In his latest reporter notebook,Sky Sports News reporter James Cooper explains the restructure behind the scenes at Manchester United.
In the wake of a disappointing FA Cup exit at the hands of Leicester, the issue of “progress” at Manchester United has once more been raised, following a performance that also sparked questions about team selection and tactics.
All three areas have been constant matters of debate for the past couple of years following Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s impressive start to life as a manager at Old Trafford.
Yes, United’s schedule leading up to the quarter-final at the King Power Stadium had been more hectic but there was no sense of momentum after an impressive win at the San Siro, coupled with a reminder that unless Bruno Fernandes is conducting the orchestra it’s unclear just what piece of music they’re attempting to play.
Manchester United fans, though, will struggle to see the positives right now.
The return of Paul Pogba is certainly something to be happy about and the Europa League remains an opportunity to end the club’s silverware drought, but we’ve returned to the feeling that their ambitions or fears are fuelled by each and every result. Short-termism is something that afflicts supporters everywhere no matter what level their team is at but what United are attempting right now, structurally, is to implement something that will pay longer-term dividends.
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Short-term pain, long-term gain?
Since the 2013 departure of Sir Alex Ferguson one of the most fascinating games to play, and it’s one that’s exercised brains around the planet, has been trying to gauge just where Manchester United are at.
Middle ground doesn’t exist at Old Trafford – it is often one extreme to the other. It is a reality Solskjaer is more than familiar with. The United boss himself has been happy to dodge questions about a new deal and he’s right that those discussions can wait, especially because this season’s ‘progress chart’ is still incomplete.
His side sit in second spot in the Premier League, 12 points better off than they were at this stage last season, they have a favourable draw to progress in the Europa League and, at Leicester, suffered their first domestic away defeat since January 19 last year.
On the other side of things, critics will question the set-up of the team, the philosophy and tactics behind it and the inconsistencies. In a nutshell, how can a team that looked so imperious and well-prepared as the one that took all three points in the Manchester derby bow out of the FA Cup with such a whimper?
Solskjaer talks about addressing long-term issues and the advantages that come with longevity – all these things were borne out by Sir Alex Ferguson’s tenure. Back then, the structure of the club was far more simple but it was one that worked.
What Manchester United have opted to do is promote from within to give Solskjaer an environment that he’s comfortable with and the changes have only enhanced his authority and position at helm. I still see the negotiations about a new contract being straightforward even though the volume of the “noise” directed at the club has been switched up a notch again.
This is Solskjaer’s dream job, one that now has a supporting cast to benefit him but I think even he’d recognise that any agreement or announcement can wait until this campaign has a full-stop placed against it.
The restructure: what’s the plan?
The charting of Manchester United’s trajectory is something that has stalked every manager since Sir Alex and Solskjaer is no different in that, but what he has got now, in comparison with those who came before him, is a structure that’s designed to take the club back to the top tables of England and Europe.
Some of those predecessors, in particular Jose Mourinho, weren’t interested in entertaining a football or sporting director mechanism at an organisation that’s never seen the need for it either. But Solskjaer has been a part of this plan since taking his first steps back at Old Trafford. He knew about it from day one, it involves people he knows well and trusts and it’s been constructed to give him the long-term support and direction that he’s spoken of many times since taking the job permanently.
In a sense, this is a change of tact that doesn’t threaten the current status quo. It in fact reinforces Solskjaer’s philosophy and makes his position even more secure so that he can build the future he wants to alongside people who’ll help him rather than curtail his ambitions for United from top to bottom.
This isn’t is a traditional sporting director scenario that’s more commonplace in Europe, where the sporting director provides the glue in the organisation, is the ever-present figure with powers greater than the manager. This is United coming up with United solutions for United challenges, following consultation with the owners who’ve endorsed the changes.
It’s been said that what this represents is “evolution not revolution” and that’s probably more accurate but nevertheless this is a big step for a football club that’s never done anything like this and has spent almost three years coming up with a blueprint that will hopefully bring about sustained success, long-term.
When you think that up until recently United were digging in their heels over the formation of a women’s football team, saying it would never happen, if this restructuring is anything as successful as Casey Stoney and her group of players then this will certainly have been a worthwhile exercise.
Who is John Murtough?
Football director John Murtough was instrumental in creating a Women’s Team from nothing, a team that’s rapidly become one of the prominent forces in the English game which after less than two seasons in the WSL now harbours ambitions of a first tilt at Champions League football.
Murtough has been at the club since January 2014 and in that sense he’s a true survivor having been brought in by David Moyes shortly before his departure and remained working behind the scenes as others have come and gone.
And being away from the public gaze is something that suits the 47-year-old who’s spent 23 years in the game avoiding the cameras and the spotlight. The way he conducts himself meant there was huge demand for a photo of Manchester United’s football director when his appointment was announced with many in the media realising they’d actually been brushing shoulders with the ‘new man’ for many years.
United spoke to many people while trying to get to grips with the model they wanted to implement. In truth some of those more traditional sporting directors, including some of the biggest names in Europe in that specialised field, wouldn’t have wanted a role that saw them as part of a team rather than being the main man.
As I’ve said, this is a hybrid model lacking some of the autonomy and authority that some of those figures would have expected to be part and parcel of the role. This appointment is envisaged to build upon the principles of United, the DNA if you like, equipping people who understand the club with the tools to bring about lasting and sustainable change.
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Murtough is seen as someone who has the ability to fix things, his track record at Old Trafford demonstrates that after successfully revamping and restoring a revered Academy that had been overtaken by its rivals and re-focusing the club’s recruitment arm, something that has led to greater success in landing key targets at various age-groups.
The role of football director sees Murtough working alongside Solskjaer and reporting into Ed Woodward, this is a team strategy involving two men who already know each other well and are used to communicating on a daily basis.
They have a good relationship, so from both of their points of view nothing really changes except for a new job title (from head of football development to football director) but it’s one that’s envisaged to give Solskjaer the environment and structure to develop a successful club, whether that be identifying or acquiring new players or improving the link between the Academy and the first team.
One side effect in this switch in direction at Old Trafford should satisfy some of the naysayers too, for those United fans unhappy with Woodward’s role in transfers in and out of the club, his phone will ring far less as Murtough becomes the point of contact for clubs and agents alike. Executive vice-chairman Woodward will probably be given little credit for taking himself out of the process but it should be recognised that he’s allowing specialists to do what they do.
On that note, Matt Judge also gets a new job title too after five years at the club, he’s now head of football negotiations with a remit to lead discussions on players coming in and going out plus contractual matters. He also reports in to Murtough. And on the subject of transfers, when it comes to looking at roles and responsibilities, and where the power now lies, it’s important to mention that Solskjaer retains his veto over any potential target but so too does the recruitment team.
Where does Darren Fletcher fit in?
The other new man in the hierarchy, Manchester United’s first technical director, isn’t a new man at all but that’s part of the appeal of Darren Fletcher, though this isn’t an appointment that’s been driven by sentiment.
Fletcher has made a big impression since being brought back to the club to be part of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s coaching team in January. He’ll continue to be a ‘hands on’ coach in the short term, certainly for the remainder of the season, but it’s his knowledge of the game and United that’s seen as being complementary to the skills of Murtough.
Yes, Fletcher won five Premier League titles, a Champions League and plenty more besides but he was also a player who came through the system, from the academy to the first team and what’s struck people across the club is his willingness to put in the hard work but also his humility.
Again, these are qualities held dear by Solskjaer himself, he wants his United to be tireless and relentless in how they go about things but to do it all in a humble way. Fletcher won’t threaten those principles.
What he will be tasked to do is improve the transition from academy to the first team and come up with solutions to the individual challenges each player presents. For example, United signed two right-wingers last summer in Facundo Pellistri and Amad Diallo. It was felt that Pellistri, a 19-year-old Uruguayan would benefit from being loaned out so he’s now playing for Alaves in La Liga but when Amad finally arrived in Manchester, even though he’s just 18, the decision was taken to quickly integrate him into the first team.
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When you look at some of the academy-grown youngsters who are catching the eye right now and have committed their futures to the club, the likes of Teden Mengi, Anthony Elanga and Hannibal Mejbri, it’s easier to appreciate just how important the role of technical director could be in their journey to becoming future members of the first team.
Additionally, Fletcher is also someone who could be involved in the negotiation process with parents or even players themselves to demonstrate just how the United system works but also to explain how the changes coming online right now will be for the benefit of individuals as well as the club itself. Solskjaer talks about the importance of dealing with people as human beings and, again, this is a set-up that falls in with that thinking. While Fletcher also reports into Murtough, it promises to be more of a collaboration between the two and the former midfielder’s brief is centred around delivering long-term gains.
In keeping with the ongoing themes of United, the past couple of weeks has seen the usual ups and downs.
Almost three years of thinking, discussion and planning have gone into the restructuring with Murtough the man selected to lead on all things football from the Aon Training Complex at Carrington. The scrutiny on the new team behind the team will be as intense as ever and while there will be a particular focus on this summer’s transfer window as a result, I’d suggest it would be dangerous to come to any lasting judgements based on unique economic conditions.
‘United will need to box clever to sign top talent’
On the one hand Manchester United will have already drawn up their list of targets and although a new shirt sponsorship deal provides further financial solidity and demonstrates the attractiveness of the ‘brand’, we’re talking about a sum of money being paid by Team Viewer that’s far less than that shelled out by Chevrolet.
Admittedly the deal agreed with the US car giant was for more than just the front of the shirts and United are still getting more than any Premier League club for their new tie-up with a tech company based in Germany but crashing out of the Champions League also cost them dear. When you add that to a year in which Old Trafford has stood empty and think about the warning lights that were flashing brightly last summer on the transfer-front, conditions certainly haven’t improved.
Added to that, there’s a recognition that rivals clubs not burdened by similar economic models may seek to press home that advantage when the window opens again.
United may have to box cleverer than ever to sign the players who’ll fit in with a new structure that’s been established to deliver the Premier League title. It helps that, in Murtough, they have a person whose been responsible for the overhaul of the recruitment department and some of the more consistent success that the club has enjoyed in recent transfer windows.
But this time around these are some of the fundamental questions that will be exercising the brains of those in the new roles:
- Will Donny Van De Beek benefit from a proper pre-season and finally flourish at Manchester United?
- Can a pre-season also elevate Amad Diallo to the level where he’ll be considered to be a starter on the right and lessen the need to sign another wide player?
- Does Edinson Cavani want to remain at Old Trafford for another season and, if so, where does that leave the search for a centre forward?
- Would the signing of a commanding central defender allow a more ambitious and creative approach in front of the defence?
- What happens now with Paul Pogba?
- And perhaps the most intriguing dilemma, who wins the fight to be Manchester United’s number one, David de Gea or Dean Henderson, and what happens to the man who misses out?
It promises to be a compelling watch and there are other issues too but it’s not as though those involved have suddenly come into these situations cold. One of the positive elements of the restructuring means it involves people who’re aware of the environment they inhabit. And before anyone jumps in to talk about the lack of fresh perspectives in combatting some of these challenges, Fletcher has spent plenty of time outside of the Old Trafford bubble, his time away adding up to almost six years.
So, if the discussions over ‘progress’ and ‘direction’ continue, which they will, it’s fair to say the one thing Manchester United have succeeded in is expanding the criteria upon which they can be judged.
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