Man United find themselves praying to the same old gods

Date published: Thursday 2nd May 2019 7:13

It doesn’t seem so long ago that the appointment of a director of football came with its own organ music. As recently as the 1990s, in fact, it was viewed almost as a symptom of dysfunction or, at the very least, the prelude to an acrimonious turf war.

Partly, that was because nobody really understood what the role entailed. The mention of the job title used to provoke images of long lunches, luxury jets and expenses accounts yet, fast forward a couple of decades, and a director of football is the prescribed tonic for any club suffering an ideological ailment. Chelsea’s failure to replace Michael Emenalo is viewed as their greatest weakness, Arsenal remain troubled by Sven Mislintat’s premature departure, and Southampton’s rise and fall has been attributed almost entirely to Les Reed.

And then there’s Manchester United, who have been rumoured to be on the verge of creating the position in their hierarchy for a number of years. Paul Mitchell has been linked with the role, Juventus’ Fabio Paratici and Atletico Madrid’s Andrea Berta too. United are seen as a club without any real direction, one which lurches through the transfer market with no clear strategy, and it’s very easy – and correct – to attribute those issues to the glaring hole in their sporting structure.

Today, we understand. We know the position is designed as a safeguard against coaching changeover and is intended to provide permanence in a transient world. Sporting directors are middle managers; the logical connecting point between the owners and the coaching staff. They possess the sporting expertise that the former typically doesn’t have, and the job security that the latter generally aren’t afforded.

United’s failure to make any sort of progress on this front is puzzling. Perhaps it even suggests a lack of will – as if, by appointing such a specialist, the club’s ownership recognise that they would be inviting a challenge to their true aims. United are now a commercial enterprise first and a sporting entity second; maybe that reluctance is being instructed by the conflict which would arise from appointing another football-first employee.

Too conspiratorial, perhaps, but the dynamics are certainly complicated. Mitchell’s selling point, for instance, is his supposed ability to identify under-appreciated and overlooked talent. Tottenham fans might quibble over how deserved that reputation really is but, whatever his merits, it’s difficult to see how his data-led approach could work in concert with the clicks-and-impressions culture which evidently exists in the boardroom.

The Ole Gunnar Solskjaer appointment muddied the waters further, even if his right to the job is really a separate issue. Solskjaer was not a man at risk of being poached, whatever United’s form, and that decision could easily have been deferred until season’s end. At that point, of course, a theoretical head of department might have been in place and then been in position to counsel that decision. As it is, United are approaching this from a different direction, and are now attempting to build a technical structure around him.

Traditionally, a strong football department is built from employees with complementary but opposing attributes, yet United appear instead to be doubling-down on the ethereal qualities which comprise Solskjaer’s form of management. Mike Phelan has been rumoured to be under consideration as technical director, while Rio Ferdinand is presumed to be a leading candidate to become sporting director. Both clearly have a great deal of time for Solskjaer – Ferdinand was even at the vanguard of the media movement to give him the job permanently – but neither have any real record of working that high in the hierarchy.

Neither is completely without merit. Phelan is a very fine coach and Ferdinand is a strong, forceful personality with a smart commercial mind, but both candidacies depend on too many intangibles to be waved through unchallenged.

Take Ferdinand for example. A sporting director is a bridging role and, ideally, should be filled by someone capable of straddling both the business and football sides of the game. After all, one of the reasons why that bureaucratic, jet-flying cliché existed in the first place was because it provided a loosely accurate depiction of the role. The job requires a sporting mind and a football IQ – of course – but it also demands an executive acumen which isn’t often found in ex-players and a level of experience which most aren’t willing or able to acquire.

It can be developed, it just doesn’t exist by default. Maybe Ferdinand is a superb sporting director-in-waiting, but that would have to be a learnt discipline. Damien Comolli was once a youth-team player at Monaco, Mitchell migrated into recruitment after a competent playing career, and Michael Edwards, Liverpool’s sporting director, was once a full-back at Peterborough United. They each grew into the roles they now inhabit. Edwards took analysis jobs at Portsmouth and Tottenham before moving to Anfield in 2011, and then worked in various positions before rising to the head of the recruiting department.

These are jobs for specialists and which need to be earned under real-world, CV-and-interview conditions. They are too important to be given gratis to those who ‘know the club’, who fancy a go, and whose professional resumé is actually just their medal collection and some vaguely transferable skills. Football and business have become entwined, but a clear separation still exists between the strengths required to succeed in those different fields. It’s an irony of sorts, but United need look no further than their own chief executive for proof of how different the requirements actually are.

The other, more destructive irony, is attached to this obsession United have with their own past. Not past in the sense of history – Best, Charlton and Law, Munich, or Busby – but the employment of people who talk about their yesterdays and who seem enslaved to the belief that Manchester United will eventually rebound to the top of the sport simply by virtue of being Manchester United. Shout the same reassuring platitudes into the mirror enough times, the logic goes, and the trophy cabinet will just fill itself.

But the more faith there is in that, the less likely success is to follow. The great flaw in trying to power the future with Ferguson DNA is that it’s outmoded. There isn’t a successful football club in the world which is still being sustained by a single, omnipotent figure. Even at Barcelona and Ajax, where Johan Cruyff’s spirit still prowls the corridors, the dependence is really more subliminal than explicit. Cruyff is a reference point to those organisations, but his thinking does not represent the limits of their contemporary operating procedure.

United, by contrast, show an aversion to modernity. Whereas their rivals’ performance departments are run by slick, visionary men in sharp suits, each of whom apparently possess a detailed blueprint for sporting domination, they might soon be led by an old pals triumvirate. They are preferred candidates because they make supporters feel warm inside; because their names are associated with a time when things were better; and because what they say publicly reaffirms the club’s perception of itself.

It’s comfortable. Easy. It’s illusory change and, for a club – a business – of United’s size, it’s extraordinarily myopic.

On Monday, Ken Early wrote a truly excellent piece for the Irish Times. In it, he argued that the current punditry class, almost all of whom are at least ten years removed from their playing careers, are now commenting on a game to which their first-hand experience is becoming less relevant. It was a point built from micro-analysis, out of observations relating to passing trends and crossing statistics, but it bears truth in the broader, macro sense too. Just as football has changed on the pitch, away from it the game has mutated into something that could scarcely have been imagined as recently as a decade ago.

So, while Roy Keane and Graeme Souness have been busy shouting about desire and mocking any player who won’t block a rising volley with their testicles, the game’s tenets have shifted. Chris Rea isn’t on heavy dressing-room rotation anymore, anything other than 4-4-2 isn’t sorcery, and science, nutrition and mathematics have all become increasingly important.

At the same time, though, technical and sporting departments have boomed. In have come the Ivy League graduates, the data shamen and the ideologues and United’s potential response, in that context, appears wholly inadequate. History records how many times the club have stolen a march and been ahead of the curve. It documents clearly how innovative Louis Rocca and Matt Busby were and why they endure. And yet here and now, as rival clubs are pushing the sport’s boundaries, United are the ones looking inwards, unwilling to embrace anything which isn’t immediately familiar. They’re standing stock-still, praying to the same old gods.

Seb Stafford-Bloor is on Twitter.

 

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