Showing posts with label John Murtough. Show all posts
Showing posts with label John Murtough. Show all posts

Murtough breaks new ground

Manchester United pitching for players from their rivals in European G14 teams in Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, and in their prime like Raphael Varane and Leon Goretzka is a clear shift in transfer policy under the first Director of Football John Murtough. As highlighted in a previous post this type of transfer has been unusual at Old Trafford who would avoid contacting players from these clubs out of respect. Previously Bastian Schweinsteiger and Zlatan Ibrahimović had joined United after their best years at Bayern Munich and Paris St Germain. It must be noted that United did come close to signing Sergio Ramos from Real Madrid in 2015 but only to be used in order to negotiate a better salary for the player. This time around the player in question has changed his agent to CAA Base Ltd whose primary clientele are Premier League players.

John Murtough is perhaps the major success from David Moyes era, both of whom worked together at Everton before he was made Premier League's first Head of Elite Performance a program which was introduced in 2012-13 and slowly adopted by clubs since then. Its key function has been described as "Through a systematic, evidence-led approach the Elite Performance function aims to add value to player development throughout the age phases (9-23) and across a multi-disciplinary platform, including physical, technical, tactical and psychological development." This has led to successful introduction of academy players Marcus Rashford, Scott McTominay and Mason Greenwood into the first team. Having revamped the youth setup and headed the group to introduce data science, being appointed as Director of Football seems like a natural progression: "overall leadership and responsibility for operations and strategy across all football functions." 

Raphael Varane has the distinction of winning the most Champions' League trophies before joining Manchester United and at 28 in prime of his career! At 24 he unseated Paolo Maldini as youngest defender to win three of Europe's most elite competition, played ahead of more experienced Pepe at Madrid, won the 2018 World Cup with France by playing in all the games. Due to muscular problems recurring through his career he hasn't played in more than 32 league games per season though he has missed just 1 to 6 matches at a time in short absences. Varane's two mistakes led to City winning 4-2 on aggregate in last season's round-16 match in Champions' League and he accepted the responsibility for it. Sir Alex Ferguson pursued Varane in 2011; fellow countryman Zidane clinched the deal on behalf of Madrid. Philip Anthony Jones joined United as part of a trio including Chris Smalling and Johnny Evans identified by Ferguson to eventually compete and replace perhaps United's greatest centre-back pair of Rio Ferdinand-Nemanja Vidic. Having been disastrously unsuccessful in selling or loaning out Jones, United must hand the jersey number 4 to Varane.

Schweinsteiger was 31 when he came to Manchester in 2015 on the back of playing his last and 500th game at Bayern Munich, lifting the World Cup with Germany in 2014 and winning the treble of Champions' League, Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal Cup in 2012-13 season. His appearances for Bayern Munich decreased due to recurrent injury problems at his patella and ankle, and also when Pep Guardiola took over as coach in 2013. He was fans favourite for a long time as an ideal replacement for Roy Keane since 2005. 9 year wait! Under Louis van Gaal who also was his manager at Bayern for two seasons, placed full faith in the German at United. His team selection was often questioned especially when he paired 34 year old Carrick with Schweinsteiger and got found out for lack of pace. He then switched to 'Schmidfield' with Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin that drained all creativity from midfield and made watching United a bore. Jose Mourinho took over and instantly froze the German who was made to train with U23's but came out of hibernation in a FA Cup match vs Wigan with a goal and an assist to win 'Man of the Match'. Mourinho was more than happy to let him leave United for MLS in 2017.

Another past connection were re-united when Jose Mourinho got Zlatan Ibrahimović as a free-agent from Paris St Germain after winning two consecutive French domestic trebles. Earlier the pair had worked at Inter Milan winning the Scudetto in 2008-09. Ibrahimović scored on his debut for Manchester United in Community Shield, Home league game, Away league game, Europa League, League Cup and FA Cup in a single season and at 35 years became the oldest player in Premier League to score 15 league goals in a season. United under Mourinho with Ibrahimović won the Europa League - only trophy that club had not won in its illustrious history, League Cup and Community Shield. However in April while playing against Anderlecht he suffered cruciate ligament injury that made him to stay out of football for a year. His recovery since re-joining AC Milan in January 2020 has been amazing 28 goals in 47 games, and if compared with similar injury suffered by Radamel Falcao prior to joining United that full and complete recovery from cruciate injury is about 2.5 years! Zlatan could not be at his best for a year each at United and LA Galaxy while Falcao could not be at his best on loan at United and Chelsea only to later win the Ligue 1 with Monaco by scoring 30 goals in 43 games.

Laurie Cunningham became the 1st English player to play for Real Madrid in 1979 and later in 1982 spent a season on loan at United, playing only 5 times as injury curtailed his reunion with manager Ron Atkinson under whom he gained prominence at West Bromwich Albion as 'Three Degrees' with Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson. Since then many United players have joined Madrid starting with David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Gabriel Heinze, Cristiano Ronaldo and Javier Hernandez. King of assists the Argentine Angel di Maria joined United from Madrid for a record #59 million fee after not favoring a new formation by manager Carlo Ancelotti and left Old Trafford just after a season under Louis van Gaal despite starting off in splendid form donning the iconic number 7 jersey

Raphael Varane is a consummate professional looking for a new experience as Madrid still chase his signature to extend his deal. Varane crucially has pace which could allow Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to abandon the double pivot of McTominay-Fred to make way for more attack minded midfield. Like the signing of Gary Pallister(24) for Steve Bruce(28) or Nemanja Vidic(25) for Rio Ferdinand(28), comes Raphael Varane(28) for Harry Maguire(28) though not in terms of age. Maguire-Varane have a short time of 2-3 seasons to cement their status amongst other stellar United centre-back pairs!

Disappointing season finale

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer remains in the company of Wilf McGuiness, Frank O'Farrell, Dave Sexton and David Moyes as trophy-less post war manager of Manchester United after fumbling against minnows Villareal in the UEFA Cup final in Gdansk. Final took place on a historic day, 26th May synonymous in United folklore with birthday of Sir Matt Busby and victory over Bayern Munich to complete the treble in 1999 under Sir Alex Ferguson. Solskjaer has managed to finish in top four in last two successive seasons a feat not achieved since retirement of Ferguson, and improved upon four semi-final losses by claiming his first runners-up medal. Progress seems labored and sluggish at best, aided by rivals Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur having a bad season at the same time!

Transfer spending has not been a problem despite criticism of Glazer ownership as Solskjaer has spent heavily on Harry Maguire (80m), Aaron Wan-Bissaka (50m), Daniel James (15m), Bruno Fernandes (67m), Edinson Cavani (free), Alex Telles (18m), Amad Diallo (37m), Facundo Pellistri (9m) totaling a staggering 276 million pounds in two and half years. Style of play still does not reflect the DNA of the club which is well-known to Solskjaer and over reliance on Bruno Fernandes who again won player of the season award for two straight seasons. In contrast flamboyant Ron Atkinson with star signing Bryan Robson won two FA Cups in '83 and '85 while Solskjaer meekly surrendered opportunities against Chelsea in semi-final last year and to winners Leicester City in quarter-finals this year. Outwitted by Sevilla in last year's UEFA Cup semi-finals and in league Cup semi-finals by Pep Guardiola's City for two straight season's. On that previous evidence the loss to 7th placed team Villareal in Spanish La Liga in Gdansk albeit on penalties was not a surprise.

As a player who is fondly remembered for his goal scoring exploits off the bench as a substitute being dubbed 'super sub', Solskjaer the manager is the anti-thesis with inflexibility and lacking plan B. Many point to his bench strength arguing about its depth but the same lot fail to acknowledge that unbeaten away from home record this past season was sustained mainly due to changes introduced in second half in Cavani and Greenwood being 3rd and 4th choice strikers behind Martial and Rashford. United had a brilliant shot stopper in Sergio Romero (released at the end of his contract after 6 years on 04-June) on their books but could not use him as he wasn't anywhere near the squad all season despite earning huge salary. Romero was the keeper when United lifted their only UEFA Cup trophy under Jose Mourinho in 2017 with Valencia, Smalling, Blind, Darmian, Herrera, Mata, Fellaini, Pogba, Mkhitaryan and Rashford. Eight of those have moved on in such a short space of time and replaced by more vaunted players like de Gea in goal, Shaw, Maguire (was injured replaced by Bailly), Lindelof, Wan-Bissaka, McTominay, Pogba, Greenwood, Fernandes, Rashford and Cavani. The result in 2021 was poor but it puts the spotlight clearly on the manager unable to pack a punch let alone punch above.

Fiasco over Super League flirtation will force the Glazers to spend more than usual this summer. That will directly increase the pressure on Solskjaer to deliver next season. In this context a new 3-year deal for Solskjaer seems unlikely to be completed while his existing one enters its final year. An extension sounds more prudent. Solskjaer's repeated assertions about being a man-manager than a coach raises doubts about his present backroom staff which might need augmenting. Assistant manager Mike Phelan, a former United player was crucial to the initial days of success under Ferguson and later his trusted assistant, Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna are relatively early in their respective coaching careers, Martyn Pert is the latest addition credited with Fred's turnaround and Richard Hartis who is back as goal-keeping coach. Addition of former United defender Michael Clegg as head of strength and conditioning has resulted in lesser injuries to players this season, he now occupies the same position in coaching set-up that his father once did. Bizarrely Mourinho hasn't yet won a trophy without his former assistant Rui Faria when they last lifted that UEFA Cup for United. Rui Faria is yet to sign a contract with any club since he left Al-Duhail SC while Steve Cooper at Swansea prefers 4-2-3-1 like Solskjaer and Carlos Corberan has stabilized Huddersfield Town in his first full season in the championship. Meanwhile United academy under Nick Cox have made an excellent appointment in Justin Cochrane former England U-17s coach to replace Nicky Butt as Head of Player Development.

Credit to Solskjaer for finishing second and go unbeaten away from home for the first time in Manchester United history in a Covid-19 impacted season. Without proper rest between seasons for players and no pre-season either the team got off to horrific start with 3 defeats in first six games claiming 15th position. Tottenham Hotspur coached by Jose Mourinho inflicted joint heaviest defeat 1-6 at Old Trafford that made Solskjaer to fixate Mc(Tominay)-Fred in midfield for majority of games stifling creativity and Donny van de Beek's chances. Not the 9-0 win over Southampton but beating Leeds United 6-2 on their return to top-flight was the best match of the season. Bruno Fernandes' goal against Everton in an Eric Cantona manner was easily goal of the season. Loss to Istanbul Basaksehir away was the low point of the season leading to United crashing out of Champions' League group stage and failing to win any points from their last two group games against Thomas Tuchel managed Paris St Germain and Julian Nagelsmann managed RB Leipzig, both of whom went through. At one point in the season United's local rivals City were favourites for the quadruple until Chelsea under Thomas Tuchel not United stopped their juggernaut in FA Cup semi-final and Champions' League final respectively! Lost to Arsenal at Old Trafford for the 1st time in 15 years! United's joint biggest Premier League win (9-0 vs Saints) and loss (1-6 vs Spurs) occurred in the same season! United also continued to lose at least one match to relegated teams for 4th straight season, in a 1-2 loss to Sheffield United at home! Most bizarre match was 3-2 win over Brighton & Hove Albion with the penalty coming after the final whistle scored by Bruno Fernandes who ended the season as top goal-scorer with 28 goals.


Solskjaer deserves another season for rebooting the club as per its tradition of emphasis on youth development in an non-acrimonious manner unlike Jose Mourinho. Solskjaer did not get the players he requested last summer yet did not lose his composure unlike Mourinho and consequently the team still attacks mainly from the left via Luke Shaw or through Bruno Fernandes in the middle, and if this changes due to United finally getting a right winger like Jadon Sancho or Ousmane Dembele the impact can be huge. John Murtough the first director of football at United assisted by technical director Darren Fletcher will oversee their first transfer window (that opens on 9th June) since being appointed. They will be tempted by the prospect of availability of Cristiano Ronaldo and for sure that will appeal to the commercial side of United. Another tough one will be to convince Paul Pogba to sign a new contract as his present one enters its final year. Losing Pogba and not getting Ronaldo will seem like commercial disaster for Glazers especially Richard Arnold favourite in-house executive to replace Ed Woodward.

Declan Rice must be on top of their radar as McTominay and Fred do not create enough chances from midfield and confidence in Donny van de Beek is low. Maguire-Lindelof does not seem convincing to win the league as they lack speed and the absence of Maguire to injury exposed the lack of leadership that has made United to look at experienced player like Raphael Varane. Ben White is the best English bet to recover from high defensive line. Links to right-back Kieran Trippier who will turn 30 seems odd even though he is a Manchester lad while Max Aarons seems too pricey being in the right age profile. Player sales might generate considerable sum to augment the squad as likes of Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial, Diogo Dalot, Eric Bailly, Nemanja Matic, Andreas Pereira, Phil Jones seem surplus to requirements but their high salary will remain a constraint to get a move. Juan Mata who has been a brilliant pro but will probably look to play more games in a less competitive league as his contract comes to an end this summer. James Garner on loan at Nottingham Forest and Teden Mengi on loan at Derby County were the two best prospects this season. Solskjaer handed senior debuts to Anthony Elanga, Shola Shoretire, Hannibal Mejbri and Will Fish.

Dave Sexton lost his job despite winning his last seven matches to finish eight in April 1981 but importantly he hadn't won a trophy in 4 years despite finishing second the season before and losing the FA Cup final in 1979. Solskjaer needs to be acutely aware of that! United are in their longest trophy drought in three decades (since 1985 to 1989) i.e., 4 years since beating Ajax in Stockholm.

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