In praise of Ed Woodward. It’s not something often said; or not outside the business world at least, where they presumably marvel at the commercial acumen of a man who constructed a model that brought Manchester United an isotonic drinks partner in Indonesia, a financial services partner in Serbia and a (seemingly) global mattress and pillow partner. But for Woodward, United wouldn’t have a co-branded tractor in Thailand – and who can put a price on that? Apart, obviously, from him.
All of which has made United’s executive vice-chairman indispensable to the Glazers. With a team rooted in sixth and an annual turnover approaching £600m, the wider world has remained immune to Woodward’s charms. Rather, he’s made a convenient punch bag. In the dog days of Jose Mourinho’s reign, differing factions were pro and anti the Portuguese. None, understandably, were championing Woodward’s case.
And yet is it possible that Woodward has been correct of late? And not merely on financial matters, and not just once. Because – and while his detractors can point out that even a stopped clock is right twice a day – there are several issues where Woodward could claim vindication.
Little bit of feel-good
Most obviously, there’s the dismissal of Mourinho, executed in unexpectedly ruthless fashion and which has proved a mood cleanser. Given United’s fixture list, the Portuguese might have won their last five games – although, given the wretched performance at Anfield, that’s far from guaranteed – but the timing of his sacking gave Ole Gunnar Solskjaer the chance to restore a feel-good factor against lesser opponents.
Hindsight can render anything obvious, but the Norwegian, managing in officially Europe’s 23rd-best league and having taken a mere 12 points from 18 Premier League games when Cardiff were relegated, was a left-field candidate. A stealth move for a favourite son was executed quickly and efficiently. If the 1999 Champions League winner’s managerial CV is patchy, perhaps Woodward felt there were few better qualified to defumigate the place, especially with Mike Phelan and Michael Carrick completing a trio of notably nice guys.
If Solskjaer is United’s unity candidate, offering both renewal and a sizeable dose of nostalgia, he could be ideal to boost the brand too. Old Trafford may have been a theatre of drabness, but Solskjaer still sees a magical place. His puppyish enthusiasm for all things United ties into the image the club likes to project, based around a buccaneering spirit, youth and attacking football. He’s a fine antidote to toxic negativity.
Key players revitalised
Solskjaer is openly channelling Sir Alex Ferguson, but it looks ever more possible that Woodward understood United’s historic ethos better than Mourinho ever did. There’s an assumption that footballing decisions should be made by football people and if, by and large, that is true, then there are exceptions. It was Mourinho who wanted to sell Anthony Martial in the summer and Woodward who was adamant that the Frenchman wasn’t leaving.
The 23-year-old was the top scorer under Mourinho this season, a player Solskjaer was swift to make pivotal and, along with Marcus Rashford, the future of United’s attack. If Mourinho had his way, he would have been cast aside before he reached his prime and replaced with a declining Willian. If it jars with the traditionalists that player power seemed to prevail when Paul Pogba won his battle with Mourinho, the World Cup winner now looks one of the game’s finest midfielders again. Such judgments shouldn’t be made on the basis of Instagram followers, but Pogba feels a greater asset on the pitch than a self-destructive manager was in the dugout.
The defensive situation presents more of a moot point. If Woodward proved incapable of signing some of Mourinho’s targets, he was reluctant to bring in others. Perhaps neither comes out of it well, yet the argument that the manager had spent £60m in the previous two summers on central defenders and should work with those he bought has been given some justification: Victor Lindelof perhaps could have been discarded after a dodgy debut year at Old Trafford, but has been United’s best centre-back this season. The Swede may not resemble Virgil van Dijk, but he’s an advertisement for giving players time.
Tellingly, given the possibility that Mauricio Pochettino will be United’s next manager, two of Tottenham’s best players this season, Moussa Sissoko and Son Heung-min, could have been written off as failures after their first years in London.
Tougher tasks ahead
The impression is that Woodward felt United’s squad is better than Mourinho, whose litany of disparaging comments and regular self-serving attempts to dodge the blame grew weary. Though the team is undeniably imperfect and not as good as Liverpool and Manchester City’s, the last five games have underlined the sense of underachievement beforehand. United have illustrated that the immediate problem was their manager.
Producing a long-term solution is altogether harder. Because if Mourinho was so wrong that he made Woodward right at times, the powerbroker faces bigger challenges. Three poor managerial appointments are not completely his fault, but they scarcely reflect well. He shouldn’t be lured into thinking that Solskjaer’s suitability for the task of a morale-boosting quick fix makes him ideal to lead United far into the future.
He faces the potential task of dealing with Daniel Levy, which would intimidate far better negotiators, and if he cannot land Pochettino, then who? He has to improve United’s record in the transfer market: both the ratio of successes to failures and the strategy of who to pursue, when and why, in order to construct a squad that suits a style of play.
But just maybe, and if only briefly, perhaps there should be recognition that while it’s undeniable he caused some of the damage at Old Trafford this season, Woodward may also have limited it by standing up and ignoring Mourinho’s wishes.