What is on Ratcliffe and Ineos’ to-do list at Man United?


After months of negotiations, British billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe (chairman and CEO of chemical company Ineos) has finally completed a deal to acquire a 25% stake in Manchester United for around £1.25 billion ($1.6bn).

Sources told ESPN’s Rob Dawson that the deal will give Ratcliffe some influence over the football side of the business, with Sir Dave Brailsford, director of sport at Ineos, expected to be heavily involved. But United’s unpopular American owners, the Glazer family, will keep their majority shareholding after they rejected bids for a full takeover worth around £5bn from both Ratcliffe and Qatari businessman Sheikh Jassim Bin Hamad Al Thani.

Sources added that Ratcliffe is ready to invest funds to improve both the Old Trafford stadium and Carrington training ground, but what should the focus be now the paperwork has been signed?

In a 25-year career, ESPN’s Tor-Kristian Karlsen has worked at a number of clubs in a variety of countries including England, Germany, Russia, France, Israel and Norway — in roles such as chief executive, sporting director, chief scout — and is well qualified to answer that question. So here’s his to-do list for Ratcliffe and the United hierarchy.

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Make structural changes

The most obvious place to start an overhaul of a club is at the top. With the club’s CEO Richard Arnold leaving and lawyer Patrick Stewart taking control in the interim, United have already begun the search for a permanent replacement. More crucially, a sporting director is required. Though United already employ a football director (John Murtough) and technical director (Darren Fletcher), it’s debatable how much faith the club really have in these roles given the power that manager Erik ten Hag exerts in the transfer market and the scarce media presence of both Murtough and Fletcher. Indeed, the positions seem not to be given the same mandates as at other comparable clubs across Europe.

While United went to great lengths to explain the roles upon their hiring in March 2021, it doesn’t fit with the continental-style sporting director who reports directly to the CEO, the board or the owner. For the sporting director role to work, they should be positioned between the board (CEO) and the head coach with a strong enough mandate to take proper charge of footballing strategy.

One challenge in hiring the right sporting director is that there are few viable candidates with the experience of driving a project of this magnitude. Candidates with a good track record in the transfer market are typically scrutinised (and often promoted by the media), yet other skills beyond scouting and recruitment — such as leadership qualities, dealing with pressure, media skills, and personality — are arguably as crucial at a club like United. These, though, are often harder to analyse from outside, which can make for an intricate and lengthy search process.

What seems clear in United’s case, however, is that personal skills and strategic thinking are a prerequisite. With an experienced head of recruitment left to the transfer side of things (the current chief scout is Steve Brown) the sporting director could focus on running the vast sporting operation, from academy to the first team, and provide Ten Hag with much-needed support when it comes to representing the club in the media.

Focus on the future, not the past

Once the right person is found, the first remit for a sporting director is taking on a strategic review of the entire sporting and medical set-up. United lack a clear, shared vision and, when it comes to playing style, seem to rely on sporadic mentions of “The United Way” — which, apart from alluding to whatever brought success during the Sir Alex Ferguson era, has never been properly defined. It’s no wonder that it has been hard-to-see actual results on the pitch. United must create and implement a strategy that joins up the club in terms of playing style, coaching principles and method. Something that has proved to work well at immediate rivals such as Manchester City and Arsenal.

While easier said than done — and it will take years to see in full flow — an overriding philosophy led by the sporting director, which aligns the thinking from youth players to first team, is essential for a top club.

Designing a “United Way 2.0” that is resolutely focused on the future is vital for a club that seems overly nostalgic and consumed by its own past. Though United’s history and traditions are a huge part of its DNA and should be respected and celebrated, constant comparison and harking back can pile on unwanted pressure and even stifle vital dynamism and agility.

United have been almost tethered to the idea of finding an all-encompassing manager in the style of Ferguson since 2013 — David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho among the failures — while the appointments of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Murtough and Fletcher are examples of a club that doesn’t look far beyond its own ranks. The recruitment of staff who have experience outside of Manchester United is healthy and could certainly help to stimulate fresh thinking and ideas.



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Keep faith with Ten Hag and give players a clean slate

Calls to sack coach Ten Hag have come amid some inconsistent form this season, but Ineos should resist any temptation to do so yet. Although the Dutchman might not be in a good place currently, the arrival of a new sporting director (and CEO) should relieve him of a plethora of unnecessary and irrelevant duties such as answering for transfer policy, general club strategy or negative stories around issues with players (i.e. Jadon Sancho.)

Let others deal with the transfer market and problematic players, Ineos need to give Ten Hag support with media-related issues and leave him to dedicate his focus where he’s best: on the training pitch.

In theory there’s still no reason why Ten Hag couldn’t turn out to be a successful coach at United and play a vital role in the new setup. In fact, his Ajax side were not far from what most top European clubs aspire to and, given the right support from upstairs and a reenergised organisation, he stands a better chance of rediscovering his principles and reproducing the results from earlier in his career. Besides, replacing a head coach in the middle of a season makes little sense. The top candidates are unlikely to be available, and any new arrival would struggle to make the desired impact amid significant organisational change.

Ineos taking charge of sporting decisions is likely to cause some transitory turmoil, so keep any major changes on hold until the results of the strategic review are revealed — most likely at the end of the season. With that in mind, Ineos should also insist that players are given a clean slate. Without undermining Ten Hag, an effort to heal any lingering conflicts should be left to the sporting director and CEO.

As much as the ongoing dispute with winger Jadon Sancho might be irreparable, it’s nonetheless puzzling to see a first-team player who cost them €85 million from Borussia Dortmund in 2021 being ostracised. Decisions of such nature tend to be handled by senior club executives rather than the head coach, which in turn might prevent a total breakdown in the relationship between the player and the boss. While a suspension might be the right outcome in the end, this way of handling things leaves room for reconciliation if it is taken away from the person who picks the team.



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Revamp the transfer strategy

First, United need to stop overpaying for players in the transfer market. If their prime transfer targets prove too expensive, they should move on to the next option or trust the academy as they have with midfielder Kobbie Mainoo. United are as capable of maintaining a comprehensive, up-to-date short list as any other big club — so why not turn to the next name down rather being drawn into months of negotiations where they never have the upper hand? The signings of Sancho (€85m from Dortmund) and Antony (€95m from Ajax) are telling examples of this failed approach. Sticking to their own limit of a player’s transfer value will send out a clear signal that United will not be taken for a ride again.

Part of this would include removing the head coach from leading the recruitment process. With several recent arrivals having an Ajax past (Christian Eriksen), a connection with the Netherlands (Tyrell Malacia) or having worked with Ten Hag previously (Antony, Sofyan Amrabat, Lisandro Martínez, André Onana), it’s fair to assume that he has had a strong influence in the signing of new players.

While the head coach should always have a say when it comes to transfer moves, a competent sporting director and top scouting team have the deep knowledge and expertise to lead the search, which benefits everyone.

As a result, better planning means that “emergency signings” such as Amrabat, Sergio Reguilón, Wout Weghorst and Odion Ighalo (to name some from recent history) would no longer happen. That type of stop-gap solution just devalues what it means to represent Manchester United. Sure, a pragmatic short-term signing might occasionally be needed, but as a principle United should turn to the academy and not to the transfer market when the media or fans scream out for new arrivals.

Furthermore, United’s policy of going for “trophy signings” such as Cristiano Ronaldo (in his return) or Real Madrid pair Raphaël Varane and Casemiro might have pleased the supporters in the short term, but if it doesn’t bring significant success then it makes the club appear reactive. Instead of bringing in recognised big-name players late in the transfer window, United’s plan should be to emulate Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool (as well as Chelsea, without going to extremes) by identifying up-and-coming talent with a view to closing deals early.

Finally, a bit of patience with regard to contract extensions would be good; United should not be afraid to lose a star player on a free transfer. Manchester City let club captain Ilkay Gündogan leave on a free last summer, while Liverpool refrained from offering new deals to Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino once they hit the age of 30. United could do well to adopt the same strategy. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but their main rivals seem to operate with less sentimentality when it comes to renewals (Phil Jones’ four-year extension in 2019 being the most baffling given his injury history.)



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Stick to the plan and be patient

With the changes that come with a new sporting direction — whether that’s adopting a more expansive playing style, changing the structure within the club, or turnover in personnel — consistent results are unlikely to come immediately. And yes, that means another dreaded period of transition may be what’s needed.

Jürgen Klopp’s first year at Liverpool was a struggle that ended in eighth place, and even Pep Guardiola faced criticism over his “overambitious” playing style during his first season at Man City as his defenders and goalkeeper struggled to cope with the extra ball-playing responsibility. But Guardiola stuck to what he knew and remained confident that his beliefs would bear fruit as the pressure mounted — which they obviously did when he was able to recruit the right players.

Ten Hag could yet find success with the newfound energy that comes with Ineos’ backing and a new sporting director. However, if it doesn’t work out and there are few signs of improvement, the new regime will have ample time until the summer to review other candidates.

While any club strategy needs some level of adjustment as it’s put into practice, changing the script as a result of outside pressure is not going to get you anywhere. United have to learn that and ensure that we’re not having the same conversation about them in another five years.

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