Manchester United are switching their senior management about, but will United supporters get the transfer guru that they’ve craved for years?
Manchester United reach the end of the 2021/22 season in a state of flux. They’ve played 22 games in all competitions since the start of this calendar year and they’ve won just eight of them, with only three of those wins having come in the last two months. At the start of the year, the club had three easily identifiable aims for the second half of this season: the FA Cup, the Champions League and qualifying for next year’s Champions League. But four months into the new year, and regardless of a stroll-a-thon win against a Brentford side that didn’t seem to want to push them too hard, any optimistic predictions for the end of this season now lie in tatters.
United were eliminated by Middlesbrough in the FA Cup and Atletico Madrid in the Champions League, while their involvement in the race for fourth place in the Premier League may still be mathematically possible in theory but would depend on such an improbable sequence of results that it’s fair to completely disregard their chances as anything other than fanciful.
The potential for a break in the clouds hovering over Old Trafford comes in the form of new manager Erik Ten Hag, who will take control of the team this summer, but the carousel of accusation has long left behind the notion that the fortunes of a football club in the modern era can be changed for the better by the appointment of one person. The problems at Manchester United run deeper than just the manager, and it was never very likely that the appointment of a new one would cure what ails the club.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wasn’t the only member of the Manchester United management team to leave their position last year. Ed Woodward had to (eventually) fall on his sword over his involvement in the European Super League fiasco, though he didn’t leave his position until the start of February, and now Matt Judge, who’d previously been described as Woodward’s ‘right hand’, has resigned from his position as Manchester United’s director of football negotiations. This follows the decision of the club to appoint Richard Arnold as the new chief executive in January and then John Murtough as director of football in February.
Judge, who is currently working out his notice period with the club, will not be missed by the club’s supporters. As the man responsible for negotiating transfers and contracts for Manchester United, Judge became one of the most influential people working behind the scenes at Old Trafford, but after what has come to be considered transfer failure after transfer failure, United fans seem pretty much agreed that just about anybody would be better.
Woodward and Judge were, after all, the pair who came up with the wheeze of extending player contracts as a way of maintaining asset value on business spreadsheets, which many believe has been a key reason behind the United squad becoming so unbalanced, while reaffirming to critics the fundamental differences between running Manchester United for the benefit of the stock market over just getting on with being, well, a football club.
It has been suggested that the reason for Judge’s departure at this time is related to Murtough being promoted over his head and cutting off his direct contact with Arnold, though it should be added that most of this does at least seem to be passing fairly amicably, which in itself might be considered somewhat surprising when we recall the extent of the factionalisation of the United dressing room and the steady torrent of leaks that has been flowing from behind those doors over the course of this season.
United supporters certainly seem to know who they want to replace him; Paul Mitchell has been earning admiring glances for years. After moving from Southampton to Spurs with Mauricio Pochettino in 2014, he left White Hart Lane two years later to work first with RB Leipzig and then with Monaco as a sporting director in a position that he has held since 2020; Newcastle were said to be considering his services at the end of last year before settling on Dan Ashworth instead, a decision which isn’t exactly going as Newcastle might have hoped. Mitchell is understood to have a close relationship with Ralf Rangnick from his time in Leipzig.
He was constantly linked with a move to Old Trafford when the club didn’t even have a sporting director, and now that Murtough is in that position – with Darren Fletcher as technical director – the fans are clamouring for him to be offered Judge’s old position. After all, Judge isn’t the only person from this side of the club to have left his position in the last few months; chief scout Jim Lawlor and head of global scouting Marcel Bout have also departed.
But this might not be straightforward. The Mirror has reported that, ‘The Englishman [Mitchell] has been tempted to stay by the offer of a sizeable budget to spend at Monaco in the upcoming window’, based on reporting in Foot Mercato, which claims that Chelsea are also interested in his services. There is also little to suggest that Mitchell is unhappy in Monaco, while others might argue that, although his record with Spurs – where he was behind the decisions to take Dele Alli, Son Heung-min and Toby Alderweireld to the club – was excellent, his record at Monaco has not quite left him above criticism.
And as ever with Manchester United, all of this raises as many questions as it answers. If Murtough and Fletcher are now running the club’s recruitment, where would Mitchell fit into the equation? If Darren Fletcher is a ‘technical director’, then what is he doing in the dugout on a Saturday afternoon? What exactly is his role? Because even his own attempts to clarify it haven’t exactly sounded convincing.
But those questions will keep coming. How do Manchester United plan to attract the elite-level players to which they believe themselves to be entitled if they can’t offer Champions League football? Where does Ralf Rangnick fit into all of this, especially considering that he will now be mixing his consultancy duties with being the head coach of the Austrian national team? Can any new structure or head coach change the culture of leaking to the press which has been relentless this season from a hopelessly factionalised dressing room? And ultimately, will Joel Glazer still be having the final say on all of these changes?
Time is of the essence. It’s not that long until the end of the season and the reopening of the transfer window, and few would argue that Manchester United’s squad doesn’t need major work. Somewhere in this thicket of names there may be a combination that works, but while the departure of Matt Judge was necessary (if anything, it’s surprising that he stayed beyond the departure of Woodward), it doesn’t add much to the club ahead of what is likely to be an extremely busy summer.
For many Manchester United supporters, the likely truth remains that the club cannot be truly reformed until the Glazer family have left. But with that looking no more likely now than at any other time over the last 17 years, supporters are left hoping against logic that this time the leopards running their clubs might finally change their spots. The post-Ferguson transition is now completing its ninth year without the club’s fortunes having substantially changed, and promises that this time things will definitely be different should probably be taken with a pinch of salt.