Ed Woodward’s comments at a Manchester United fan forum provoked the now customary response on social media: blind, ear-covering animosity. What he’s done at the club – or more importantly not done – means it essentially doesn’t matter what he now says. Any truths are waved away, the notion that he is the conductor of United’s decline now utterly unimpeachable.
There were truths, but those that are tediously frustrating and disguised make the simple and hard ones difficult to stomach in this charade of an open discussion.
“What happens on the field is clearly our top priority, and while it’s not the same without fans in the stadium, we’ve seen lots of highs since our last meeting in April, with that 14-game unbeaten run to finish third in last season’s Premier League run and great wins against PSG and RB Leipzig on our return to the Champions League this season.”
He’s got a point. United were magnificent after Project Restart and those Champions League wins were special. No mention of the lows though: the solitary home Premier League victory this season; the 6-1 thrashing by Spurs; the embarrassing performance and defeat to Istanbul Basaksehir. And of course those European wins could well amount to nothing if they lose to RB Leipzig on Tuesday.
Not that you would expect Woodward to linger on the negatives in an introductory speech. But that only serves to highlight the fact that this wasn’t really a forum at all, but a comfortable statement read by the emperor on a virtual plinth, in no danger of rebuke. The Q&A session with Woodward from the April meeting didn’t recur, and gripes and queries that would surely have been voiced went unasked and therefore unanswered.
“Of course, we recognise there’s more hard work ahead to achieve the consistency needed to win trophies. But we see positive signs on the pitch and the training ground that reinforce our belief in the progress being made by Ole, his coaching team and the players.”
‘What positive signs?’ might have been a question. ‘What progress?’ another. There was lots of talk of momentum at the end of last season, how United would could kick on to challenge for the title. Some even predicted them to win the thing. Now – after nine Premier League games – it’s Chelsea and Tottenham who are being touted as contenders while United are just about cobbling together enough points to make the top half.
It wasn’t a great transfer window for United. Edinson Cavani, Alex Telles and Donny van de Beek have all shown their worth to some degree, but Solskjaer got none of his targets and many unwanted assets remain on the Old Trafford payroll. Woodward talked about a lack of “clarity” amid the pandemic when asked about United’s proposed transfer activity in April’s forum: a theme that continued throughout their actual transfer activity. Still, check out the “net spend”.
“I told this forum back in April that we remained committed to strengthening the squad, while being disciplined in our spending during the pandemic. I believe we’ve delivered on that, with the additions we made during the summer taking our total net spending to over €200m since summer 2019 – more than any other major European club over that period.”
The harping about “net spending” is strange for a couple of reasons. Woodward is using it here as a positive: a testament to his and the club’s commitment to improve the squad. But it actually does more to highlight two glaring problems.
Firstly, United haven’t won anything in the period from the summer of 2019 despite the highest net spend. Stretch the net spend net wider and it points to further failings: United haven’t got close to the Premier League title since Sir Alex Ferguson retired despite being second only to Manchester City – and way ahead of any other team – in terms of expenditure in that time.
Just spending money clearly isn’t working. And for a man so clearly in charge of United’s transfer dealings – such is the conspicuous absence of a director of football – to hold up net spend as some gauge of success is like a farmer bragging about owning the most acres, only for two thirds of that land to be infertile.
Secondly, the net spend in the two summer windows Woodward is referring to has as at least as much to do with an inability to make profit on dead wood as success with meaningful purchases. With selling players also apparently falling under his remit, this is simply another illustration of his shortcomings.
“We will continue to support Ole with a planned, long-term approach to recruitment, focused on the summer windows.”
The word “continue” won’t fill United fans with hope as the “support” Solskjaer has so far received has been akin to someone in a wheelchair asking for a stairlift and instead being given a fold-out bed in the living room. And just how “long-term” will the courting of Jadon Sancho be? At least two seasons if they are purely “focused on the summer windows”.
Woodward answered no questions, as there was no opportunity to ask any. There were no pointed fingers and therefore no need for him to shirk the blame he deserves. It was a speech of hollow truths, with failures dressed up as indications of growth and future prosperity that in reality is no closer now than it has been in the last six seasons.
Will Ford is on Twitter