It is the close-season of 2018 and Jose Mourinho is in a surly funk, a disposition that only darkens as transfer deadline day approaches.
All summer long he has attempted to put pressure on the Manchester United board to secure the signings he feels his team needs if they are to narrow the chasm between themselves and Pep Guardiola’s City. Twelve months earlier a League Cup, Europa League success and Community Shield was spun as a ‘treble’, with Mourinho encouraging his players to hold aloft three fingers triumphantly.
But despite finishing runner-up this time – and what Solskjaer’s United would give for that in the campaign to come – there was simply no getting around the expansive 19 points they trailed to the champions who were Centurions no less.
The players he desired, per BBC Sport, were a replacement for Anthony Martial on the left, with their relationship said to be at ‘rock bottom’, per talkSPORT. And most pertinently a new centre-back, a solid base from which one of world football’s most acclaimed defensive coaches could perhaps build a title challenge on.
In this regard it was an open secret that one of Mourinho’s primary targets was Tottenham’s Toby Alderweireld and it remains unclear why the deal was never completed. The alternatives were Bayern Munich’s Jerome Boateng and Leicester’s Harry Maguire, but no headway was made with either as the club deemed the first option to be too injury-prone and the latter too expensive at a reputed £75m.
In the event no further signings were made that summer. In the event United would endure a horrendous season that led to Mourinho being sacked at the midway-point. In the event United would return for Maguire a year on only now paying a premium on that £75m and with an incontestably inferior coach to get the best from him.
The gap between themselves and City meanwhile had broadened from 19 to 32.
But back to the summer of 2018. In a hotel lobby in Miami during his club’s pre-season tour of the US, Mourinho was over-heard airing his exasperation towards the board. “Everything is s***,” he exclaimed.
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By ‘club’ and ‘board’ who is really meant, of course, is Ed Woodward, because it is with the deeply unpopular executive vice-chairman where the buck stops.
It is the 47-year-old who holds the top operational position at Old Trafford and who answers only to the club’s deeply unpopular owners. Initially brought in by the Glazers in a ‘financial planning’ role before widening his remit to commercial considerations – an area in which he has been widely praised for overseeing tremendous growth in profits – his overseeing of the football side has ushered in an ill-advised ‘galictico’ era where extortionate amounts were splurged on marquee names – such as Angel Di Maria, Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez – at the expense of team building. During his reign United have lurched from chaos to crisis making some extremely costly mistakes along the way. During his reign everything is s***.
Earlier this summer recent United boss Louis van Gaal slammed his former superior claiming Woodward has “zero understanding of football”. “It cannot be good thing when a club is run solely from a commercially-driven perspective,” he concluded.
Several months prior David Moyes – another patsy in United’s post-Ferguson slump – attempted to be more diplomatic but was equally scathing.
“There was a new chief executive in place. David Gill had left which was a real big thing for Manchester United,” he recalled of his failed stint. “”He was someone who was very important to the club and to how things ticked along at the club.
He added: “I think you need to understand football totally to know. I think David Gill was someone who understands everything”.
The insinuation that Gill’s successor Woodward was the opposite hung in the air.
As for the Stretford End faithful they are under no illusions as to who to blame for their club’s descent. In September of last year a banner flew over Turf Moor insisting that Woodward was’ A Specialist In Failure’, while a social media campaign protesting of his residency was huge in number.
Even former players have spoken out. Gary Neville in particular has been persistently vocal of his concerns at an individual with no previous footballing experience having the final say-so on transfers and the general running of one of the biggest clubs in the world.
It is the close-season of 2019 and Solskjaer hides his disappointment and frustration because, unlike Mourinho, the Norwegian is embedded to the United cause; a company man to a fault.
Even so, all the talk ahead of the summer break was of the United boss planning an ‘overhaul’ with the intention to wield the axe and rid his squad of many faces that didn’t fit with his new ethos. Could Woodward step up to the plate and facilitate this?
Alas he could not. To this point the only notable departures have been Anders Herrera – a player who almost certainly was not in Solskjaer’s out column – and Romelu Lukaku, whose mega-money sale to Inter was said to open up the possibility of a top class replacement, namely Juventus’ Paulo Dybala.
In the event Dybala’s demands were viewed unreasonable by United and they ‘pulled the plug’. In the event Solskjaer now goes into a pivotal campaign miles behind traditional rivals, minus a striker who, for all his critics, scored 34 goals across two seasons at Old Trafford and relying instead on promising young players rather than experienced figureheads.
At least at the back he has a world-record breaking signing to join his lop-sided squad; a galactico defender it could be said.
In short it is plus la change at Manchester United with lessons clearly not learned.
Once again Ed Woodward has sold his club short.