There must be times when Ed Woodward wonders how his job went the way he did.
Around 7:20 p.m. BST Saturday could well have been one of them.
As Manchester United’s executive vice-president sat in Old Trafford’s managers box, watching Crystal Palace celebrate a second successive victory at Old Trafford and the best high-flying start to the season in their history, it will not have escaped him that one of the main architects of the Eagles’ 3-1 victory – double goalscorer Wilfried Zaha – was a player he sold .
Around Woodward, Manchester United’s sprawling cathedral remains closed to the public, while the stadium’s lucrative megastore is empty, its checkouts silent.
He couldn’t have imagined when he took on the role in 2013, with the England champion club, that days like this would exist.
Even before United kicked off their season against Palace, Woodward was in a sticky position.
Since the summer of 2019 he has chaired a net spend of £ 160million, which United believe to be more than any other big club in the world over the same period.
Yet he was still the target of an increasingly agitated fan base who scorned the numbers and the obvious financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic which costs United £ 5million in lost revenue every time they play a home game. He knew Liverpool had just pledged £ 65million to Thiago Alcantara and Diogo Jota. He knew Tottenham was ready to confirm Gareth Bale’s return.
Woodward really needed United to start his season with a win. Not only did they fail, but they were horrible.
From his seat in the Sky TV studio, former United skipper Patrice Evra was seething: “I’m burning inside. There is so much negativity in the transfer window and the club has done nothing. I am exhausted and this is only the first. day of the season. ”
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team selection was odd. The pairing of Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Daniel James on the right when Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Mason Greenwood started on the bench has weakened United. It turned out that Fosu-Mensah was one of United’s best performers.
All over the squad United were poor – Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford ineffective in attack, Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes shadows of what they may be in midfield, Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof thought and foiled at back.
In all fairness, as Solskjaer pointed out, even with a delayed start to the season, United only had five days to prepare.
« Roy [Hodgson] said they had four friendlies and this was their third competitive game, ”said the United boss. It’s a big difference from our friendly against Aston Villa last week. You can see we’re short.
“We need games, we need precision and time to get back to our best. We will improve, but we are catching up. “
In this, of all seasons, the time to catch up with anything is limited.
United will travel to Luton in the EFL Cup on Tuesday. If they win, they won’t have any free time midweek right before Christmas – and that depends on the cup commitments.
The problem is more fundamental. United just don’t have enough good players.
Solving the problem is the hard part.
Talk to the folks at United and they can bring in some impressive numbers for the money invested in the team – £ 900million gross during Woodward’s watch – a significant recent investment in the academy to attract youngsters of the caliber of Frenchman Hannibal Mejbri, 17, who stood out in a 6-0 win at Salford in the EFL Trophy on September 9.
United claim they have a strategy that works. They also stress that their autonomous business model requires caution in these uncertain times.
These are solid points. But what tends to come back from those who reject them or simply refuse to listen is what their current ownership model is costing United.
Respected Swiss blogger Ramble said in a recent article that over the past five years the club have paid the Glazer family £ 89million in stock dividends in addition to £ 120million interest on their debt. . What better use, these fans wonder, could United have made of the money?
Meanwhile, as Solskjaer and his team wait for the new arrivals, frustration grows.
Jadon Sancho’s move stalled, although considering the 20-year-old started Borussia Dortmund’s 3-0 victory over Borussia Monchengladbach On Saturday he could be forgiven for staying where he is even if United hit the asking price of £ 100million.
United have had talks on Brazilian Porto defender Alex Telles but, again, there is no agreement on fees and sources have suggested a deal is nowhere near as close as it has been. been reported.
Each name brings more criticism when a signature doesn’t follow. It sounds unfair, and it probably is, but it’s the landscape that all the top clubs operate in when the results don’t go their way.
For now, Solskjaer can only be brave and try to make the most of the players he already has.
“We have to look from the inside,” said the Norwegian, when asked if he needed new signings.
“We can play so much better than today. If you look at the players that we have on the pitch and on the bench and not here, we know we can perform better.
“We’re always looking to improve if there’s something available at the right price, but we can all look at ourselves in the mirror. “