Man United’s failing transfer policy: Where did it all go wrong?

Alex Turk

WRITTEN BY NATHAN AINSWORTH

We are one week away from the summer transfer deadline and Manchester United seem stuck in an all too familiar position. Woodward is the villain, the fans are incensed and the Glazers are the ultimate orchestrators of the disorder.

The club have had two months to bring much needed new faces into Old Trafford, and Donny van de Beek is the only arrival. No one can doubt the quality of Van de Beek, but the obvious gap between United and Manchester City and Liverpool is significantly larger than a midfield arrival, a position the club find themselves particularly rich in.

As displayed in the soulless 3-1 home defeat to Crystal Palace and the more recent 3-2 smash and grab victory against Brighton, United’s most pressing issues start at the back. 

Heading into gameweek three of the Premier League, United have conceded five goals against two teams undoubtedly targeting mid-table finishes. It's a statistic not acceptable for such a prestige club surely looking to improve upon a third-place finish last season.

Why has an issue that was quite obviously needing alteration throughout last season not been addressed accordingly in the current window?

United’s rivals have all strengthened. Liverpool welcomed a world-class midfielder from European champions Bayern Munich in Thiago Alcantara for a measly fee of £27m. They have also introduced Diogo Jota from Wolves and Kostas Tsimikas from Olympiakos for £41m and £11m respectively.

United finished 33 points behind champions Liverpool last season and have so far invested £40m less on incoming transfers. There is a clear difference in ambition between the two boards in 2020, but not in the way you would expect.

Surely the team finishing 33 points behind first-place would invest more into its squad to bridge the gap? However, this is not the case. United find themselves seemingly treading water throughout another transfer window when they should be particularly proactive.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it a prolonged period of financial instability for clubs at every level throughout the world. United would surely find themselves in the seemingly luxurious position of being able to exploit other clubs’ unfortunate financial downfall.

Ed Woodward was quoted in April this year saying: "We aim to remain highly competitive in the market. As I said before and I've said this many times, we remain committed to backing Ole to win trophies. That's our core objective as a club." Yet with a week remaining of the window, United find themselves with one new face and no outgoings. So why is there such a contrast five months on?

It could be argued the club is shackled by particular financial constraints, given the terms of its bank loans and debt introduced by the Glazer family’s takeover in 2005. This issue was highlighted by Laurie Whitwell in The Athletic, in which it is highlighted that United agreed on specific financial covenants with its lenders in order to obtain the money it loaned at modest interest rates.

Specifically requiring that 'the club’s profit must not dip below £65m in a rolling 12-month period, as taken every quarter’. Therefore, suggesting that the club may not be able to invest in the squad adequately given it may mean it may breach such ‘covenants’.

However, the £65m EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation) does not include transfers as such transfers are ‘before amortisation’, but wages do come into the equation and United have the highest wage bill in the league at £332m per year.

Therefore, to acquire the talents United evidently require whether Sancho, Telles or Upamecano, the club need to shift overpaid deadwood from the wage bill in order to improve the squad with the much-needed expensive talent.

In a recent article titled ‘Jadon Sancho: The Circus Strategy’ published on medium.com, it was suggested the combination of Sergio Romero, Andreas Pereira, Diogo Dalot, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo earn a combined £22.88m a year in wage costs.

If these players were to be moved on, the club would have much easier breathing room in relation to its EBITDA covenant to make more marquee signings. In this case, the club finds itself a victim of its own generosity.

No one can deny the contracts handed out to such players over the past few years were not necessarily warranted. However, it can only be seen as such high values were attributed to the respective players' wages in order to give them greater resell value in the transfer market.

But, United now find themselves financially tied by having such unnecessary large wages negatively impacting it’s profit margins and impacting its ability to bring in new faces. These issues are present, whilst also being unable to sell its deadwood because other clubs refuse to take on players who do not warrant the wages they receive at United.

The problems at Old Trafford start from the top down. The debt attributed to the club via the Glazer takeover in 2005 finds United shackled by financial constraints. The poor negotiations and contractual deals that have been recklessly given to players have now come back to bite them.

So, what should United do? Well, firstly it seems unequivocal that the club needs to appoint a Director of Football. For the negative press he receives, no one can doubt the ability of Ed Woodward to positively impact the club from a commercial view.

The club’s main kit sponsor Chevrolet is the most lucrative per annum in the Premier League, raising £64m per annum, whilst also having the most lucrative kit manufacturer in the league with Adidas paying £75m per annum.

It could be argued that amongst the chaos, this is how Woodward has kept his job, as the financial muscle he contributes to the club pleases the Glazer family the most. It seems the club’s finances are prioritised over the club’s success in their view. 

Woodward seems to bring his positives to United, but not from a footballing perspective. The club seems to have become a joke with regards to its standing in the transfer market, overpaying for numerous players with the infamous United tax whilst also being very publicly rejected for other seemingly less prestigious clubs. Erling Haaland and Jude Bellingham are the most obvious public examples, both rejecting Old Trafford for Signal Iduna Park.

As quoted by Gary Neville, Manchester United should be aiming for "the best in class" at every position within the club. Ed Woodward has many positives as a financial director but not a footballing one.

The club’s contractual deals with players and new signings are there to be seen, they have not improved the club from any perspective over the past decade. United require a footballing director respected within the industry with the relevant knowledge of players and the art of negotiation.

Manchester City strengthened their grip within the world of football by appointing ex Barcelona exec Txiki Begiristain as their director of football. His impact in appointing Pep Guardiola at the club is there to be seen from their connections at Barcelona and the club has undoubtedly been the most dominant English side over the past five years. 

The impact of the director of football role in modern football cannot be underestimated, it is vital and United do not have one, that has to change in order for United to achieve the goals that Solskjaer, his staff and the fans have been deprived of since Sir Alex’s retirement.

Manchester United will continue to tread water until extensive changes take place from the top down. The Glazer family need to prioritise success over money and invest in the club.

Ed Woodward has positives from a commercial viewpoint but not from a footballing one. The club must appoint a director of football to address the club’s weakness in the transfer market and the seemingly desperate attitude towards contract negotiations with its own players.

Things have improved at Old Trafford since Solskjaer’s arrival at the club, his plan and his model are evident, but the end goal envisioned by him, his staff and the fans will never be achieved without drastic change from the top down, and without the backing, he ultimately requires in the modern age of top tier football, the drought for elite silverware at the Theatre of Dreams will continue to go on.

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