Comment: Why Ed Woodward is to blame for Man United's title gap to rivals City - not Jose Mourinho
Jose Mourinho does not easily inspire sympathy but, as we reach half-distance in the Premier League title race, the feeling grows that those so dissatisfied by Manchester City’s procession are aiming at the wrong target.
Manchester United’s football is apparently negative. Too many petty rows. The successes are not worth the methods and the aggro. All the while, envious glances are being made in the direction of the Etihad Stadium. To sum up, the basic criticism is that Mourinho is behaving exactly like Mourinho has done pretty much all through his career.
That means trophies, for sure, but also relentless distractions, a certain style of counter-attacking football in the biggest games and a very definite feeling that an abrupt end might never be far away. The frustration, summed up by Eric Cantona, is of course only compounded by Pep Guardiola’s exemplary work across town.
“I cannot understand why United would take a manager who plays in a defensive way,” said Cantona. “I love Mourinho, but I prefer the way Guardiola plays, and I would prefer him as manager of Manchester United. It’s more logical.” It certainly was and is why, beyond a certain point, the constant deconstruction of Mourinho becomes aimless.
You might as well chastise Nemanja Matic for not passing a ball with Kevin De Bruyne’s creative vision. We should instead resist our obsession with the men in the dugout and ask some different questions. Like, did United’s vice-chairman Ed Woodward really just sit back and watch when, with Louis van Gaal struggling, Guardiola made it known that he would leave Bayern Munich after only three seasons?
And, in almost five years now since David Gill as well as Sir Alex Ferguson departed, is not the biggest explanation for their on-field failures not the managers but the mistakes made by those who both select them and agree the big transfer decisions?
United’s last Premier League title was back in 2013 and, since then, their average finishing position is between fifth and sixth. Even when Ferguson was faced with both Arsenal and Chelsea’s finest-ever teams during the mid-2000s, he never went more than four seasons without a title.
It is unclear what questions are being asked by the Glazer family but you would think they might wonder how the biggest period of spending has also coincided with their worst on-field results. It is certainly hard to imagine their nearest equivalents in Spain and Germany – Real Madrid and Bayern Munich – remaining relaxed in similar circumstances.
Understanding the extent to which Woodward ever pursued Guardiola is subject to conflicting stories. The most popular is that it was somehow always a done deal with City and that any attempt was doomed to failure.
If so, for a club with United’s kudos and history, it does seem extraordinarily defeatist. It also rather contradicts Guardiola’s own account. “I met the chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak in my last period in Munich and they showed more interest than any other club and that was so important,” he said.
“They said: ‘We want you, not just for the hypothetical titles you are going to win, or what you have won in the past. We want you.’ That’s why I decided to come here. And believe me, I don’t have any regrets.”
The sense that United did not make any really concerted effort is supported by Graham Hunter, a Catalan-based journalist and the author of Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World. His information goes even further, suggesting that Guardiola was actually always hugely attracted by United’s traditions and prestige.
As a player, Guardiola referenced the experience of playing for Barcelona in 1994 at Old Trafford as formative in his decision to seek out experiences beyond Spain. “When he was first imagining coaching in England, he wanted to manage Manchester United,” said Hunter. “He repeatedly talked about breathing pure football in England and being head over heels in love with the tradition, history and atmosphere at Manchester United. I still believe that if United had made a proper effort before Guardiola’s final season at Bayern began, and before he’d committed to City, then he’d very likely have said yes.”
Other associates of Guardiola were said to be “very, very surprised” that there was so little interest and effort in making it happen. One crucial point, they say, is that Guardiola could also have chosen City when he went to Bayern Munich in 2013 but was swayed then by the lure of an institution steeped in such history.
Guardiola apparently also knew all about United’s story, including the whole Busby era, and they could surely have made a comparable sell. It is not as if what Guardiola has done this season at City should come as such a surprise. Yes, he did inherit wonderful squads at Barcelona and Bayern but to then guide each club to a domestic treble of league titles, as well as reach at least the semi-final of the Champions League in seven straight seasons – all whilst playing in such a distinctive possession-based style – already underlined the value he personally adds.
It all prompts wider questions about United and their structure. The lack of an obvious director of football figure who is immersed in the web-like world of football players, agents and executives has become increasingly striking. Woodward has clearly been hugely successful commercially but it has been difficult post-Ferguson to decipher any wider strategy in the recruitment of players or managers in the same way that it has been so evident at Manchester City.
Who is United’s equivalent of Txiki Begiristain? Even at Arsenal, where there has been a comparably dominant managerial structure around Arsene Wenger, the planning for the afterlife is clearly already now gathering pace in a way that seems simply to have not happened at United.
The instinct of fans and journalists alike is always to look towards managers for every insight and explanation but, as we assess the distance that exists now between United and City, we must look deeper. And the central explanation surely has less to do with any flaws in Mourinho but rather the planning above him when the big opportunity was screaming out.