Column: Why did Man Utd hire Solskjaer before finding a technical director?

12 April 2019

ed woodward
Photo: Getty Images Executive vice Chairman and director at Manchester United, Ed Woodward alongside former manager Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford. Woodward hired Solskjaer for the managers position, but why didn't he wait until a technical director was appointed?

Man Utd have given Solskjaer a three-year contract but are still without a technical director.

By doing so, the club may have undermined the role’s importance.

Richard Whittall contact@offthepitch.com

Shortly before Manchester United announced that their interim manager and former player Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had been made permanent with a three-year contract, Louis van Gaal gave what may turn out to be a prescient interview to the BBC.

Van Gaal, of course, himself served as Man United manager from 2014-16, and has recently announced his retirement from management. That may have helped loosen his tongue enough to speak frankly on his former club, particularly when it comes to organisational hierarchy.

“At the moment there is a structure with a scouting division and above that is someone at [executive vice-chairman] Woodward's right hand,” van Gaal told the BBC. “The structure is not so bad but the right hand has to be a technical director with a football view, not somebody with a banker's role. Unfortunately, we are talking about a commercial club, not a football club. I spoke to Ferguson about this and in his last years, he also had problems with it."

Wonkish point

To the outside observer, this comment might seem like a wonkish point, a deflection to excuse himself from what many would characterise as a relatively disappointing tenure at Old Trafford.

But the argument for the role of technical director in the modern game is not new. Another Man United alumnus, Gary Neville, discussed it in the pages of The Telegraph back in 2015 as part of his interview with the former head of football development and support and former vice-chairman of Southampton, Les Reed.

We have a whole department for the recruitment of players, but it struck me some years ago that when a manager leaves, that’s when the club reacts and starts looking for a new one.

At Southampton, Reed had overseen the successful appointments of both Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman, which involved carefully hiring the manager to fit rather than set the team strategy and philosophy, both on and off the pitch.

As Reed told Neville: “We have a whole department for the recruitment of players, but it struck me some years ago that when a manager leaves, that’s when the club reacts and starts looking for a new one. I think we should be as diligent with that, because of the turnover of managers these days.”

Conservative culture

In partnership with the chairman and owners, Reed largely set out the team’s ethos, including in player recruitment, and hired specifically to find a talent that would make a natural fit.

This may seem like common sense, and raises the question - why haven’t more clubs adopted a director of football or technical director role to help provide greater stability? Part of the answer is the conservative culture that permeates the game. A technical director role runs against the traditional way of doing things, in which the team would hire the manager to run the entire football operation.

Clubs may be hesitant to abandon the old model because, for a time, it largely worked - Sir Alex Ferguson’s success provides a good example.

Today, however, the financial stakes of on-field performance have grown with the rise of major TV rights deals and lucrative commercial agreements, and managerial tenures are increasingly limited. Entrusting the manager with overseeing all matters football-related often means clubs are forced to change their entire approach to tactics, player development and recruitment every two years or so - not a great recipe for long-term stability or success.

A less high-profile technical director role can help a club establish a longer-term vision, and hire a manager to help instill it.

Finally heeding the call

This all may ring familiar for Man United fans, who, since Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, have seen the club cycle through five managers in nearly as many seasons, each with their own philosophies on a host of football-related matters, from tactics and player development to training and recruitment, decisions with potentially major long-term ramifications on the pitch.

The problem, however, is that short-term performance is not often in of itself predictive of long-term results. Several sports statisticians have publicly offered reasons to be wary of expecting United’s form under Solskjaer to continue through next season and beyond.

Now, it appears Ed Woodward is finally heeding the call to appoint a technical director at United, with the The Times of London recently reporting on a potential shortlist. But Woodward’s decision to secure Solskjaer’s permanent appointment as manager before having a technical director in place smacks of putting the cart before the horse, a long-term decision based on relatively short-term performance and the very thing a TD is supposed to help mitigate.

While Woodward paid lip service to Solskjaer’s “understanding of the culture of the club” when he announced his three-year contract (without defining what that culture is, exactly), the principal reason was the shift in performance: “Since coming in as caretaker manager in December, the results Ole has delivered speak for themselves.”

Good deal of scepticism

ESPN’s Mark Ogden provided more detail on Man United’s rationale in hiring Solskjaer, writing that the club were interested a ‘cultural reset’ and that “results on the pitch were ultimately the reason why initial interest in Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino was never followed through upon with an approach to the London club.”

The problem, however, is that short-term performance is not often in of itself predictive of long-term results. Several sports statisticians have publicly offered reasons to be wary of expecting United’s form under Solskjaer to continue through next season and beyond, and my own informal survey of data consultancies and performance analysts reveals a good deal of scepticism on the strength of the rationale behind his full-time appointment.

This is also not a question of whether clubs should ‘use data’ to hire managers, either; many analysts I spoke to think it is still very difficult to accurately separate underlying team strength from manager influence using existing performance metrics.

Establish coherent processes

Yet they also believe that clubs will see better results in hiring managers by carefully creating and refining a set of clear requirements in hiring managers that go beyond, “Are they a name we recognise?” or “How well did they do at their last club?”

That means allowing a technical director to set an overall team philosophy and establish coherent processes to ensure that philosophy is put into place. Once this happens, teams will naturally expand their roster of potential managerial recruits as they look for more specific set of requirements.

At least one prominent consultant told me that more and more clubs, particularly a little lower down in their respective league tables, are willing to take risks on lesser-known foreign managers, in part because they have already established a clear, coherent approach to football-related matters.

Now, whoever takes the technical director role at Man United will have to work with a well-liked manager at the start of a three-year appointment, who is already apparently having a strong, decisive say in transfer decisions.

This idea is echoed by 21st Club’s Head of Football Intelligence Omar Chaudhuri. “Clubs are getting better at setting out a vision and strategy, and are therefore getting better at seeking out candidates that fit,” he says.

“It’s common, for example, for a club to ask us what type of squads and recruitment processes a head coach has been involved in before - does he like young teams? Have his squads had high turnover? Does he spend more than usual when he first comes in? While playing style and performance are key considerations, there are often many other factors that boardrooms are now thinking about.”

Slow evolution

David Slemen, founding partner of Elite Performance Partners, specialists in performance and executive recruitment in sports, also notes this shift in perspective.

“I think there is a slow evolution of clubs starting to realise that strategic planning on the performance side is something that any team can do to increase their chances of being successful,” he says.

“Adding that much of it is about asking the right performance questions to be able to assess the talent you have against your objectives, and to plan for success in the longer term, not just in reaction to what happens at the weekend.”

Of course, while this makes good sense for most teams, Man United are not just any club. As a major global brand with the third highest revenues in world football, they have the muscle to hire whomever they want in any role (who happens to be available). Yet their rivals, Manchester City, have demonstrated that even the world’s wealthiest clubs can benefit from a talented director of football - someone like Txiki Begiristain, who has been with Man City since 2012.

Now, whoever takes the technical director role at Man United will have to work with a well-liked manager at the start of a three-year appointment, who is already apparently having a strong, decisive say in transfer decisions.

They will do so at a critical time, too; both Ander Herrera and Juan Mata may potentially leave on a free transfer. 
So while it seems Woodward understands the need for the technical director role, his actions indicate he may not yet grasp its true value. What this means for United’s performance over the next five seasons or so remains to be seen.

Richard Whittall writes mostly on soccer analytics and finance. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Atlantic, and Foreign Policy magazine. He lives in Toronto.