For Manchester United, is a director of football the answer?
New Manchester United midfielder Fred could have gone somewhere other than Old Trafford when he left Shakhtar Donetsk this summer.
“There were options in England and in Europe,” Fred told ESPN news reporter in Miami during United’s preseason tour. “Manchester City, PSG, but I chose United. I spoke to my agent Gilberto Silva, who played for Arsenal. He told me that United was a huge club. I spoke to my family and friends. When I said United, I saw their faces. I’m sure that I made the right choice. I want to play in and win the Premier League, the best league in the world. I had a proposal from China too, but I didn’t want to go there because I wanted to join United.”
In the face of interest from better teams, United scouted and contacted Fred, completing his signing on June 21. The credit for that goes to executive vice-president Ed Woodward, head of corporate development Matt Judge and manager Jose Mourinho.
Maybe Fred will become a world-beater; maybe he will underwhelm as much as other Brazilian midfielders to have played for United. What is certain, though, is that his transfer, like that of Marouane Fellaini in 2013, will be viewed as part of a window in which his new club failed to get the other players they wanted.
That failure dominated the build-up to the new Premier League season. Mourinho spoke continually about his frustration in the preseason, while United sent a different message. Paul Pogba, who was made captain on Friday for the win against Leicester City, said something else entirely.
United is not a club at which everyone sings from the same hymn sheet and that is far from ideal, but each of the parties involved has their own — valid — points of view.
Mourinho did not get the players he wanted. The club feels that they have backed him strongly since he arrived in 2016 and maintained that top money was available to sign a young, world-class defender who would have improved the current team. What they would not do was break transfer records for players only marginally better than those already on the books, which is fair enough.
The relationships between Mourinho and Woodward and Mourinho and Pogba could be better. Maybe, one day, they will. Maybe, as Mourinho suggested on Friday, managers will become more like coaches who work with a sporting director, a model Manchester City or Barcelona have found successful.
United have long been advocates of the manager having all the power. During the days of Sir Alex Ferguson, he was very much in charge, though he relied on trusted assistants like his brother Martin or assistant manager Mike Phelan to watch potential targets and offer a second opinion.
“We didn’t want to do that (director of football),” Woodward told me in 2013, soon after taking his current role. “We have a manager who we want to give our full support to make his decisions about the players and the decisions about the academy. [David Moyes] has the same power that [Sir Alex Ferguson] did.”
Five years on, things have changed and the club is looking to appoint a director of football, who has responsibility for continuity of playing style and recruitment.
In the best cases, a DoF brings outstanding talent to a club and works closely with its managers. Txiki Begiristain, for example, has worked with Pep Guardiola at Barcelona and Manchester City. Monchi, now at Roma, set the template for a whole club when at Sevilla, where he spotted players like Dani Alves and Ivan Rakitic.
Such people know football and cannot only evaluate a prospective signing based on ability but also assess whether or not he can fit into a system. What is more, those players might not necessarily be the biggest names; a tactic United have often used with patchy results.
For the DoF model to work, there would need to be a compromise on all sides; when a manager and director of football do not work together, it can be negative and destabilizing at a club. When they do, they can help each other do their job better.
It remains to be seen how Mourinho would work with a DoF — at Real Madrid, he fell out with Jorge Valdano, who left his job as sporting director — or whether he will have any say in who takes the role, though both will have a say in transfers.
There would also be input from Woodward, as there is now. But it is better to bow to, say, Edwin van der Sar’s knowledge than that of Woodward in the inexact science of football recruitment.
A good DoF is adept at identifying talent and negotiating transfers and would know if player X at Barcelona or Real Madrid was genuinely seeking a move, as opposed to using any “interest” in United to get himself a better deal at his current club. Knowledge and contacts are vital in DoF role and ideally, in these days of managers’ ever-shorter stays in one place, they can look to the longer term.
United is a club still undergoing significant change, with senior positions — including a new director of communications — to be filled. That pales when the team are playing well and winning but, when they are not, supporters justifiably ask questions.
A director of football will not be a panacea for every transfer market issue. However having a skilled, respected operator, who works and cares for the club, could be a significant asset.