Ed Woodward under pressure at Manchester United after ‘All-In’ approach backfires

There is no sugar-coating it: Manchester United are a club in deep crisis. In a season that has seen the other members of the Premier League’s ‘Big Six’ enjoy varying degrees of success, United have been left behind.

The writing was on the wall in pre-season when Jose Mourinho consistently complained about a lack of support in the transfer market, and insisted United would be “in trouble” come the start of the season. Mourinho didn’t get much right prior to his sacking in December, but he was on the money there.

While some agreed with Mourinho that he needed another substantial transfer kitty to close the gap on Manchester City, others pointed to the £360m already spent since he took charge in 2016.

Mourinho had borne the brunt for much of United’s demise this season. Outdated, defensive tactics and a failure to motivate players were at the core of the team’s struggles, which were highlighted further when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over and guided United on a club-record run.

Current failure a symptom, not the cause

Only, that record-run gave way for another, unwanted record as United then embarked on their worst spell in 57 years. The focus of criticism has now switched to the players – accused of downing tools for both Solskjaer and Mourinho.

Yet, the current failure is a symptom, not the cause, of a more gradual decline at United; a decline that goes back to the start of the post-Alex Ferguson era and has been overseen by one man: executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward.

In the six years since Ferguson’s retirement, Woodward has made a series of disastrous decisions that have not only set United back, but have been a complete departure from the foundations put in place under Ferguson that transformed the club into one of the richest and most successful in the world.

To be slightly fair to Woodward, his first major decision of post-Ferguson was an attempt, of sorts, at continuity by appointing David Moyes, partly on the recommendation of United’s greatest ever manager.

What made less sense was offering the former Everton coach a six-year contract, particularly when his reign was cut short after eight underwhelming months. While Moyes is partly to blame for his disappointing spell, he was certainly hindered by Woodward’s incompetence in the transfer market. Moyes identified the right targets – he wanted a creative midfielder and at the top of the list were Barcelona pair Cesc Fabregas and Thiago Alcantara. He ended up with Marouane Fellaini.

Woodward entered panic mode

After the first post-Ferguson summer proved disappointing and as United started to slip behind their Premier League rivals, Woodward went into panic mode – and armed with one of the biggest budgets in world football, decided to keep throwing money at the problem.

This is what’s known in gambling parlance as the “All-In” strategy – an expression used to describe an approach where patience gives way for volatility and high-risk; when preference is given to the chances of winning big and maximizing returns as quickly as possible.

Woodward has adopted a very similar approach to player recruitment and it is a risky gamble that has not paid off. Nine of Manchester United’s 10 most expensive signings have been sanctioned by Woodward.

While that is not entirely surprising given the rapid inflation of transfer fees and huge increase in Premier League money, what is shocking is none of them can be regarded as unqualified successes.

Even worse? Eight of those players – Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku, Fred, Nemanja Matic, Juan Mata, Anthony Martial, Victor Lindelof, and Eric Bailly – were signed in the Mourinho era and were part of this season’s squad that has undoubtedly regressed.

Granted, a League Cup, Europa League and a Premier League runner-up finish were secured under Mourinho, but the foundations were shaky, particularly given Mourinho’s notorious ability to implode in his third year.

What beggars belief is that Woodward has not learned from the catastrophic mistakes when Louis van Gaal was in the dugout, epitomised in his first season by a club-record move for Angel Di Maria and the ludicrously expensive loan signing of Radamel Falcao.

Reckless and rudderless

The Dutchman’s second year saw United squander £86.4m on players no longer at the club with the exception of surplus-to-requirements full back Matteo Darmian, while the £54m outlay on Martial is yet to prove money well spent.

All of which serves to highlight Woodward’s misguided ‘All-In’ approach: spend big money hoping to land the jackpot quickly, thus attempting to immediately restore United to past powers, when in fact the club are further behind than ever.

That is precisely the reckless and rudderless strategy Woodward has taken, and it has not been restricted to players but managerial recruitments, too. A baffling six-year deal for Moyes was followed by two years of treading water under Van Gaal and then a tumultuous spell with Mourinho.

Perhaps Woodward’s most incompetent managerial decision was his most recent: opting to give Solskjaer a permanent contract during his interim tenure when now the Norwegian looks ill-equipped for the role. It was an appointment based on emotion instead of sound business logic and it looks to have backfired.

While Woodward may have huge resources to continue spinning the wheel, it has done little to move United forward and there may well come a time when his poor decisions will cost him his job.