For Manchester United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, Sunday’s humiliating 4-0 defeat against Everton at Goodison Park had at least one positive. If every cloud really does have a silver lining, this one offered validation of United’s determination to rip it up and start again under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and follow the example set by, of all clubs, their biggest rivals, Liverpool.
You will hear plenty of talk this week about the United-Liverpool rivalry and how the men from Old Trafford have the ability to pave the way for Anfield to host its first title party since 1990 by denying Manchester City a crucial victory in Wednesday’s 178th Manchester derby.
But off the pitch, and in the United boardroom, there is admiration for the manner in which Liverpool have rebuilt to become a major force under Jurgen Klopp.
Sources have told ESPN FC that the patience displayed by the Anfield hierarchy during Klopp’s early months in charge and the successful recruitment structure put in place by Fenway Sports Group, Liverpool’s American owners, have been identified by Woodward and United’s Florida-based owners, the Glazer family, as the model to emulate in order to restore United to the summit of the game.
There is an acceptance that Solskjaer — appointed as permanent manager last month after replacing the sacked Jose Mourinho on a temporary basis in December — needs time to turn United around. And, as unpalatable as it may be at Old Trafford, there is also a realisation that the 46-year-old is likely to need at least the three years of his contract to make the team competitive again.
While Klopp has made Liverpool title challengers and put the team on course to reach a second successive Champions League final this season, the former Borussia Dortmund coach missed out on European qualification completely in his first season of 2015-16 and has still to win a trophy at Anfield.
But in tandem with the club’s transfer committee, led by sporting director Michael Edwards, Klopp has overseen the transformation of Liverpool. Woodward and the Glazers believe the Anfield blueprint — patience and smart recruitment — can also work for United.
However, after throwing money at their problems by lavishing £89.3m on Paul Pogba, a potential £90m on Romelu Lukaku and breaking the wage structure to hand Alexis Sanchez a reported £400,000-a-week in the swap deal for Henrikh Mkhitaryan with Arsenal in January 2018, it has not gone unnoticed at United that Liverpool’s front three of Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino collectively cost less than £100m.
And the likes of Andy Robertson, Georginio Wijnaldum and Xherdan Shaqiri have all contributed positively at Anfield having been signed for relatively small fees from clubs relegated from the Premier League.
But despite the success enjoyed by Liverpool, there can be no quick fix for United. Solskjaer has been tasked with the football equivalent of performing an 180 degree turn in an oil tanker in rough seas — a challenge Woodward and the Glazers expect to be made easier by the appointment of a technical director before the start of next season.
While the technical director will ultimately report to Woodward, the yet-to-be-appointed figure will be tasked with working alongside Solskjaer and the club’s senior scouts to ensure that United are able to identify emerging talent as well as competing at the top end of the market.
United once wrote the scripts, but now they are nothing more than bit-part actors and, after five years of bad appointments, expensive transfer mistakes and questionable strategic planning, a realisation has dawned that the next five years have to be different.
To that end, Sunday’s woeful performance against Everton has only served to strengthen Solskjaer’s hand as manager.
The Norwegian has lost four of the six games since landing the job on a permanent basis, but sources have told ESPN FC that the club’s hierarchy were expecting a downturn in results and performances after the 11-game unbeaten run at the outset of Solskjaer’s role as interim boss.
Concerns over the fitness of the squad under Mourinho prompted Solskjaer and his coaches to intensify training in December and January. There was an initial, and prolonged, uplift in performances and results, but sources said that the extra work on the training ground is now catching up with several players. Indeed some within Old Trafford have been alarmed by the sharp decline in output displayed by a number of them in recent weeks.
The slump in form has left United now battling to salvage their season with a top four finish, as four wins from their final four games are not guaranteed to be enough to secure Champions League qualification unless other results go their way.
Another campaign in the Europa League will hit United’s finances and potentially affect their ability to recruit leading targets, but as Liverpool have shown, being away from the top table can be used as an opportunity to rebuild strategically out of the glare of the spotlight.
The roadmap is laid out for United and Solskjaer. Only time will tell whether they follow it or continue to veer off course.