Structure, midfield and focus: what Manchester United must sort now

The structure must support the manager

Manchester United’s Premier League peers have achieved success through different means. Manchester City were purpose-built for Pep Guardiola, with Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano in place as executives before his arrival. Jürgen Klopp is the frontman at Liverpool but works in tandem with Michael Edwards, a sporting director who has occasionally overruled the German on transfers. Edwards will be succeeded by his deputy, Julian Ward, this summer.

Chelsea have embraced chaos in multiple managerial sackings while winning titles and the Champions League twice in the past decade but have the structure to withstand the turbulence, their back office run expertly by Marina Granovskaia.

United’s structure beyond the manager has been amorphous since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Each of his four successors have departed as isolated figures, with David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and José Mourinho complaining of a lack of support and self-determination. Ed Woodward has normally taken the blame, but United insiders will tell you that the co-owner Joel Glazer ultimately makes the big decisions. Woodward is set to depart in January, though it is reported he may retain a consultancy role.

John Murtough was appointed in March as football director, with Darren Fletcher technical director. United sources suggest this eases the transition process for the new manager, but there are sincere questions over how much that duo can influence the bigger picture. The time sourcing a new manager must also be spent finessing the relationship between Florida and the training ground at Carrington.

Overhaul the midfield

Michael Carrick’s role as interim-before-the-interim manager serves as a reminder that it was 15 years ago in July that United signed him as the last player to actually improve their midfield. Marouane Fellaini, Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger are among a rogues’ gallery of midfield misfits bought in since.

Fred and Scott McTominay are targeted for mockery but it is tempting to think Ferguson might have made useful squad players of them. They are not, though, the calibre of their counterparts at Liverpool, City and Chelsea, particularly as a pairing. United, having spent heavily on the defence and attack in recent years, must source at least two high-class midfielders if they wish to be able to control matches. Too often in Solskjær’s regime they found the centre of the park dominated by purportedly lesser opponents.

Solskjaer 'honoured and privileged' to have been Manchester United manager – video
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Solskjaer ‘honoured and privileged’ to have been Manchester United manager – video

Cut the Ronaldo cord

Cristiano Ronaldo now appears a vanity purchase, with a record of won five, drawn two and lost seven since his September return, though it might be argued that the only bright spots of United’s season have been spectacular Ronaldo goals such as those against Villarreal, Atalanta and Tottenham.

If this season is written off as an extended job search, then it should be used as a victory lap for Ronaldo while another home is found for him. He will be 37 in February and few serious managers would appreciate having to shoehorn such a player into modern pressing tactics. Losing him may affect the club’s marketability and share price but a continued run of failure would be far more damaging in the long term. Ronaldo is no longer a player to build a future around but his exit can be eased, and probably milked financially too.

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Try to forget the past

It was reported Solskjær used Eric Cantona’s “when the seagulls follow the trawler” line when speaking to Watford’s manager, Claudio Ranieri, after the defeat on Saturday. That was the latest in a long line of cringe-making references to golden days long lost at United, and Solskjær is by no means the only one trying to relive history.

Ferguson’s influence has regenerated in recent years. The power vacuum at the club has allowed that but Ferguson will be 80 on New Year’s Eve and even he would recognise that his United regime succeeded only once it stepped out of the shadow of Sir Matt Busby. Liverpool’s recent successes came once the club modernised and decided to treat past glories as happy memories rather than a blueprint.

Sir Alex Ferguson (right) with Ole Gunnar Solskjær in 2019. Manchester United must treat past glories as happy memories rather than a blueprint.
Sir Alex Ferguson (right) with Ole Gunnar Solskjær in 2019. Manchester United must treat past glories as happy memories rather than a blueprint. Photograph: Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

Focus on football

At the heart of United’s problems lie the sense that the club is less focused on football than acting as a content provider and marketing tool. When Phil Lynch, the club’s CEO of media, spoke last month of “fan sentiment graphs” to gauge social media reactions to players it gave the impression of an institution lost in show business rather than the football business.

Woodward has repeatedly stated the club’s focus is on football but the club’s activities have suggested the opposite.

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