either have a manager lined up to take over in 2017, or appoint Ryan Giggs in order to execute on a transition plan. If not, Van Gaal will be one very lame duck.
If the situation remains in a state of flux then it will affect the club’s strategy in the transfer market. After all few players will want to move to Old Trafford if the club is shrouded in uncertainty.
This is how messy the potential scenario could be if Van Gaal sees out his contract. If Woodward is reluctant to elaborate on United’s post-Van Gaal future, then the media will go wild with speculation. The club will be left to address rumours that in turn will undermine the Dutchman and his team.
Alternatively, if Woodward lays out the full succession plan then Van Gaal’s authority will be removed in one step. Even if Giggs is publicly announced as the Dutchman’s anointed successor it will not keep the press pack at bay, especially if United endures another underwhelming season. Unless Van Gaal goes out in a blaze of glory he will be a lame duck no matter the scenario.
Why did the club insist that Van Gaal sign a three-year deal when he wanted only two?
The Dutchman recently admitted that he signed a three-year deal at United’s insistence. Was Woodward afraid that a two-year deal makes the club look short-termist? It is odd that the club didn’t think twice when Van Gaal insisted on just two years given the scale of the rebuild at United.
Perhaps Woodward was convinced that Van Gaal could lay down a framework that required three years to implement. The reality doesn’t support that line of thinking. Given that there has been no restructuring of United’s sporting strategy the Dutchman’s legacy will be muted as the next man changes coaches and playing staff on a whim.
If the club is ready to part with Van Gaal does that mean a successor has been identified?
It would be too much to expect Woodward to reveal Van Gaal’s successor, unless it happens to be Giggs, but at the very least there should be an organised approach to recruiting a manager or head coach.
If speculation is correct and José Mourinho finally lands his dream job, or Giggs ascends to the throne earlier than expected, then the way United have dealt with the rumours has allowed a circus to develop around the club.
Will the club finally revamp its sporting structure?
The only tangible signs of change on the football front has been the club’s decision to appoint Nicky Butt as the Head of the academy, while signing a number of young prospects to beef up the youth team squad. Plans to build a ‘mini’ Old Trafford have been put on hold, and there is no indication that Woodward or the Glazers want to overhaul United’s sporting structure.
Three years on from Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement United continues to stumble in a directionless manner, with neither David Moyes nor Van Gaal suitable for the job. In short, United needs Ferguson back at the helm if the hierarchy wants to retain the current structure, with an omnipotent manager and Ed Woodward in charge of commercial and transfer strategy. The Scot was a one-off and only he could manage the behemoth that is United in its current form.
Yet, if the Board realises that its structure is outdated then the question must be asked as to why there has been no steps to appoint a director of football. Woodward is seemingly not ready to accept a sporting director, who would oversee the football side of the club, from transfers to playing philosophy.
If Woodwas believes that the structure is robust enough then he must provide evidence to prove his case, especially as most leading clubs employ it, and top coaches are used to working this way.
How will United approach this summer’s transfer window?
It’s fair to say that United’s forays into the transfer market have not been successful in recent seasons. Indeed, even those players that have worked out were bought at great expense. Moreover, it’s the players that got away who cause most embarrassment, with Renato Sanches the latest example. Bayern Munich offered Woodward a lesson in how to efficiently negotiate a transfer.
Predictably, United briefed that Van Gaal wasn’t keen on the player. It is the same defence that was used when United missed out on Pedro, leaving Woodward to take in the sights of Barcelona and enquire about Neymar, of course!
Then there are players, such as Sergio Ramos and Dani Alves, who have used United’s interest as leverage to gain better contracts. The impression given since David Gill’s departure is of a scattergun policy, haphazardly executed. Invariably it ends with a phone call to Jorge Mendes.
The question remains as to whether United has learned from past forays into the markek, and already lined up deals ready to be rubber-stamped as soon as the window opens.
Even if there isn’t a change in management this summer, then the club has to become more savvy in the market. Woodward offered some insight into United’s thinking.
“Leicester is a fantastic reference point for everybody this year,” noted Woodward on last quarter’s call. “The philosophy we have is to target quality of players based on the huge amount of scouting we do and analysis within the training ground, and then we do our best to do the best deal we can.
“Some players are bought by other clubs with an eye to them developing into something special in a few years’ time whereas there’s perhaps more pressure on bigger clubs to bring in players who are going to hit the ground running, top players verging on world class almost immediately. There is a slightly different market in which people are buying.”
United will never escape transfer speculation, but there needs to be a coherent approach. The last few windows have demonstrated an alarming tendency for the club to shoot itself in the foot.
Van Gaal and Woodward have been fortunate that a number of academy graduates have performed when called into the first team. It is critical to strengthen the squad around them, ensuring enough depth that the youngsters can develop.
These are all important questions. Yet, with plenty to cover in the third quarter call, the conversation focused solely on money. One might hope that investors are knowledgeable enough to quiz Woodward about the football side of the club. They apparently are not.
Woodward, meanwhile, offered little beyond the usual banality. Whether it’s on the pitch or off it, fans can feel that the club is forever putting them on hold.