Football Features

Modernising Manchester United may be just a few final ‘steps’ from re-joining Europe’s elite

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 9:00, 18 March 2021

Manchester United are second in the Premier League, in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, and they have a director of football (at last!).

The last note is of particular importance given that the club had been scrambling around in the waste lands of modern football since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013. The Scot ran the club in an old-school fashion and that worked for him because he was a genius, but few others possess that genius, least of all David Moyes and Ed Woodward.

So the club have lurched from one manager to the next without a sense of structure or planning, resulting in a mishmash of a squad that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has, with the tremendous help of Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford, pulled together into something resembling a coherent team to fire Manchester United back into semi-relevance again.

Now they have a director of football, though. John Murtough, who has been at the club for the entirety of the post-Ferguson years, has assumed the role and will work alongside Solskjaer to oversee football matters at the club.

It won’t be a traditional role in that Murtough doesn’t have power to hire and fire the manager, and Solskjaer will have final say on transfers but it will go a long way towards modernising the club and helping streamline the transfer process.

It’s taken them eight years to do it, which is absurd when you think about it. United began looking for a director of football in 2013/14 and back then RB Leipzig were in the third division of German football (with Ralf Rangnick as their director of football).

While United have sashayed about, becoming a shadow of their former selves, Leipzig have been promoted all the way through the German divisions, are currently competing for the Bundesliga title and for two years straight have progressed as far or further than Manchester United in Europe. It’s a telling example of just how modern clubs can progress when they have their house in order.

But hey, United have a director of football now, so what next? Now they’ve finally modernised (well, so they say) what are their next steps?

There is talk of a new contract for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and while that seems like an iffy idea on paper (and probably in actuality, too), it does seem somewhat inevitable. Solskjaer is a competent coach and an excellent man manager who knows how to get all his players to give 100% and head into any game believing they can win.

He isn’t a coach who demonstrates great tactical intelligence and his ability to develop players on the training pitch seems limited at best. United frequently look disorganised, waiting for one of their stars to save them with a moment of magic. But with Solskjaer’s motivational skill, they often manage to do just that. And with Murtough to help with scouting and securing transfers, that will bring bigger and better players to the club, Solskjaer is a decent choice even though United can definitely do better. Renewing his contract makes sense.

So what else?

Well, they’ve got to focus on securing Champions League football this season. As things stand, United are second, a hilarious 14 points behind Manchester City although if they win their game in hand, that will come down to 11. Either way, they’re not likely to win the title, but they’re in a good place to make sure they head back to the Champions League.

With 57 points, United are six clear of Chelsea in fourth, with 51. And while West Ham could win their game in hand to also reach 51 points, the next best team is Everton 11 points behind United on 46 points.

That’s a big gap to be closed and while you wouldn’t rule anything out in this madcap season, West Ham appear to be the only genuine threat to United’s enduring presence in the top four. So while the Red Devils definitely have to keep on performing, with the season entering its final stages they’re in a good position.

Next up? They’ve got to win something, or at least reach a final. Last season, United made the semi-finals of all three cup competitions they entered, only to crash out at the penultimate stage every time.

As things stand, they’re already out of the EFL Cup (at the semi-final stage, of course) but remain in the Europa League and FA Cup. They need to win away to Milan to progress in Europe, which could serve as a nice backdoor to Champions League entry should they botch the lead, and face Leicester at the quarter-final stage of the FA Cup. A tricky but winnable tie.

Should they progress beyond the Foxes, United will at some point have to contend with at least one of Chelsea and Manchester City (most likely, anyway) and that could be another stumbling block. However, at some point Solskjaer will need to win a trophy, despite describing the idea as “sometimes […] more of an ego thing from other managers and clubs to finally win something.” Because good vibes can only take you so far and soon enough you need to start winning, especially when you’re always invoking Ferguson-era United who hoovered up trophies on a terrifyingly regular basis.

Looking beyond this season to the final “next step” for Manchester United: they have to build on their hopeful trophy success this season, build on their hopeful qualification for next season’s Champions League, and use John Murtough’s relationship with the newly contracted Solskjaer to recruit elite talent in the summer.

United need a defensive midfielder as a matter of some urgency, with none of the pivots currently at the squad being fit to play the role by themselves (Scott McTominay and Fred are obviously a good double act but that limits selection elsewhere). If they signed someone else for the job, they could afford to play Pogba in midfield against even elite opponents and they’d find breaking down low blocks easier, too.

After a defensive midfielder they need a creative right-winger. Not a goalscoring force, you understand. United already have plenty of wing-forwards. They need a genuine winger. Someone out to create chances for their teammates so strikers aren’t always feeding off scraps and it becomes much harder to control United’s creativity by just pressing Bruno Fernandes.

Jadon Sancho, if they can agree a deal with Borussia Dortmund, is the ideal candidate. Whether or not United can afford him is up for debate. But he is everything they could ask for.

A centre-back would be very good. Someone with size and power and mobility who can complement Harry Maguire is needed. It’s not necessarily the biggest priority because Axel Tuanzebe and Teden Mengi are youngsters with immense potential, but it’s definitely an area United could improve in.

If United can take those next steps with confidence and competence than in 2021/22 they just might be able to, for the first time in almost a decade, mount a credible challenge for the Premier League and consider themselves among Europe’s very best clubs again.