I can recall when the first mention of recruiting a director of football was made about two years ago at Manchester United. Just for the sake of entertaining the thought, what exactly would the job responsibilities of a director of football entail?
From a technical standpoint, there’s no actual compartmentalisation in terms of a regulated definition of job responsibilities for a director of football, but for most clubs the ideal candidate would be tasked with the main responsibilities of mapping out key strategies with a long-term purview of recruitment of players and coaching staff. The main focus would be on building a squad and it also helps to have the savvy of ensuring that funds are not squandered by a trigger-happy football manager in the transfer market. That should about sum it all up in the proverbial nutshell.
When the idea of appointing a director of football, or a technical director depending on the fuss over titles and appellations, was first dribbled around at Old Trafford, it was mainly due to a helter-skelter summer under Jose Mourinho after it was clearly evident that manager and club bosses were standing on different sides of a great divide having diverse views and preferences when it came to transfer targets and the right approaches to take to seal the prospective deals.
With the situation growing increasingly awkward and frustrating, the prospect of a new addition to the structure at Old Trafford was first publicly mooted in August 2018 to iron out the wrinkles. However, despite a flurry of names being tossed up for the job – such as Edwin van der Sar, Paul Mitchell, Antero Henrique and Ralf Rangnick and even United alumni like Darren Fletcher, Patrice Evra and Rio Ferdinand – an appointment has yet to be made 20 months later till the current day.
Oddly for this period the speculation has quietly subsided, together with the demands for such an appointment to be made. Revisiting our basic definition of the key job function of a director of football being the outlining of a long-term transfer strategy, it suddenly appears United have someone already performing this function astutely and with prudence at the club.
This revelation may just remove the ground from under the feet of his detractors as the said individual is none other than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the good old manager of Manchester United himself! And how in blazes would the Norwegian, who was barely clinging on to his job only hardly a month ago, be the ideal director of football as well as United manager?
Simple. He’s certainly spent the club’s money better and wiser than any recent boss has ever done. One must grudgingly admit that even the venerable Sir Alex Ferguson did sign his fair share of flops and fumbles. Solskjaer, astonishingly on the other hand, has yet to be fingered for any dubious transfer market choices.
Solskjaer’s hit-rate from a total of five signings to date is actually laudable. His decisions clearly shows that he knows what he’s looking for and the right kind of players he can mold into the team he is rebuilding. His primary focus seems to be on targeting youth and players who fit into a carefully defined way of playing that he has strategised in his mind. Players who find it difficult to be streamlined to fit into this structure are left with no alternative but to exit, which explains the departure of Romelu Lukaku for Inter Milan last summer.
In all fairness to the man and in his defense, the permanent signings in the summer transfer window regarding Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Harry Maguire and Daniel James can all be categorised as successes, although it is anyone’s surmise how much of this planning can be attributed to United’s vice-president, Ed Woodward.
The month of January could be decisive in determining the turning point in Solskjaer’s tenure at Old Trafford although not so much due to results on the pitch but rather the progress he succeeded in making off it the last few months and the build-up to the advent of the new year.
Key developments so far have been, for one, the £47million signing of ex Sporting Lisbon dynamo, Bruno Fernandes, which has been transformative for the squad since his joining. At the time of his signing, many of Europe’s leading clubs were vary of making a go for the midfielder even though his performance in Portugal was stellar. Solskjaer bit the bullet in his usual obstinate way and proceeded nonetheless with a confident move that is now looking on hindsight as a terrific bargain, taking into consideration the 26-year-old’s impact on the pitch as both a player and a leader at Old Trafford.
There was also lots of murmuring and sniggering come the mad rush on deadline day loan move for one Odion Ighalo, a supposedly nondescript 30-year-old coming in from the Chinese Super League to fill a short-term need. Would any other manager have even bothered to take a second look at him? Well, Solskjaer surprisingly did and Ighalo’s return of four goals so far has been no less vital and he seems well primed to fit securely into the Norwegian’s squad. And all this for a permanent move to be tied down at only £15m is definitely applaudable.
To his credit Solskjaer has always never been one to speak with lack of conviction and forthrightness. In retrospect now, he actually displays a lot of common sense regarding his long-term plans for United, wisely opting to sacrifice short-term gains to build for longer term success instead. Shoudn’t this, after all, be not even arguably but precisely the kind of approach one would expect a director of football or technical director to take?
His unerring focus on lowering the average age of his squad hints at an unwavering resolve to build for the future as that is where the triuphs and victories lie. Looking at things from a higher viewpoint, Solskjaer is already beginning to sound and act like director of football in both his words and actions. Of course, this doesn’t in any way connote that he does not need help in this department as managing a club United’s size and stature with the priority of setting a solid long-term on-course strategy is much easeir said than done. If the club can indeed recruit an individual who can resonate on the same wavelength as Solskjaer, then it stands to reason to include a technical director to the existing structure.
Whatever decisions the board are apt to make in the near future, feisty Ole Gunna Solskjaer definitely looks to have United on the right track at least for now. Let’s just hope for his sake and for Old Trafford’s that he continues to stay on course.