“We can do things in the transfer market that other clubs can only dream of” – Evaluating Ed Woodward’s Reign at Man Utd

You knew things were going to be different the moment Sir Alex Ferguson retired. In the era which followed, there have been five managers at Manchester United, six if we’re including interim, seven if we’re including Michael Carrick.

But this has been Ed Woodward’s era of control, an era which officially ends as from today he is succeeded by Richard Arnold. So, how did he do?

“We can do things in the transfer market that other clubs can only dream of,” Woodward boasted in the summer of 2014. “Watch this space.”

Even by then, supporters had a right to be cautious. Let’s go year by year.

2013/4

Before the dust had settled on Ferguson’s retirement, Manchester United had set up a heavy social media presence. This was an open goal for Woodward, and many would categorise his proclaimed successes as open goals – that is to say it is widely thought that United’s brand has been exploited to the nth degree more than it has benefitted from any commercial expertise.

Their social presence continues today and there remains a concern over how well it comes across. They even hired a specialist social media manager yet a critic would say that presence is not often befitting of the world’s biggest club. It’s become a running joke (so much so that the Twitter account seems self-aware of it) that it’s become a relentless billboard to flog as much Ronaldo merchandise as possible.

But that doesn’t quite stick in the throat as much as some other questionable choices – everyone remembers the wishing of Dion Dublin’s birthday on the morning David Moyes was sacked, and even as recently as Sunday, when a respectful silence would have been expected and welcomed, the club were posting on their Twitter account. When it’s led by the head you can hardly blame the likes of Jesse Lingard for following suit.

But I digress, this is mainly to do with transfers, and ever since 17th July 2013 when it was announced ‘Ed Woodward has left the club’s tour of Australia to carry out some urgent transfer business’, fans have learned to take these things with a pinch of salt.

What was the business? We were never told.

Leighton Baines and Cesc Fabregas were mentioned as possible tagrt but in the end only Marouane Fellaini arrived. If he’d signed earlier in the window, United would have had him for around £5m cheaper due to a release clause the new manager David Moyes had agreed in the contract when he signed the Belgian for Everton. Fellaini, with his uncompromising style and strength coming in a direct brand of football, quickly became representative of the on and off pitch changes.

Juan Mata arrived in the winter window for a club record £38m from a Chelsea team willing to part with him. There did not seem an obvious place for him in the United team either. Moyes allowed popular squad player Fabio to leave, too.

Verdict : Fail

Managerial : David Moyes was dismissed in April, less than a year into a six-year deal, after defeat to Everton made it mathematically impossible to qualify for the Champions League. There was talk that deals had been set up to sign Luke Shaw and Toni Kroos.

Moyes had to go. The wisdom of this decision is only questioned because the succession plan was not successful.

Verdict : Right choice

2014/5

Ins

Ángel Di María: From Real Madrid (£67.50m)
Luke Shaw: From Southampton (£33.75m)
Ander Herrera: From Athletic Bilbao (£32.40m)
Marcos Rojo: From Sporting CP (£18.00m)
Daley Blind: From Ajax (£15.75m)
Falcao: From AS Monaco (Loan)
Vanja Milinković-Savić: From Vojvodina (£1.58m)

Outs

Danny Welbeck: To Arsenal (£18.00m)
Shinji Kagawa: To Borussia Dortmund (£7.20m)
Alexander Büttner: To Dinamo Moscow (£4.95m)
Wilfried Zaha: To Crystal Palace (£3.42m)
Chicharito: To Real Madrid (Loan)
Bebé: To Benfica (£2.70m)
Patrice Evra: To Juventus (£1.71m)
Rio Ferdinand: To Queens Park Rangers (Free transfer)
Nemanja Vidic: To Inter (Free transfer)
Ryan Giggs: Retired
Darren Fletcher: To Stoke

Louis van Gaal was now manager. But before he could take charge, Ferdinand, Vidic and Giggs were off the playing staff and Patrice Evra left almost straight away. Others left with the window close to closing with a lot of Premier League experience going – all in all, over 3000 games of experience was gone.

It was replaced with mostly foreigners and a couple of gambles. The club’s transfer record was broken for the second time in a year as August ended with a record spend following Woodward’s boast.

The two headline signings – Di Maria and Falcao – were unmitigated disasters. Di Maria did not fit into Van Gaal’s style and Falcao was still suffering from a serious injury. The loss of experience hit United desperately hard and it was a strong achievement from Van Gaal to navigate through this and qualify for the Champions League.

Verdict : Fail

2015/6

Ins

Anthony Martial: From Monaco (£54.00m)
Morgan Schneiderlin: From Southampton (£31.50m)
Memphis Depay: From PSV Eindhoven (£30.60m)
Matteo Darmian: From Torino (£16.20m)
Bastian Schweinsteiger: From Bayern Munich (£8.10m)
Sergio Romero: From Sampdoria (Free transfer)
Victor Valdes (free)

Outs

Ángel Di María: To PSG (£56.70m)
Chicharito: To Bayer 04 Leverkusen (£10.80m)
Jonny Evans: To West Bromwich Albion (£7.47m)
Robin van Persie: To Fenerbahce (£5.85m)
Nani: To Fenerbahce (£5.40m)
Rafael: To Lyon (£2.88m)
Ángelo Henríquez: To Dinamo Zagreb (£1.50m)
Reece James: To Wigan Athletic (£1.26m)

After the headline-grabbing summer of 2014, this was seen as a sensible consolidation, with an investment in what the squad needed and not necessarily the star power. Only it didn’t quite work out.

Schneiderlin seemed to be just what the team needed but it didn’t work out as it appeared he had overperformed at Southampton. Elsewhere, Van Gaal made unnecessary changes for players who were similar, but not as good as the players they were replacing. Rafael left and Darmian came in. Nani left and Depay came in. Jonny Evans left when it seemed he was arguably the best centre-back on the books. Hernandez left to be replaced by Martial. And Di Maria went back to Paris.

One might say the second season under Van Gaal was more stable than the first but it was also very dull and the profile of players signed and let go reflected this – there was a stagnant, laboured team being built.

After qualifying for the Champions League this seemed a good opportunity to wipe the slate clean and maybe in Schweinsteiger there was an attempt to address all the lost experience. But the German was not in a condition to play a rigorous Premier League season and the same issues afflicted United. This time they did not qualify for the Champions League.

Verdict : Fail

Managerial : Jose Mourinho was sacked from Chelsea in November and instantly Van Gaal was under pressure. It was heavily rumoured that there was an agreement for Mourinho to come in December. Despite it being inevitable that Van Gaal should go, the season was allowed to fester, supporter discontent grew as they watched Leicester and Spurs battle out a Premier League title.

In the end, a youth infusion inspired by Marcus Rashford led United to an FA Cup, suggesting that with some young talent in the team, Van Gaal might yet have a future. At the moment he was holding the Cup, however, Van Gaal was sacked and Mourinho hired.

Verdict : Right decision, wrong time, and an appalling way to treat the manager

2016/7

In

Paul Pogba: From Juventus (£94.50m)
Henrikh Mkhitaryan: From Borussia Dortmund (£37.80m)
Eric Bailly: From Villarreal CF (£34.20m)
Zlatan Ibrahimovic: From PSG (Free transfer)

Out

Morgan Schneiderlin: To Everton (£20.70m)
Memphis Depay: To Lyon (£14.40m)
Paddy McNair: To Sunderland (£4.73m)
Tyler Blackett: To Reading (£1.62m)
Will Keane: To Hull City (£1.08m)
Bastian Schweinsteiger: To Chicago Fire (Free transfer)
Nick Powell: To Wigan Athletic (Free transfer)
Víctor Valdés: To Middlesbrough (Free transfer)

Jose Mourinho was now in charge. With United not in the Champions League, something desperate was needed to boost the club’s chances of staying relevant. Step forward Mino Raiola, who provided three of his clients at a convenient time for their own profiles. It worked. Paul Pogba returned for a new club record fee, and Ibrahimovic was a hit, taking the Premier League by storm until he was injured late in the season.

Mourinho had attempted to address the scattergun transfers of the prior years by constructing a spine, but Eric Bailly was often injured too, and it was clear almost immediately that Pogba didn’t suit a number ten or a central midfield role.

United didn’t even qualify for the Champions League via the league, in fact finishing lower than either of Van Gaal’s seasons, and having to rely on winning the Europa League.

Verdict : Fail

2017/8

In

Romelu Lukaku: From Everton (£76.23m)
Nemanja Matic: From Chelsea (£40.23m)
Victor Lindelöf: From Benfica (£31.50m)
Alexis Sánchez: Arsenal (exchange)

Out

Henrikh Mkhitaryan: To Arsenal (exchange)
Adnan Januzaj: To Real Sociedad (£7.65m)
Andreas Pereira: To Valencia CF (Loan)
Zlatan Ibrahimovic: To Los Angeles (Free transfer)
Wayne Rooney: To Everton (Free transfer)

Another attempt at a spine-builder, with Mourinho opting for physicality. Lukaku, Matic and Lindelof were all signed, and it was clear that with the latter that being physically dominant in Portugal did not necessarily mean you could be in England.

By this time Moyes and Van Gaal would regularly be in the press talking about players they couldn’t sign due to Ed Woodward’s interference. This became more public with Mourinho. Matic was only signed after Ed and Jose were heard having a heated row over the protracted saga on the club’s tour of America.

Ivan Perisic was wanted to supply Lukaku – United had little creativity from wide. The move broke down over a case of £5m. Mourinho had hoped this could be raised with the sale of Anthony Martial – the French forward had flattered to deceive after early promise, and had been unhappy with the number 9 being taken from him for Ibrahimovic and now Lukaku. It was not to be – Martial stayed where he was, as did Perisic.

Lukaku scored goals but rarely looked dynamic or sharp enough to lead the line at United. Matic looked a sensible signing, designed to liberate Pogba. This worked for a while but it quickly became apparent that when Pogba was indeed liberated, Matic could be exposed, and as he wasn’t the quickest, this was not ideal.

Still, there was at least the pattern of building something that resembled a team and it seemed that way for the first time since 2013. This helped steady the club into a second placed finish, in spite of being some way off Man City, and the success was significant enough for Jose to be given a new contract in early 2018.

This was an indication that prior difficulties had been smoothed over and the manager would be assured of backing in the future.

And if that was that, you’d say this was a rare hit of a season. Except it wasn’t. Because Alexis Sanchez arrived in January. You would have to say it is the worst transfer in the club’s history.

Sanchez’s form had not been particularly good for Arsenal and that was particularly alarming considering his reputation as an all-action committed attacker. But he arrived to play from the left as a certain starter, breaking up the competitive rhythm built up between Rashford and Martial on that side of the pitch which had been the highlight of United’s play that season.

Sanchez also arrived on eye-watering wages. When his contribution did not reflect his salary, other players were emboldened to ask for more. Some got it. Others did not. But it was clear within weeks that the transfer had not worked out and United had a very, very expensive mistake that would take some time to correct.

Verdict : Fail

2018/9

In

Fred: From Shakhtar Donetsk (£53.10m)
Diogo Dalot: From FC Porto (£19.80m)
Lee Grant: From Stoke City (£1.53m)

Out

Daley Blind: To Ajax Amsterdam (£14.40m)
Sam Johnstone: To West Bromwich (£6.62m)
Marouane Fellaini: To Shandong Luneng Taishan (£6.48m)
Michael Carrick: Retired

Having signed the new contract, Jose Mourinho was refused a centre-back when it was clear the club needed one. In fact, it was evident that the team needed strengthening in various areas if United were serious about closing the gap on City – a new, more mobile forward, a creative player or two, new full-backs and possibly two new centre-backs.

Fred arrived early in the window, and a fee above Diogo Dalot’s release clause was paid to prise him away from Porto. Mourinho remained keen to move on Martial, especially with Sanchez in the team. Woodward again blocked the move, and it was briefed to press that the new defender was not sanctioned because Bailly and Lindelof were Mourinho signings.

As if to prove a point, Fred barely played – raising the question about how control the manager was in terms of signing players and addressing priorities. Different defensive shapes resulted into catastrophic displays and Mourinho was sacked, with his point proven, but he’d gone out creating such a toxic atmosphere that it made him look like the primary issue.

As such, when the decision was taken to sack him just before Christmas, it presented the illusion that the squad was much better than it was. The reality was that it was a second placed team with ageing players. No reinforcements came in January, as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was an interim and it was deemed the squad had more potential. The new man was, however, permitted to sanction a departure – Fellaini was on his merry way.

Verdict : Fail

Managerial : Mourinho could have been the right man at the wrong time. Some people won’t accept that he was the right man at all. His brand of football never evolved, it was pragmatic and reactive, allowing other teams to control the pace of the game. Woodward decided to sack him at a time when the club still desperately needed the players it did in the summer, and these recruitments were not put in place for Solskjaer, causing another season to be written off because of summer turmoil.

Solskjaer was appointed interim until the summer but was then made permanent manager in March. There was a public division on this point – was it too soon? It’s easy to forget how much of a rollercoaster it seemed in those early month, though, where there was a growing pressure to make it a permanent thing.

Verdict : Right decision at the right time to fire Mourinho, wrong decision to not have a succession plan, hasty (in hindsight) to appoint Solskjaer permanently. Baffling decision to give Mourinho a three year deal in January and not back him in the summer.

2019/20

In

Harry Maguire: From Leicester City (£78.30m)
Bruno Fernandes: From Sporting CP (£56.70m)
Aaron Wan-Bissaka: From Crystal Palace (£49.50m)
Daniel James: From Swansea City (£16.00m)
Odion Ighalo: From Shanghai Greenland Shenhua (Loan)

Out

Romelu Lukaku: To Inter (£66.60m)
Chris Smalling: To AS Roma (Loan)
Matteo Darmian: To Parma (£2.23m)
Ashley Young: To Inter (£1.53m)
Antonio Valencia: To LDU Quito (Free transfer)
James Wilson: To Aberdeen (Free transfer)
Ander Herrera: To PSG (Free transfer)
Alexis Sanchez : Inter (loan, then free)

Solskjaer’s first summer transfer window concentrated on trying to alleviate the wage bill issue caused by Sanchez’s arrival. Just eighteen disastrous months after he was signed, he was shifted on to Inter Milan for nothing. United were lucky to get that – and to recoup most of what they’d paid for Lukaku, who went to the same place.

With Valencia moving on, the defence now needed radical reinforcement, and it came in the form of Wan-Bissaka and Maguire. Dan James signed from Swansea and had a promising start but it was clear he was too green for the role of permanent starter.

As with all things – it was a start, and supporters were placated that things were moving in the right direction, even if it was moving slowly. In fact, that was encouraging – it felt like stable, considered progress. The signings started well and in the winter Solskjaer signed Fernandes and brought in Ighalo on loan – both were instant successes. And then lockdown happened.

After lockdown, Ighalo’s form plummeted, but United were strong enough to finish back in the Champions League (18/19 had ended with a 6th place) and hopefully be in a stronger position to compete.

Verdict : Hit (just, at the time)

2020/21

In

Donny van de Beek: From Ajax Amsterdam (£35.10m)
Amad Diallo: From Atalanta (£19.17m)
Alex Telles: From FC Porto (£13.50m)
Facundo Pellistri: From CA Peñarol (£7.65m)
Edinson Cavani: From PSG (Free transfer)

Out

Chris Smalling: To AS Roma (£13.50m)
Jesse Lingard: To West Ham United (Loan)
Timothy Fosu-Mensah: To Bayer 04 Leverkusen (£1.53m)
Marcos Rojo: To Boca Juniors (Free transfer)
Cameron Borthwick-Jackson: To Oldham Athletic (Free transfer)

And compete they did. United finished second, so they competed more than anyone else after City, but that only tells half the story.

United had stressed their commitment to a long-term stable project, and had also stressed their responsibility during the pandemic, but when only Van De Beek arrived in the summer, and the season started alarmingly, a last minute window splurge was undertaken.

Big fees were paid for gettable players and Cavani, available all summer, arrived on a free.

But Diallo and Pellistri were not part of the team. Van De Beek rarely played – with it being rumoured that he’d signed as a replacement for Pogba, who instead stayed himself. And Telles’ biggest contribution was to cajole Luke Shaw into a resurrection.

Nobody came in in the winter when United looked as though they might push for an improbable title – a defender would have been useful. A winger. Another goalscorer. A midfielder, too.

It felt as though the board were content for the season to drift away, and that’s precisely what it did, a moment of opportunity missed and squandered.

Verdict : Fail

2021/22

In

Tom Heaton (free)
Jadon Sancho : From Dortmund, £85m
Paul McShane : From Rochdale, undisclosed
Raphael Varane : From Real Madrid, £35m
Cristiano Ronaldo : From Juventus, £15m

Out

Daniel James : To Leeds, £20m
Amad Diallo : To Rangers, loan
Donny Van De Beek : To Everton, loan
Anthony Martial : To Sevilla, loan
Axel Tuanzebe : To Napoli, loan
Brandon Williams : To Norwich, loan
Facundo Pellestri : To Alaves, loan

What to say about this season’s transfers? By this point, we knew it would be Ed Woodward’s last season directing the good ship Manchester United.

The much-needed defender was acquired. The much-needed midfielder? Well, we waited. It didn’t come. Money was spent on Sancho. It was briefed there was no more left. Some was found to sign Ronaldo. Ronaldo’s signing raised the share value. The Glazer family cashed in shares against this, and that money was taken out of the club. Same. Old. Story.

No midfielder meant one big chasm for teams to boss, and they came to Old Trafford and did just that, from Aston Villa to Liverpool. Despite this neglect from board level, Solskjaer was deemed accountable, and he lost his job when performances dropped off a cliff, having outlasted any other Ferguson predecessor, surprising as that is.

Ralf Rangnick was appointed just before the January window, and just like Solskjaer before him, was charged with clearing the squad and not blessed with reinforcements.

So players went out. And all the same issues remain in terms of the qualities United lack. Well, the majority of these players got second place, so it’s fair to ask more from them. But it’s also a smokescreen – not necessarily for the lack of investment, but for the failure to let the club spend its own money at critical periods, and needless interference from people simply not qualified to do so at most other junctures.

Ed Woodward’s reign fittingly ends now, at the conclusion of the January window, and we can see the disaster of the summer 2020 window for what it was.

Van De Beek, Pellestri and Diallo are all on loan at clubs where you are inclined to believe they’re closer to their level than they are United (please prove me wrong, boys).

United’s inability to anticipate the changes they need before it’s long overdue has impacted them continuously over the last years and will continue to do so for some time. Busby and Ferguson were masters, and not everyone can be masters, of course. But they knew when to make a change.

Maybe Mourinho did – but he wasn’t allowed to. Maybe Solskjaer didn’t, or couldn’t, such was the financial commitment to sign Maguire and Wan-Bissaka, both players susceptible to being upgraded upon. Instead of being given the chance to oversee their departures after reasonable progression and continue to build, they were viewed as his mistakes, and he was the man responsible.

Now, the lack of long-term planning is evident in Martial’s aimless move, the radio silence over Paul Pogba’s present or future, and the bewildering decision to keep Jesse Lingard.

It’s a fine mess, one the club have plunged themselves back into after the positive steps taken in the summer of 2019 with the moving on of Sanchez and Lukaku.

Verdict : I don’t think we need to wait for the end of the season to categorise this as a fail, do we?

The latest managerial decision had to be taken, but the hiring of Ralf Rangnick did not instantly strike as a decision made in anything other than haste, even if the message upon his arrival was one of a long-term structure. There’s also the prevailing thought that he wasn’t given funds because he is not the permanent manager.

Oh well. Suppose it’s fitting to go out the way you came in.

Wayne Barton

Wayne is a writer and producer. His numerous books on Manchester United include the family-authorised biography of Jimmy Murphy. He wrote and produced the BT Sport films 'Too Good To Go Down' in 2018, and 'True Genius', in 2021, both adapted from his books of the same name. In 2015 he was described by the Independent as the 'leading writer on Manchester United' and former club chairman Martin Edwards has described him as 'the pre-eminent writer on the club'.

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