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Narrowing in on Nothing: A Manchester United Story

“Twitter buzz”, “All you care about is transfers”, “Trust the process”, “New Direction” blah blah blah. For 7 years, I’ve probably heard it all. From the board, rival fans and football pundits. David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho and have each had a crack at rekindling the glory days. However, their short stints at United could never compare with the sustained success which characterized the Sir Alex era.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is the fourth manager to work under Ed Woodward and it seems to be pretty futile to call for his head already From an objective lens, he seems to be heading in the right direction with no help from Manchester United’s chief executive who has overseen seasons of failure since taking over in 2013 from David Gill, failing to cultivate an adequate sporting structure in order to compete at the highest level. Now obviously, throwing money at the situation does more harm than good, I mean, that how is how we got into this mess in the first place. But the use of the financial muscle and clout has not reflected on the trophy cabinet adequately

I read a recent article published by ESPN claiming that: “Manchester United are growing increasingly frustrated at the social media frenzy around their transfer activity and believe it is creating a cloud of negativity ahead of their start to the new Premier League season”. Now as you can imagine, I almost burst into flames.

Before we delve into the transfer nightmare of 7 years, lets take a look at the self proclaimed brain-trust in charge of the clubs transfers.

Ed Woodward, A man never far from the headlines and usually for negative reasons. Woodward is the public face of United’s increasingly-maligned owners, the Glazer family, and finds himself the target of supporter criticism. Three managers have been and gone in United’s post-Fergie hinterland, with Louis van Gaal perhaps offering the most scathing appraisal of Woodward, saying he had “zero understanding of football”

Matt Judge Head of Corporate Affairs, is also the man who leads the way in negotiating the finer details of player contracts, as he did last summer to bring in Daniel James from Swansea, Harry Maguire from Leicester and Aaron Wan-Bissaka from Crystal Palace. Weirdly enough, his LinkedIn reads as: “Managing Manchester United’s equity and debt capital structure – three equity offerings incl. the IPO, totaling over $450m; and three debt refinancing ($1bn+) – debut private placement, term-loan and RCF.

“Also player negotiations (transfers and playing contracts).”

On top of that we have Chief Scout Jim Lawlor, Technical Chief Scout Mick Court and Head of Global Scouting Marcel Bout, and to be honest it all seems redundant and decentralized to me, there is no linear talent identification strategy and we’ve seen the results of that the disparity of players we’ve signed over the years. But if we were to look the current process it would be the procurement of Aaron Wan Bissaka, of course still while understanding that not all transfers are similar as seen by the signing of Daniel James:

So before signing Wan-Bissaka, United held data on 804 right-backs around the world before drawing on the reports of 33 first-team scouts to draw up a list of 50-70 names.This was whittled down to a top 10 using additional scouting reports before a shortlist of three was produced by applying video analysis. It is at this point Lawlor and the brain trust sit down to make their decisions on who to buy.

“Spider” Aaron Wan Bissaka

Moving forward, Woodward’s strategic bluff.

A loss of the sense of scale and perspective in addition to impaired judgement has left United reeling in comparison to other clubs, off the field – structurally and on the field. Commercially, Ed Woodward has taken advantage of the stature and unique lust around United and propelled the club into financial nirvana which is seen as a positive.

But, football has remodeled itself and has left Manchester United in the dust scrambling to salvage its glory. There are companies such as SciSports, an analytics company who perform several functions such as an online scouting service for clubs through a database that covers 90,000 players and more than 3,600 clubs. They also offer specialized reports for clubs and agents. For example Memphis Depay agent requested a personalized report from SciSports, comparing his current level and his potential, then set against similar players in Europe. It is essential to constantly analyse in depth the club organization, its management structure and their different functions in order to constantly progress.

Most clubs in England’s top flight have the more continental approach of having a technical director in charge of recruitment and off the pitch activity. Managers nowadays are more often than not given the responsibility of coaching the group of players that they have, with the director of football tasked with identifying the players needed for the squad and handling footballing operations. A good transfer system is necessary and essential, although not infallible, and the money available in both cases will affect the market you can access, which shouldn’t be problem for United.

The source of the fans frustration lies within the constant lies, incompetence and lack of direction over the years, and not because we want Jadon Sancho. While he is a brilliant player who has registered 17 goals and 16 assists in 32 Bundesliga appearances in 2019-20, his best-ever tally in a single season,which is a goal every 134.8 minutes and an assist every 143.2 minutes – equating to a goal or assist every 69.4 minutes (*Wink wink brain trust*)

The glaring issue is a lack of potential alternatives that have been identified in numerous cases, names such as Pellistri (Penarol), and Coman and Douglas Costa both on loan has been thrown around. Haaland chose Dortmund, likewise Jude Bellingham, Werner was on the market. All progressively in the same bracket of potential. Bruno Fernandes and Harry Maguire transfer saga’s were increasingly just as embarrassing, as United haggled over a fee for months only to pay the initial asking price. A more universal approach needs to be taken, the targeted English core vision is admirable, but no feasible in the current market as the inflation on fee’s (English Tax) is completely preposterous.

“Significant work has already been done – and investments made – to strengthen the Academy and we’re pleased with the progress being made behind the scenes to ensure we have the right players, the right infrastructure, and the right culture to sustain long-term success. Similarly, there has been extensive work on our recruitment process, with considerable investment in scouting, data and analytics.

“The Recruitment Department is working to a clear plan and philosophy, along with Ole and his coaching staff. ‘Our focus is on bringing in a combination of experience and the best young players with potential to develop further, fusing graduates from our Academy with high-quality acquisitions. ‘It is important to note that the commercial elements of the club are geared to ensuring we have a self-sustaining model which supports investment in the playing side.” Woodward said after coming under a lot of scrutiny.

This all sounds great, right? except going into his 8th season it obvious that nothing has changed. Donny Van de Beek, who at first glance seems like a bright player, was brought in first into an already concentrated area of the squad. Andreas Pereira, Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard, Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba all occupy the same positional space as him. The summer of 2020 has been strange, but even without the unusual COVID market, I’m certain that Manchester United’s window would play out the exact same way.

2020/2021 using the profound Fabrizio Romano quote “HERE WE GOOOOO”

A silver lining has been that Manchester United are backing the youth again. Around the tenure of LVG demanding immediate results , it seemed youth development had taken the backseat, It was not the priority to him as it is for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. United are now bringing in good young players, they want the best English players playing for their first team. A slight favorite of mine, the highly-rated James Garner has recently signed for Watford. Garner was named United’s U-23 Player of the Year last season, scoring eight goals in 10 Premier League 2 games and captaining the team for much of the season. He is expected to challenge Will Hughes and Nathaniel Chalobah for a central midfield starting berth at Watford

United also seem prepared to buy and develop the best young players in Europe, this years U23 side includes Hannibal Meijbri, signed from Monaco last July at aged 16. Alongside team-mates Aliou Traore (On loan at Caen) and Noam Emeran, who are three Parisian youngsters scouted by the same man in Goussainville outside of Paris. Pogba and Martial hail form the same Parisian banlieus. Additionally, the signings Spaniards Arnau Puigmal and Mateo Mejia to their academy and most recently Marc Juardo from Barcelona.

My Manchester United first 11 for the 20/21 season

At last, the Premier League season is upon us and you can have a look at what I think the best 11 should be (image above). Donny Van De Beek come through the doors and I’m genuinely excited to see him play, he can operate both as a box-to-box midfielder and as a ’10’ and is a vital addition to the squad. The disparity of quality between the starting players such as Bruno and the alternatives of Andreas or Lingard is immense and Donny definitely helps bridge the gap.

United scored 66 goals last season in the Premier League, 36 behind Manchester City (102) and 19 behind Liverpool (82) and i concern is that they haven’t directly addressed the aperture. City have added Ferran Torres (Valencia) and LFC Jota (Wolves) and Thiago (Bayern), their trio all improving their respective teams considerably. I would’ve preferred another centre-back due Axel & Baily’s injury concerns, Smalling’s impending transfer back to Rome and Rojo’s…well lack of quality, our defensive stats stack up quite nicely – 13 clean sheets and 36 goals conceded, 3 more than Liverpool and one more than City – I’m more than happy for Henderson, Maguire and Lindelof to hold it down.

*Amended segment after the Palace defensive diasterclass*

Whilst I still maintain the faith in our defensive partnerships in – Victor & Harry, and Shaw & AWB – squad depth is desperately needed, especially the fullbacks. Roy Hodgson clearly identified the weakness on the right-flank and it exploited it well knowing he has an arguably world class attacking talent on the left in Zaha. In the middle Lindelof’s regression has been worrying, Aerially inept but comfortable bringing out the ball, he seems to be making an increased amount of crucial mistakes leading to goals (Josh King vs Bournemouth & Luuk De Jong vs Sevilla). I’ve seen many people make reasonable arguments regarding the quality of depth and rotation, but I don’t think the priority should be to add to an already heavily concentrated area of the squad.

Despite United’s favorable defensive stats, De Gea had an awful time last season, most recently the mistakes against Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final and against Tottenham Hotspurs the first game of project restart. Henderson is a young, hungry and confident keeper who could add a much needed impetus in goal, which is why I’ve gone with him. The other topic I have considered is resisting the temptation to throw Van de Beek into the mix immediately. Matic adds intelligent defensive play with interceptions and shielding the Back 4, and his ball progression isn’t the worst in the world. The others considered are: McTominay, who’s use of ball possession is often dreadful, nevertheless he is mobile and can tackle, While Fred often comes second best when it comes to duels, but is mobile and can progress the ball.

And last but no least, Ole. The criticism has gone his way, to me, is largely unfair. Do i think he was qualified for the job?no (but who is these days?) Do I think he’s tactically astute enough? no. Do I think he’s the man to win us he league? no. However, he does deserve credit regarding the development of our wide players namely Rashford, Martial and Greenwood. He’s brought the general ‘vibe’ and feel of old and personally, I believe he could be the perfect stop-gap in order for a potential world-class manager to come in and take over a steady ship

Whilst my early prediction is that we’ll finish either 3rd or 4th and a trophy, which i think would be an good season considering the shit show happening above Ole, I’m still hankering for change. Nagelsmann, Javier Ribalta, anybody? please call Woodward.

The glory days might be gone, but the love will remain forever.