Manchester United looking to sign a clutch of Eredivisie (top Dutch league) players is being seen as the easy way out. At a club that already has Donny van de Beek, Erik ten Hag has chosen to rely on a league he knows best as he attempts resetting a club whose fall has been as spectacular as its resurgence which coincided with the launch and growth of the Premier League.
To get control of the change room, it isn’t unusual to seek players you know. So, Tyrell Malacia is on the pre-season tour of Thailand and if transfers rumours are anything to go by, some, if not all, among Antony, Frenkie de Jong, Christian Eriksen and Lisandro Martinez too would be at Old Trafford before the transfers close on August 31. They are all good prospects: Malacia is a ball-playing left back adept at crosses, playing inverted full back and solid in defence; Eriksen is a generational talent who, given adequate defensive protection like Lionel Messi now gets with Argentina, can provide United’s speedy forwards deliveries they could feast on; Antony could address the wide right problems and Martinez might be the solution to well-documented defensive midfield problems and also play centre-back.
So what’s not to like? Nothing really, except that this is not how elite clubs do business now. In 2020, in a Zoom call with journalists, Monchi, Sevilla’s football director, had given a lowdown on how they signed players. The club, he said, had 60 scouts watching games in several countries. After the list is pruned to around 25 per position it goes to the data department. It is peopled by statisticians, mathematicians and engineers and in 2020, Monchi said Sevilla had a staff of nine analysing a player’s prospect. Liverpool and Manchester City have data scientists who have PhDs in particle physics, worked in hedge funds and researched at Harvard. Selection happens when instinct meets data–subjective information of the scouts is backed by numbers and matches what the coach wants –Monchi had said.
It would be presumptuous to assume that Manchester United are so out of kilter with the rest that they don’t rely on advanced analytics. But what cannot be denied is the flux at the club over the past few months. After an inglorious stint, executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward left last February; Matt Judge resigned as football negotiations director and Hemen Tseayo as chief strategy officer. The long-serving Jim Lawlor is no longer the chief scout and neither is Marcel Bout the global scouting head.
After Ole Gunnar Solksjaer was sacked, first team coach Michael Carrick stepped away after being in interim charge for Ralf Rangnick who was then in interim charge. Nicky Butt too has left his position as head of first team development and Mike Phelan was no longer assistant-manager once Ole left the wheel. Add Rangnick’s support staff coming and going.
Like with the women’s team, Manchester United have been late to read the tea leaves. Till March 2021, the club didn’t feel the need for a football director, In other words, Monchi or Michael Edwards, whose partnership with Juergen Klopp was crucial to Liverpool’s success, was not someone the club thought it needed. That and all the churn in the club’s structure has possibly got Manchester United to rely more on Ten Hag.
Same at Chelsea
It is the same at Chelsea where sweeping transitions have meant an interim sporting director after Marina Granovskaia, who shaped the club’s roster with diligent handling of transfers, and Petr Cech, the technical and performance advisor, left. That is perhaps why manager Thomas Tuchel has a greater say. The jury though is out on whether this Rangnick disciple wants Ronaldo.
Player recruitment is not an exact science so Manchester United are not the only ones who have got signings wrong. They have possibly got them more wrong than others in recent years – the return of Paul Pogba in 2016, signing Alexis Sanchez in 2018, giving Juan Mata a new deal in 2021 and retaining Jesse Lingard but not playing him are some of the headline stuff in recent times – and that is why the gap between United and City and Liverpool seem so vast now.
“As much as we don’t want to say it, Liverpool… every time they sign a player, you are thinking, ‘Wow, they look like they have done their homework’,” Quinton Fortune, the former United winger told The Athletic. “Take Luis Diaz. I had been watching him for the last few months and years, thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, this is the player United need to sign’. Then Liverpool sign him and you are just thinking ‘Nooo!’. How are we missing these players? Come on! Help me out here!”
Rangnick has said United would need two or three transfer windows to get back to being the club that never finished outside the top three from 1991-92 to 2012-13 and won the Premier League a record 13 times. Given the circumstance, it was inevitable that the first window would be for the new manager; Manchester United’s eighth including caretaker managers since Alex Ferguson retired in 2013. It may not be ideal but little at Manchester United now is.