Duncan Castles published an interesting scoop for the Sunday Times (of London) this past weekend. In it, he claimed that Manchester United had plans in the works to appoint a Director of Football, following several other Premier League clubs who have, in recent years, looked to emulate their continental neighbours.
The director of football or DoF ideally acts as a kind of buffer between executive leadership and the manager, helping to ensure the needs of the latter are met by the former. The strength of the DoF role is that he or she has the luxury of time—time to plan and coordinate the recruitment and player development policies so they match the club’s ultimate goals. Yet for the position to work, the club should already know its identity, its core mission, its philosophy.
United have since rubbished Castle’s piece entirely. Yet for argument’s sake, if United were to embrace a unified club philosophy to fill the void left in the wake of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013—something that has been recommended on Paste Soccer before would it be exactly? How many football philosophies are there to choose from? Here are five I managed to come up with..
After a 2015-16 campaign that has been, at times, more successful on paper than on the pitch, manager Louis van Gaal has had a pretty go of it this past week. First, his club progressed in the Europa League after soundly beating Danish club FC Midtjylland 5-1 in the second leg of their knockout tie. Then, on Sunday, United calmly dented Arsenal’s title hopes with a 3-2 win in the Premier League.
The talk of Old Trafford however has been Marcus Rashford, the 18-year-old lifelong Red who scored four goals in his first 58 minutes of first team football for the club. Though, when it comes to young players United has enjoyed one or two false dawns before—see Federico Macheda and Adnan Januzaj—Rashford’s impressive debut carries the promise of the Fergie Fledglings of the nineties and before that, the Bubsy Babes of the fifties.
Youth development can be a tricky business in football, something that often happens more by necessity than by design. But United may do well to look to their roots in reshaping the club for the future, perhaps by setting quotas for academy players in the first team.
On the other hand, Man United are unbelievably rich; the club were third overall in the Deloitte Money League for the 2014-15 season, and are certain to move into first place this year. The idea of a renewed focus on youth is nice and all, but United have the spending power to compete with clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona for the best players in the world.
Why not then make Man United the Galacticos of the North? After all, ever since Cristiano Ronaldo left the club in 2009 to join Real Madrid for then-record transfer fee of £80 million, United have struggled to sign a star of the same magnitude. Instead they’ve opted for a weird and dissatisfying smorgasbord of talent, who seem more like the personal acquaintances of Van Gaal and his predecessor David Moyes than bona fide international stars.
Not that packing a team with international star power is easy of course, but at least a director of football might be better poised to deal with myriad agents and outsized egos than poor old executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, who seems to lose all his numerous, media-alleged star player targets at ‘Hello.’
Though Alex Ferguson was more known for his searing Scottish anger than any tactical wizardry on the pitch, the truth is United under Fergie were a fun club to watch. Though their players, particularly those gents deployed in defensive midfield, were often brutal to the point of moral discomfort (here’s to you Roy Keane), the team was stunning on the counterattack. United under Ferguson were the embodiment of all the best cliches of English football in the 1990s; they had plenty of pace, power, and yes—passion.
That’s been noticeably absent under the watch of Moyes and Van Gaal, and though the latter has least improved results on paper, the quality of the football under the Dutch manager been anything but consistent. A director of football however would have the resources to recreate the SAF football aesthetic at United, with the knowledge that they will never again see another manager like him. That would mean recruiting both players and managers who understand respect the Ferguson Way.
One other advantage of United’s enormous wealth is that it provides them insurance against risk. For example, if any other team hired back-to-back mediocrities for managers, they would be perceived to be in a much bigger crisis than United is today. Their financial position is so assured however that they have not yet felt the urgency to make any radical change.
Yet rather than providing a cushion for incompetence, that wealth could give the club a platform for innovation and experimentation, whether that involves the use of new technologies and data analysis, or using new ways to identify emerging talent, undervalued players etc. Despite the obvious inference, this need not be Moneyball; after all, United are the New York Yankees, not the Oakland A’s. But the club has the financial security required to be first movers and invest heavily in technical scouting and advanced data analysis to help keep up with their noisy neighbours in blue.
Think about it; why must the above ideas be mutually exclusive? A club can bring up young players to gain experience alongside global superstars, all while playing a signature style under the auspices of a progressive and experimental front office. Really, the only ‘philosophy’ anyone cares about anyway is the kind that wins trophies, and wins them in style. In the end, the sense among fans and the media that the club is being run competently and consistently is key above all else.