Man United's summer search for a director of football will be far from easy
It's not just a new first-team manager that Manchester United will be making a decision on this summer. If Ole Gunnar Solskjaer keeps winning games and manager of the month awards as he did for January, United won't have far to look. Yet the search for their first sporting director, someone independent of any manager, is different and will be far from straightforward.
For a start, United's eventual sporting director won't be a buffer between Ed Woodward, United's executive vice chairman, and the manager, but rather someone who will work alongside any manager and Woodward. Various names and options have been looked at internally and externally, though ESPN understands that the sporting director is unlikely to be Paul Mitchell, the Mancunian who was at Tottenham and who has been linked to the job.
United made the decision to seek and appoint a sporting director while Jose Mourinho was in charge. He never warmed to the idea while at United, but his view obviously no longer counts. Initially, the club wanted to appoint a director of football who would take into account the increasing administration needs, handling club operations, but that role was not going to have any say in transfers and would be more focused on governing body regulations, registrations and general day-to-day business. The new appointment will have greater involvement in this and several other areas.
The club are calm about the search as they look at what they want from this position, one that, as Arsene Wenger pointed out last year, is without any clear job description. United will look at how these operate at different clubs, as well as what kinds of remits and roles they have. United will scan the available talent beyond the club but there already are well-respected football people at Old Trafford like Tony Whelan or John Murtagh, who've been involved coaching, recruitment and admin, while Matt Judge is the man who negotiates United's player contracts.
Just as they brought Solskjaer in as someone who fits in with the culture, they want someone who understands Manchester United's DNA. Jordi Cruyff, someone with experience of being a sporting director, was in Manchester with his former teammate Solskjaer on Thursday. The pair joined United in 1996 and became close friends. Cruyff is currently managing in China's Premier League, but he twice turned down the chance to be Barcelona's sporting director, in 2017 and 2018.
I met him recently in Barcelona and asked him what being a sporting director entails.
"A good sporting director should identify who you are as a club, the type of people you need, what the fans want and what type of football should be played. Everyone wants offensive football, but that's not always possible," he said.
Cruyff even talked through me the DNA of several clubs.
"Atletico Madrid's DNA is about character. It's [Diego] Simeone now. At Barcelona, everything is with the ball," he explained. "Size [of the players] doesn't matter; it's all about top-quality talent. Barca are obliged to play a certain way, to occupy spaces, to be neat and tidy. And when you have [Lionel] Messi, the best player in the world, you adapt a little for him.
"Barca should also give youth players a chance. Man United used to have that ... That has been quiet for a while. Sometimes you need to be lucky with the generation of players coming through; sometimes you need the person in place who gives young players a platform like [Sir Alex] Ferguson did.
"Man United was about winning and they had such a good reputation that if both Manchester clubs wanted a player five years ago, players would go to United. Now that has changed, but football clubs always go through good and bad spells and United are capable of getting back to the best. They've got the ingredients, the huge fan base and now with Ole in charge, it looks like they're trying to become the real Man United once again."
Solskjaer is now part of the decision-making process at Old Trafford, but at most clubs, the sporting director helps recruit a manager.
"Some guys are called sporting directors but they're glorified head of recruitment officers -- in other words, the CEO still does the negotiating of the player contracts," one leading agent, who deals regularly with sporting directors, told ESPN. "A true sporting director will do 90 percent of the contracts, though the biggest may need the CEO.
"The sporting director should be putting a recruitment team [structure for scouting future signings] in place. A well-run club will have a head of recruitment reporting to the sports director, something the first-team coach should do. He would also have the head of academy reporting into him."
"It wouldn't be wise for Man United to promote from within," opined the agent. "Clearly they've made a lot of mistakes over the last few years, so all they will be doing is perpetuating those mistakes. At United, a giant club, you need the right cultural fit.
"Look at Monchi, the most famous sporting director now with Roma but formerly with Sevilla. Would he fit into a situation at United with Judge and Woodward, plus the American owners? I don't think so. [Txiki] Begiristain does well at City because of the mix of him Pep [Guardiola] and Ferran [Soriano, Manchester City CEO]. Why, at Arsenal, did Raul Sanllehi recently get rid of Sven Mislintat? Perhaps because he was on a different wavelength to him and [Unai] Emery.
"For me, someone like Michael Zorc [at Borussia Dortmund] would be excellent for United. He's bought well and sold superbly. He picked a team up from a club that was in financial ruin."
That said, a sporting director isn't just about recruitment.
"While the sporting director doesn't need to be the coach's guy, a sporting director should be responsible for having a large input into who should be coach, because a coach should report to a sporting director," the agent explained.
"United should do it properly or not do it at all. You can't be half-committed. You either make a sporting director in charge of all on-field things including the contracts, which Judge could execute. But a sporting director should have good experience negotiating contracts too."
United will take their time. After all, it's a major change for a club that has always given all the power to their manager. But it's a change that, given the experience of the past seven years after Ferguson, United badly need to bring them up to date as the role of an all-encompassing manager becomes all but impossible.