Can Manchester United make this revolution stick?
It's all change at Old Trafford. Will it work?
Manchester United’s behind-the-scenes operation looks very different now compared to eighteen months ago.
Executive Vice-Chairman Ed Woodward announced his departure in April 2021, even if it took another ten months to actually happen. Few tears were shed for someone who directly oversaw the club’s first banter era in decades. Woodward’s long-time associate Richard Arnold was promoted in his place.
Arnold hasn’t simply followed the Woodward blueprint, though. He’s been streamlining things on the football side. Chief Scout Jim Lawlor and Head of Global Scouting Marcel Bout both left the club. Soon after, director of football negotiations Matt Judge resigned from the role. Former academy coach Andy O'Boyle returned to the club as Deputy Football Director. Though he’s officially been in the role for a while, it appears Football Director John Murtough finally has the job to match the title.
Then, of course, came Erik ten Hag. For the first time ever, Man Utd have a chief executive, a director of football and a manager. They’re almost starting to look like a normal football club.
I don’t think anyone really knows if Murtough and Arnold are good at this or not. Arnold seems off to a good start, trying to simplify the structure behind the scenes and add direction to a meandering club. The truth about football executives is that most of them aren’t particularly brilliant. Man Utd generate about £500 million in revenue per year, with only a handful of clubs making more. Arnold started his career at the accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, a company that rakes in revenues of more than £30 billion each year. And senior partners at PwC don’t have to explain their actions to fans who actively want profit margins to shrink. None of that is to say Arnold is bad at his job, simply that if he were genuinely brilliant, he’d still be at PwC, or he’d be running a FTSE 100 company. The best business executives don’t work in football.
That doesn’t mean he can’t run a competent organisation. David Gill had a similar background, and things ran pretty smoothly under his watch. Woodward might have been incompetent, but he also had the hardest job of any Man Utd chief executive in the club’s modern era. Under Sir Alex Ferguson, United got to exist in their own little bubble where the old rules of powerful British managers still applied. It took Woodward’s entire era for the club to even admit that model was dead and buried. A stronger chief exec (or “Executive Vice-Chairman” as they insisted on calling him) would’ve recognised this and made changes sooner. It took a lot longer than it should have, but nonetheless, they’re finally trying to move past the Ferguson model with Arnold and Murtough.
Is Murtough good? He’s been working in football for a long time. His work at Everton’s academy impressed David Moyes enough for the Scot to propose him for a similar role at United. Since then, Murtough has been promoted up and up to the role he occupies today. He’s clearly someone well-liked within the club. My gut feeling is that someone who has been behind the scenes in English football since 1997 probably isn’t a one-off maverick genius. If he was truly special, he’d have probably been promoted to a sporting director role many years ago.
That doesn’t mean he can’t significantly improve things. Sporting directors are almost never individually brilliant. Monchi, arguably the best director of football in the 21st century, looked like a genuine fraud when he moved from Sevilla to AS Roma. An effective sporting director is the head of an organisation, making big calls themselves but also ensuring a smooth operation with crucial work done below them. You can’t expect a brilliant director of football to magically turn things around any more than you could expect Jeff Bezos to turn up at Waterstones book shop and make it as big as Amazon. If Murtough is generally competent and the organisation has been reshaped enough to function properly, that will be more than enough to significantly improve things. And again, United have overhauled their structure here. There are reasons to think this can work a lot better.
Nonetheless, Murtough’s first big call is betting the farm on Ten Hag. His and Arnold’s faith in the Dutchman is obvious in that they’re willing to make Frenkie de Jong this summer’s marquee signing. De Jong has all the hallmarks of a post-Ferguson United signing, but with one crucial difference. He’s a supremely talented midfielder once touted as potentially the best of his generation in his position but has struggled to slide into a team not entirely playing to his strengths. The echoes of Paul Pogba are obvious, but Ten Hag knows everything about the player.
De Jong likes to receive the ball in deep areas and carry it forward as well as pick out a pass. Ten Hag gave him licence to be the primary way Ajax moved the ball up the pitch and into the final third, but he found himself under four different managers at Barcelona. None of them ever wanted to structure the side in a way that would suit him. The first three – Ernesto Valverde, Quique Setién, and Ronald Koeman – never built a clear possession-dominant style of the sort he was used to at Ajax. Furthermore, there was only room for one player to really be allowed to dominate the ball and run the show. That player was never going to be De Jong while a certain Argentine played for Barcelona.
Xavi might have provided a reset for him, but it never came to pass. The new manager played a possession-dominant style, but one that didn’t build around a central midfielder. “Instead of overloading the midfield like Guardiola’s Barcelona”, John Muller wrote, “Xavi’s team explodes outward in possession to fill as much of the pitch as possible. In this version of the 4-3-3, the two central midfielders operate like auxiliary forwards in an aggressive front five. They’re space creators as much as ball distributors.” It’s not as though De Jong couldn’t play that way, but Barca were never going to get the full skillset from him in this system.
Ten Hag’s United could be different. As Erik Elias pointed out on A Podcast About Tactics, Ten Hag is not a Cruyffian ideologue. In previous jobs at Go Ahead Eagles and Utrecht, he played different kinds of football based on the players at hand. He embraced (though heavily evolved) the “total football” traditions at Ajax, though this was a specific situation. He could certainly do something different – something closer to the Ferguson traditions – at Old Trafford. Signing De Jong and making him the centrepiece, however, would signal an embrace of the Ajax style.
Arnold and Murtough probably aren’t brilliantly talented people, but there’s at least a case that Ten Hag is. He’s reportedly told the club this is a five-year project, so most of the current squad will be cleared out across that time. If the move goes through, it’s going to be De Jong as the centrepiece along with any players under 25 or so who do enough to impress him. I’m far from convinced this is definitely going to work. I’m not saying it’s all fine and plain sailing from here. But I do think this is the most convincing plan United have had in a long time from top to bottom.
Man Utd probably won’t be great this season, but that’s fine. There’s at least a sense that they’re on the right track.