Ed Woodward at Manchester United: A Review

The recently announced promotion of Richard Arnold as the new Manchester United Chief Executive Officer effectively sees him replace outgoing executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, in turn making him the first man to hold the title of CEO at the club since 2012.

Arnold’s promotion comes as part of a planned restructuring by United’s Glazer family owners, with Woodward tendering his resignation in April of 2021 following his support for the ill-fated Super League.

In the intervening months, United have appointed John Murtough as their inaugural director of football as well as Darren Fletcher to a technical director role as they look to finally modernise the club hierarchy and find consistency both on and off the pitch. Looking back over the past 8 years, it is clear that a lot of the blame for United’s struggles can be laid at the feet of the outgoing executive.   

1. Transfer dealings

The brunt of the criticism directed towards Woodward during his tenure concerned his constant failures in the transfer market; from missing out on top targets, to prioritising ‘Hollywood’ signings over shrewder acquisitions that had brought so much success in the past, Woodward’s 16 or so transfer windows failed to bring United anywhere close to having an elite squad.  

Woodward’s first transfer window at the helm in 2013/14 typified his time in charge. The summer ended with Marouane Fellaini being the only addition to the squad, a late transfer deadline day signing after United triggered his release clause.

Then manager David Moyes has recently revealed that in that same summer he had tried to get Leighton Baines in a joint deal with Fellaini as well as Toni Kroos, Cesc Fàbregas and Gareth Bale. The fallout from the summer window that the Daily Telegraph described as “disastrous” saw fans call for Woodward to be sacked, months into the job.

The Times have reported that Woodward feels he failed Moyes, and that he regrets not providing David Moyes with a stronger structure at the club.

The years that followed saw Woodward spend large sums of money with no clear plan of recruitment to try and bridge the gap to the rest of Europe’s elite after the 13/14 season. United’s 10 most expensive signings were all made under Ed Woodward, and beyond that, the club has broken numerous records during Woodward’s tenure.  

At the time of transfer:

  • January 2014 – Juan Mata £37.1 million (a club record fee at the time)
  • June 2014 – Luke Shaw £30 million (world record fee for a teenager at the time)
  • August 2014- Angel Di Maria £59.7m (club and British record fee at the time)   
  • September 2015 – Anthony Martial £36 million (world record fee for a teenager at the time)
  • August 2016 – Paul Pogba £89 million (club world record fee at the time)
  • July 2017 – Romelu Lukaku £75 million (record transfer between British clubs)
  • June 2019 – Aaron Wan-Bissaka £50 million (joint record fee for Englishman and right-back)
  • August 2019 – Harry Maguire £80 million (club and world record fee for defender and Englishman)

2. Out of touch

By all accounts, Ed Woodward’s background is not that one of a ‘footballing man’. With a banking and investment background, Woodward’s earlier years at United saw him take charge of the commercial and media operations, successfully building relationships and securing sponsorships with some of the world’s biggest companies.

Under his stewardship, United saw their commercial value grow by more than double between 2005-2012, Woodward’s first 7 years at the club. In recent years United have secured some of the biggest sponsorship deals in history with Chevrolet, Adidas, and Team Viewer. However, it is this big and bold approach to business that translated so poorly to his time as the executive officer.

Woodward always felt that the bigger the name the higher the chance of success, he was infamously quoted as saying the ageing Bastian Schweinsteiger was sure to send ‘shivers down the spine’ of opponents after signing the German in 2015, typifying how removed he was from the reality of football.

His appointments of Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho, following the sacking of Sir Alex Ferguson-backed Moyes were also examples of his naivety with the pair hired based on their names despite evidence that their methods were quickly becoming outdated.

When people see Bastian on the team sheet, that’s going to send some shivers down the spine.

… Sure.

3. The European Super League

Perhaps the perfect example of Woodward being out of touch was his backing of the European Super League in the spring of 2021, a move that would lose him the little support he had left and ultimately cost him his job.

Woodward backed plans formulated by the executives at some of the top European clubs to break away from the top 5 leagues and create an exclusive competition that would set it out from the elite. The proposal drew massive backlash from supporters, players and media alike as many saw it as an attack on the traditions and principles of football.

Woodward was on the receiving end of most of the grief as he was named as one of the key orchestrators of the proposed project, the final nail in the coffin after what many felt was years of malpractice.

4. Refusal to delegate

Possibly the most baffling part of Woodward’s tenure was his reluctance to entrust certain footballing operations to those more qualified. Whilst clubs across Europe adapted to the modern climate of football by hiring directors of football and technical directors, Woodward kept United in the dark ages by insisting on shouldering the entire burden himself.

By simply focusing on the finance and market side of things, Woodward would’ve had a much easier go of things and the football end that he was so out of tune with, would’ve been in the hands of people who understood the sport and its growing changes.

A new chapter

The new year will see the start of the Arnold tenure, and recent reports suggest he is happy to leave the footballing operations to John Murtough and future consultant Ralf Rangnick whilst he, a former banker himself, will deal with the financial side of things. Positive signs are starting to bear fruit as United look to move away from the antiquated and stubborn approach of the outgoing Ed Woodward.

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