Before Sir Jim Ratcliffe gets his name over the Old Trafford door, a damning report has been issued highlighting the shambles he is inheriting…
Reports suggest confirmation of Ratcliffe’s deal to take part-ownership of Manchester United could be imminent, ahead of which The Athletic commissioned their ‘Special report: Inside the Manchester United football operation INEOS stands to inherit‘
It’s a deep dive into what, at times, appears a chaotic set-up, especially when it comes to recruitment. Here are seven alarming things that jumped out about the mess Ratcliffe is taking control of…
1) A hierarchy not fit for purpose
Ratcliffe is already said to have identified that United’s overall staffing structure can be streamlined. That appears to be the case at the top too, especially when it comes to recruitment. There are many names but seemingly little experience or wisdom.
Under or around football director John Murtough, there’s a deputy football director, a technical director, a director of football operations, head of football strategy and head of football negotiations. Between them, the level of football experience doesn’t equate to what you might expect of a club of United’s stature and the number of figures involved. Much of their collective previous is focused around Everton and the Premier League – both previous employers of Murtough.
The report also highlights additional ‘checks and balances’ around recruitment involving directors, namely chief financial officer Cliff Baty and general counsel and current interim chief executive Patrick Stewart, and of course, Joel Glazer.
United’s track record on transfers highlights just how inefficient and ineffective the current set-up is.
2) Murtough’s impressive survival instinct
Murtough is perhaps the most prominent character in the The Athletic‘s report and quite possibly the figure with most to lose when Ratcliffe’s new broom sweeps through the corridors of power at Old Trafford.
The expectation is that Ratcliffe, helped by Sir Dave Brailsford, will hire a new sporting director to get a grip on United’s football operation. Such an appointment will tread on Murtough’s toes, but the current chief is understood to be keen to stick around, even if that means a reduction in his power and influence.
The report says that stance, as ‘former and current colleagues say is characteristic of a shrewd political operator’. Murtough is also described as ‘a great survivor… more amenable and less egotistic than other executives in his position… courteous and good to deal with’.
The fact he has seen five managers since he was brought to the club from Everton in 2013 highlights Murtough’s instinct for self-preservation. He has clearly earned the trust of the Glazers, though – as the report highlights – other key figures such as Sir Alex Ferguson and Nicky Butt don’t share that viewpoint. Fall-outs with both are described as ‘misunderstandings’ by those close to Murtough.
3) United weren’t serious over sporting director
The manner of Murtough’s appointment as football director highlights the scale of ambition United held while they sought to offer the illusion of intent to recruit a figurehead.
United’s search supposedly began during Jose Mourinho’s reign and lasted for two-and-a-half years. At the end of that time, they appointed Murtough from within. And only then, seemingly, because the Glazers and co. were concerned about losing their man to Inter Miami.
Joel Glazer is said to be the chief who insisted upon Murtough’s promotion, which tells its own story. Even Ed Woodward knew he had to fudge things so he appointed Darren Fletcher, a name familiar to United fans, to the job of technical director and unveiled both appointments at the same time.
Ratcliffe and Brailsford will surely act with greater intent and be more discerning when appointing the next sporting director than United were while promoting the last one.
4) Ten Hag keeps own company amid circus
It is no wonder Erik ten Hag feels unable to trust the officials around him given the comparative lack of football knowledge. Nor should it be unexpected for the manager to lean on those he trusts. Such as his agent Kees Vos, despite concerns from some that Vos is too close to Ten Hag and too familiar with the United set-up.
When you look at some of the decisions and processes behind signings made since Ten Hag took over in 2022, it speaks of an operation lacking direction, decisiveness, leadership and clarity of thought.
The killer line…
Sources insist there is nobody at the club skilled at assessing a player’s worth who also has authority on spending and can take a holistic view of squad building.
5) United overpay and underperform
Through both summers Ten Hag has endured at Old Trafford, the ambition, mission and targets – overarching and specific – have flip-flopped to leave United badly exposed and the manager short of the necessary quality he needs to return the club back to where they claim they want to be.
The return United have had for the level of investment is, frankly, dire. The club have spent big sums on players who haven’t proved their value, making the Red Devils one of the biggest patsies in the game.
Overpaying for players is a common theme in the report. They went way over their initial budgets for the likes of Antony – valued at £25million when scouts under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had the Brazilian assessed – Rasmus Hojlund, for whom Atalanta banked themselves a £22million Man Utd premium, and Mason Mount, whose value a year from free agency was initially deemed to be £40million. They paid at least £55million.
Mount’s arrival highlights the lack of foresight and insight in United’s recruitment. They initially prioritised the England midfielder because they were concerned Chelsea would sell other players to alleviate their FFP concerns and other clubs, Liverpool and Arsenal, were also sniffing.
The signing of Mount surprised many given the obvious need for a centre-forward. During that same window, sources say Ten Hag would have allocated the funds differently had he known the scale of them more fully. Which feels like the sort of thing a serious football club might make clear to the manager.
John Murtough looks set to follow Richard Arnold out of Man Utd.
6) Ratcliffe needs to bring the vision and the big boy pants
Ten Hag identified Harry Kane as his primary choice for a centre-forward, a position he wanted to strengthen during his first window, but United failed to do so. Of course, the Red Devils stood by and Kane joined Bayern Munich instead.
United’s prospects of landing Kane were said to have ended when they spaffed huge money on Casemiro upon veering away from their fruitless pursuit of Frenkie De Jong. But United have never offered even the illusion of intent to move for Kane.
When the striker was still at Tottenham, United were said to be wary of dealing with Daniel Levy. All those heads around the table in the board room but not enough balls to pick up the phone to the Spurs chief.
The Casemiro deal was done despite United internally deciding that Declan Rice would have been a better signing from an FFP perspective, even if he had cost £120million. But United didn’t make the move because West Ham were reluctant sellers.
It is clear that United will only do easy deals. And even then, they pay way over the odds. Ratcliffe and Brailsford need to bring some ambition and determination to a recruitment set-up damned by its own failures.
7) United left to reap what they have sown
All of those decisions, and many more besides, have supposedly left United room for two loan deals during Ratcliffe’s first transfer window this January. That’s it.
Because they have worked so well before.