Amid all the doom and gloom regarding Manchester United‘s business this summer, one key transfer has largely been overlooked: the departure of chief scout Javier Ribalta.
The Spaniard arrived last summer as part of what seemed like an overhaul of United’s transfer structure to better fit the modern era, and, coming from Juventus, his addition was seen as a bit of a coup. That he left just 13 months later, reasoning that being the sporting director at Zenit St Petersburg was a better opportunity, is a damning indictment.
This is where Sir Alex Ferguson‘s influence can still be seen at United, if only indirectly. The Scotsman famously said that the manager has to be the biggest person at the club – and by and large, he meant that no player should wield more power than the boss, nor should any other club official be directing the manager’s decisions.
It was a reflection on the way football was changing, with player power growing and some club owners becoming more hands-on in their approach, reportedly going as far as directing who should be in a matchday squad or even a starting XI.
Ferguson, of course, would never have stood for that, and it’s not difficult to think he would have held a similar view of the modern set-ups with regards to transfers. It’s highly unlikely the legendary manager would have liked having a sporting director, or a “transfer committee”. He trusted that he had the backing of Martin Edwards, Peter Kenyon, and David Gill, United’s three chief executives during his reign as manager, and for the most part went out and got whichever player he wanted, to great success (although there were definitely a fair few misses).
Jose Mourinho may not share many similarities with Fergie in terms of playing style, but in this regard, there can be no doubt that he’s cut from the same cloth. Nobody is going to tell Jose what to do.
But while giving a manager control of transfers is a tried and trusted method, there has to be some amount of harmony with the board. Reportedly, when Mourinho presented United with a list of transfer targets this summer, not one player matched with the list Ribalta had drawn up.
That level of disconnect is galling. Not that they can’t disagree, but surely the two should have been working in concert to identify targets. If they were, then coming up with such disparate lists is inexplicable. If not, well, why did United even appoint a scouting director if he wasn’t going to be working closely with their manager?
Ribalta on leaving #MUFC chief scout role & heading to Russia: “I spent last year at Manchester Utd. After many years at Juventus, I decided to go there for a challenge. When this proposal from Zenit came I had no doubts because Zenit is really a very big name, a very large club"— Simon Peach (@SimonPeach) July 31, 2018
And it makes just as little sense that Ed Woodward is essentially in joint-command of transfers alongside Mourinho. The basic structure – the manager identifying the players he wants, then telling the man in charge of loosening the purse strings – seems logical enough, but football has moved on from the days where the chief executive of a club is as involved on the football side of the club as the business side.
Woodward is not a football man. He’s a businessman, and in that role he’s done supremely well. United’s operating finances always look healthy, which means Woodward is doing his job. Fans may roll their eyes when Woodward makes statements regarding the commercial side of United, the sponsors they’re signing and the impressions they’re generating on social media, but that is exactly what a CEO of any business is supposed to be focusing on.
He can have conversations with Mourinho about which transfer targets are feasible, bring his negotiating skills to the fore in transfer discussions, and sanction any big spending, but in this day and age, that United’s equivalent of a transfer committee is the club CEO and the manager makes no sense.
This quote from Ed Woodward sticks in my mind as we approach the final few hours of the transfer window.— Tom McDermott (@MrTomMcDermott) August 8, 2018
“If I answer that just very simply and candidly, playing performance doesn’t really have a meaningful impact on what we can do on the commercial size of the business.” #MUFC pic.twitter.com/ljvcbRiEiP
It only takes one disappointing summer to make that obvious, and this was it. The transfer market may have gone crazy, clubs may be overcharging United because of their ability to pay, players may be using them to get better contracts at their own clubs, but there’s no doubt that the Red Devils sticking to the old way of doing things has played its part.
Ribalta was meant to be the appointment who changed that, to bring the club into the modern era. As the Premier League transfer deadline comes and goes, his departure may be the bit of business United rue the most.
A maudlin mood has descended over Manchester United.
Manager Jose Mourinho has done all he can to spark fears of his dreaded ‘third-season syndrome’. Pick your target, from moribund transfer dealings to the price of tickets, the Portuguese has rallied against it.
Performances on the pitch have been drab and results mixed. This is no surprise when seven players for last term’s runners-up made World Cup 2018’s semi-finals and were unavailable in the United States.
Mourinho is applying pressure from all angles on executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward to bring in more new faces, to join Brazil centre midfielder Fred, Porto full-back Diogo Dalot and reserve goalkeeper Lee Grant.
A “difficult season” has been promised if additional business isn’t done.
L 1-0 Bayern Munich
W 2-1 Real Madrid
L 4-1 Liverpool
D 1-1 AC Milan
D 0-0 San Jose Earthquakes
D 1-1 Club America
United’s tour of America will not be remembered fondly.
Shaky form, depleted sides and some embarrassing attendances were witnessed. For Mourinho, their five-match sprint around the country turned into a trial of endurance.
“Pre-season is very bad, I have to say that,” he bemoaned.
“The only positive thing of pre-season is for the young boys.”
The portrayal of a club in meltdown was overegged. Yet, real problems were incurred.
Mourinho’s breaking down of his relationship with wantaway France forward Anthony Martial was the nadir. There appears no way back after his failure to return to the States after the birth of his child in Paris.
Early run-outs against Club America and San Jose Earthquakes were instantly forgettable. A 9-8 penalty-shootout win against AC Milan provided the only entertainment of a stint in which Mourinho has repeatedly experimented with a 3-5-2 formation.
A 4-1 humbling by rivals Liverpool made awful viewing, although the tour to forget ended on a high point with a dogged 2-1 victory against Real Madrid.
Then came the weekend’s 1-0 loss at a far-stronger – and superior – Bayern Munich.
Key ins: Diogo Dalot – Porto, £19m; Fred – Shakhtar Donetsk, £47m; Lee Grant – Stoke City, £1.5m; Andreas Pereira – Valencia, loan return
Key outs: Michael Carrick – retirement, Daley Blind – Ajax, £18.5m; Joel Pereira – Vitoria Setubal, loan
Mourinho has been at pains to portray the image of a man who always demands more.
United moved quickly to beat champions Manchester City to the signing of Fred – who would incur slight injury prior to the World Cup. A plethora of rivals were then headed off to land Dalot, also struck down by a knee problem, for whom Mourinho has labelled him within his age group as “the best full-back in Europe”.
Little is expected of third-choice goalkeeper Grant, but he has not let himself down when picked for friendlies.
Now, comes a flood of negatives.
Mourinho was forced to abandon the pursuit of more full-backs and from a list of “five names” that were submitted “a few months ago”, it appears only another centre-back will be added. In an ideal world, a right winger – potentially to replace Martial – is coveted.
A pursuit of emerging England defender Harry Maguire has stumble because of the world-record fee demanded by Leicester City. Tottenham Hotspur are proving similarly tough negotiators for Toby Alderweireld.
This has led to talk of moves for Barcelona’s Yerry Mina and Bayern Munich’s Jerome Boateng, before Thursday’s transfer deadline.
The only way is up
At least when Mourinho comes to analyse a dreary run of friendlies, the cause is obvious.
Some of football’s better players were enjoying their holidays as their club-mates endured a vexed Mourinho in North America.
Centre forward Romelu Lukaku experienced a strong spell in Russia for Belgium, while mercurial midfielder Paul Pogba was arguably the final’s defining player for victors France.
Another success story was produced by Victor Lindelof’s assured displays at the heart of Sweden’s defence.
Forward Alexis Sanchez also enjoyed his first whole summer off in nine years, thanks to Chile’s failure to qualify.
Leicester should be aware for Friday’s big kick-off.
Pereira stakes his claim
Few United players had more to prove in this pre-season – and few did more with the opportunity afforded to them than United’s Brazilian centre midfielder, Andreas Pereira.
The trip to the United States acted as a showcase for the 22-year-old’s talents after he spent last term on loan at Valencia, against Mourinho’s wishes.
He responded in style. The former PSV Eindhoven starlet played more minutes than anyone else in North America and scored a sumptuous free-kick against Liverpool.
With Pogba just returned from holiday and Nemanja Matic injured, he’s a certain to start Friday’s opener against Leicester City.
Not so special
Mourinho has represented the ‘Angry One’ since his return to the United fold.
Angered by a perceived lack of backing in the transfer market, with the largesse afforded to Jurgen Klopp by Liverpool a particular sour point, he has lashed out.
Rather than focus on what he’s not got, Mourinho would have been well served to work on improving what is already in situ.
The “not even 30 per cent of my squad” still contained the likes of Juan Mata and – when visa issues were belatedly sorted – Sanchez. Players to work on, rather than ask to defend excruciatingly deep.
United’s defence also looked flaky, a situation still apparent when Javi Martinez headed in the only goal for Bayern.
Did Mourinho work to eradicate these issues himself, or just expect Woodward to solve them in the market?
Injuries keep mounting
It’s been a regular cry from Mourinho.
The United boss has grown weary about seeing so many of his first-choice stars restricted to the treatment table. Frustratingly, this theme continued during the summer.
Fred suffered a problem in the build-up to the World Cup for Brazil and fellow new boy Dalot is sidelined until next month. Errant left-back Luke Shaw picked up and recovered from a minor problem in America, Serbia defensive midfielder Nemanja Matic will miss the start of the season after he underwent surgery and injury-prone Ivory Coast centre-back Eric Bailly was forced off against Bayern Munich.
It will also be interesting to see how the likes of Phil Jones get on in the month’s ahead after they accepted truncated summer breaks after their international duty in Russia.
This state of play denies Mourinho the consistency all top teams require.
The positives are far outweighed by the negatives as United head into 2018/19.
Mourinho has seemingly created this poisonous atmosphere in a bid to force Woodward’s hand in the transfer market. Thus far, this technique has proven ineffectual.
United were City’s closest challengers last term, mathematically speaking. Fred and Pereira point to a stronger midfield, a rested Sanchez looks in better shape plus so many United players had great World Cups.
Now, the bad stuff. Ponderous United’s struggles creating chances continued, they enjoyed only 29 percent possession against an undercooked Madrid plus the triumvirate of Sanchez, Marcus Rashford and Juan Mata mustered no shots on target in defeat to Bayern.
Mourinho has done nothing to dispel the narrative that he never lasts more than three seasons – a statistic borne out throughout his managerial career.
The vibe at Old Trafford has to change – and fast.
With speculation about the France midfielder’s future once again rife amid reports of interest from Barcelona, former United defender Ferdinand has told executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward to keep the 25-year-old.
Manager Jose Mourinho has already predicted a “difficult season” if United do not do more business, so losing a World Cup-winning midfielder would only add to that.
As a result, Ferdinand – who made over 450 appearances for United – wants Pogba to stay and Spurs defender Toby Alderweireld to come in.
Referencing reports that Pogba’s agent, Mino Raiola, is looking at the Camp Nou as a possible new home for his player, Ferdinand said on Twitter: “Don’t you dare allow this ED… #MUFC is Pogba’s home!! Silence these rumours ASAP & get @AlderweireldTob through the door.”
United start their Premier League campaign on Friday at Leicester and, speaking on Sunday, Mourinho told MUTV: “My CEO knows what I want and I still have a few days to wait and see what happens.
“The other clubs who compete with us are really strong and already have fantastic teams. Or they are investing massively like Liverpool, who are buying everything and everybody.”