Manchester United finally have a director of football. John Murtough was internally promoted this week, from his previous position as ‘head of football development’.
Murtough will be helped by Darren Fletcher, who is the club’s new technical director.
The timing of the appointment is ideal. There is time to plan for the transfer window, identify targets, back-up plans, and other areas of improvement.
Murtough and Fletcher may sound like a pair from a Scottish detective show, but they have a serious task ahead of them as Manchester United seek to get back to becoming the top football club in Europe.
They have plenty to be getting on with to try and improve United from top to bottom. Here is a look at 10 things in Murtough’s in-tray as he takes on his new job…
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s contract
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s contract at United expires in June 2022. It’s likely a decision will be made regarding his future this coming summer.
It would be a big surprise if Solskjaer was not handed an extension. The style of Murtough’s appointment suggests United are really happy with the team of individuals working to try and improve the club, with Solskjaer a key part.
Part of Murtough’s role is to liaise with Solskjaer regarding transfer targets and it makes sense for them to want to enjoy a long and fruitful working relationship.
So the real questions are, when will Solskjaer get his extension, and how long will it be for. United need to have some clarity and long term vision. Solskjaer has taken the club forward since he took over, and deserves an opportunity to continue his vision.
Getting Solskjaer tied down to a long-term deal will help the club with recruitment of players, indicating there is not expected to be disruption and uncertainty with a hire-and-fire type approach leading to regular squad overhauls.
Even if the final sign-off on Solskjaer’s contract lies with Woodward, feedback and input from Murtough will shape the decision.
In the event United’s season ended terribly, with a run of losses and falling out of the top four, Murtough’s brief may suddenly change, to considering potential successors to Solskjaer – but the consistency of the team makes this doubtful.
Paul Pogba’s situation
Murtough needs to keep on top of what to do regarding Paul Pogba, and there are three options. One is to convince him to extend his deal.
This would be considered as a major ‘win’ for Murtough, if Pogba renews his contract and stays. This might be dependent on United’s other business, and if Pogba is impressed with the club’s ambition.
If Pogba wants to leave, then United are expected to sell, in order to get some money back with just one year remaining on his contract.
From here, Murtough’s job would really get interesting. He will be tasked with signing a new first team midfielder. This may be a box-to-box player like Pogba, or using the money on a more specialised defensive midfielder.
Whoever he signs, Murtough needs them to be an instant success, to get his own recruitment off to a strong start.
The third option is for Murtough to convince Ed Woodward to gamble and keep Pogba even if he does not sign a new contract, just so United get one more year out of him.
Edinson Cavani’s contract
It’s quite unclear whether Edinson Cavani will sign a new deal. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said United ‘hope to convince‘ the striker to sign a one year extension to his current contract.
Cavani is United’s best centre-forward, but injuries have taken their toll. In the last two seasons for United and PSG, the Uruguayan has started a total of just 16 league games.
So if he struggles to stay fit between now and May, this will factor into United’s planning.
Even if Cavani does stay, United need a long-term plan up front. Cavani is 34, and he can’t be relied upon.
Can United find a way to afford Erling Haaland? Murtough has a clean slate with agent Mino Raiola, who will also be at the forefront of the Pogba decision.
Even though Matt Judge will still handle negotiations, Murtough will get the opportunity to pitch his vision for the club’s future success.
If Haaland is impossible, then Murtough needs to have a clear ‘plan B’ and ‘plan C’. United cannot afford a repeat of the 2020 January transfer window when after missing out on Haaland, the club ended up with a ‘plan Z’ last ditch approach to sign Odion Ighalo on loan.
The goalkeeper situation
Dean Henderson is showing he has the ability and temperament to replace David de Gea.
It feels like a change may be coming this summer, and Murtough has to work with Solskjaer to help make this a smooth decision, while showing respect to De Gea.
PSG have shown interest in De Gea, The Sun report, while a return to Spain should appeal after the recent birth of his child in his homeland.
Murtough could free up major wage space by successfully moving De Gea and his £375,000 per week salary off the books. United would also get a fee to add to the spending pot.
Eric Bailly and Manchester United’s defence
Defence is believed to be a top priority for Manchester United this summer.
Before looking at new recruits, United have to make a decision on Eric Bailly’s contract, which expires in 2022.
It’s tricky, because United have fairly recently made errors by handing long-term extensions to Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones, two injury prone players. Rojo is finally off the books, after spending the last 12 months under contract without playing a single game, while Jones also has not kicked a ball since January 2020.
So United need to be really smart with Bailly, and Murtough’s data science background will help United study the Ivorian carefully and make a risk-assessed decision.
Bailly has more quality than both Rojo and Jones, so it would be a big shame if his deal was not extended. Perhaps the trick is to not commit for too long, at too high a cost salary-wise.
United’s decision will also impact spending in defence this summer. If Bailly’s deal is not extended, then Murtough’s task of signing a defender becomes a really huge priority, which may see a big name like Raphael Varane targeted.
If Bailly’s contract is extended, then United may choose to try and sign an up and coming defender in the £20m-30m price range.
Murtough should want to make a splash and get his tenure off to a successful start in the transfer market. Signing Jadon Sancho would make him an instant hero among fans, likewise Erling Haaland.
But only one of these will be possible, and Murtough will have to choose smartly as to which one he targets, and there are positives for both.
If neither are achievable, then Murtough will have to find a player or two who excite fans in the same way. One of the problems last summer was that none of the signings substantially improved United’s starting XI.
This needs to change this summer, United cannot afford to stand still, and need to push harder to put a team together who can win the title.
Priorities at present are unclear, and United can’t ‘go big’ on all of them considering the impact of the pandemic on spending.
So Murtough needs to prioritise one of striker, central defence, winger, or defensive midfield, where the club invest the most money. And because of this tough choice – he absolutely has to nail it and get it right.
Sell fringe players
United can supplement spending funds by clearing out a number of fringe players. Selling is important to buying. One of the problems last summer was that United barely raised anything in player sales.
Andreas Pereira and Jesse Lingard were both loaned out this season with a view to later being sold. United should look to cash in on both of them.
Diogo Dalot is another who could be sold to raise funds. There’s a possibility this fate could befall Tahith Chong too. Joel Pereira and Sergio Romero will also be released, bringing down United’s wage bill.
The real success would be finding a buyer for injury prone Phil Jones. If Murtough can manage this, he will instantly be labelled as a genius.
There is also a possibility Brandon Williams and Axel Tuanzebe are sold or loaned, after barely playing this season.
Identify and promote top academy talent
Murtough is very familiar with United’s academy and this will help the cream of the crop get their chances to shine at first team level.
First team players could also be impacted. If United are happy with Ethan Laird’s progress, then a new right-back won’t need to be signed.
If Hannibal Mejbri and Shola Shoretire are deemed to be ready to step up, then it is very unlikely Juan Mata’s contract will be renewed this summer.
United will be also be looking carefully at James Garner’s progress at Nottingham Forest on loan, and where he fits in.
Garner could get first team chances in midfield, or be sent out on loan to a Premier League club.
Anthony Elanga and Joe Hugill are two players who have really stood out for the under-23s this season, and they could be the next two who make the step up to the first team. Ethan Galbraith has a chance too.
Next set of loanees
United’s loans have been a mixed bag this season, as they often are, and the club did well in January to re-assign Tahith Chong and James Garner to new clubs.
As mentioned above, Garner could be sent on another loan, likewise Ethan Laird. Brandon Williams would probably benefit too.
Outside of that, Ethan Galbraith will probably end up on loan, and Teden Mengi and Dylan Levitt will likely get more opportunities. Goalkeeper Nathan Bishop needs games too.
Facundo Pellistri might benefit from an extra year out on loan before attempting to crack United’s first team.
Murtough has a responsibility to oversee that good decisions are made to maximise the potential of United’s young talents.
United’s under-23s is largely made up of under-18s, so not too many of them have outgrown the side just yet. When they do, the club need to keep pushing them.
Martin Svidersky and Alvaro Fernandez are two more young players with an outside chance of stepping up and going out on loan next season.
Strategic partnership with European club
United’s academy recruitment has been excellent over the last couple of years, with Murtough claimed by The MEN to have played a key role in signing Hannibal Mejbri.
Brexit is a complication which doesn’t help, with United unable to sign non-EU players who are under 18.
One way around this is to form a strategic link-up with European clubs. This is already being considered as a possibility.
The Athletic report both Tromso and Club Brugge are clubs which United might look to link up with on a more formal basis.
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