Manchester United might have had a difficult few weeks, but after the international break they have a chance to relax. There are reasons for optimism over the next two months, but off the pitch, the pressure is ramping up.
That might leave Jose Mourinho under pressure, but he will always have alternative employment. At some point, the attention might fall on Ed Woodward, the man whose arrival heralded United’s fall down the table after Alex Ferguson’s exit. It is his future and performance which should be under scrutiny.
United’s next four games are Newcastle United, Basel, Brighton and Watford. The first three of those matches should bring an easy nine points, and Basel can probably be faced with a reserve side given Mourinho’s lead in his Champions League group.
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Watford have started well under the impressive Marco Silva, still new to the Premier League, but they really should not be too much trouble for United.
The international break also helps. Paul Pogba, Marcos Rojo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Michael Carrick should all be back over the next few weeks, giving Mourinho new options on the pitch, and with Pogba, he gets his best player back, the one who appears to have been holding it all together. After a running battle with injuries, Mourinho also gets the benefit of most of his players getting a relatively relaxing international break.
Nevertheless, the good news on the horizon has not cheered Mourinho up. His first season at Old Trafford was characterised by an unusual bonhomie with his own players, and this even carried over into the start of his second year.
Now, that’s not so much the case. There is no great problem between the manager and his players, but there is clearly friction with Mourinho and Woodward. Mourinho made a pointed reference to the money he had earned for the club with a win in the Champions League. A succession of stories over his resentment with Pep Guardiola’s resources compared to his own have emerged, and he has let it be known that Paris Saint-Germain is just waiting for his decision.
Some of this will be overplayed, because this is how new contracts are negotiated by some managers and players. It may not be edifying, but it doesn’t mean much. However, the deal is to be negotiated by Woodward. Unfortunately for Woodward, to paraphrase Bruce Anderson, his negotiating skills make Geoff Hoon look like Bismarck.
Woodward was surprised when Gareth Bale turned up at Real Madrid. He overpaid the wages of Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Daley Blind, Ander Herrera and other middling talents. It means that a proper overhaul of the squad becomes a series of expensive write-offs during the exits, and compromises the arrivals.
Mourinho wanted a winger this summer, and Ivan Perisic did not arrive. Woodward had promised Mourinho plenty and under-delivered. You might reasonably expect more from Mourinho’s United now, but none of the executive vice-chairman’s actions have done anything to motivate his manager.
Two things should be worrying Woodward now that would not have in the past. First, when Woodward booted David Moyes, he had Louis van Gaal lined up. When Van Gaal left, it was an open secret that Mourinho wanted the job, as he had done for years. Each replacement could be shown as a demonstrable upgrade as the man who came before.
Woodward’s incompetence over transfers and appointments was glossed over with the new optimism that accompanies a new manager. But should Mourinho depart after just over a season, still near the top of the table and in the Champions League, there is nobody that Woodward can use as a shiny new bauble. There may be a candidate who can lift United to outperform City on a smaller budget, but there is no obvious choice for Woodward, and he has yet to display any aptitude for the process.
In the past, that might not necessarily have mattered. In his previous position at the club, and his current role, the profits and revenues have been rising impressively. With the next round of broadcast rights negotiation to come, they will increase even further. But there is a chance that United could be falling behind. Amazon recently decided that Manchester City were the best recipient of £10m for access to make a documentary, rather than United. The figure is not so important here, but two aspects of City are.
One, City could now be seen by some as the more compelling club in the battle for attention. United have always planned to earn money from their brand, as Liverpool have demonstrated that years of mediocrity are not necessarily an obstacle to shifting sponsorship deals.
Two, City are now close to self-sufficiency after being given a helping hand, and a bag of blood money, by their owners. As Qatar’s PSG, Spain’s Real, and Catalonia’s Barcelona show, there is a new kind of institutional or state backing for clubs. As much revenue as Woodward may be able to shill for, United are possibly on the cusp of being left behind in the race to be the world’s most prominent club.
Woodward has been able to exploit the power and reputation of United to cover up for his own failures on the football side, but also to use them to grow revenue with his own initiative. As the chances of success are approaching a dead end, and finances might become a greater challenge, he is running out of time and options to shift blame onto anyone else at the club.