Manchester United’s technical director Darren Fletcher has clarified his role amid some confusion among fans about what the man who interviewed Ralf Rangnick for the interim manager’s job actually does alongside the German.
Fletcher was appointed to his current role last year but, after the sacking of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the 38-year-old has been present in the dugout during matches and out on the training pitch with Rangnick and his coaching staff.
Rangnick himself has admitted that he is unsure about what Fletcher's overall actual role is at the club but made a point of saying his input in training sessions and at games has been helpful. “In those areas, it is good to have him on board,” Rangnick said.
Speaking at a Fans' Forum held at Old Trafford on Friday, Fletcher said: “With Ralf and his staff coming in, and Michael [Carrick] and Kieran [McKenna] choosing to move on, we had a quick transition process, so part of my role has been to assist with that, both on the training pitch and during games.
“I guess that’s been the most visible part for me this season, but that’s really an addition to my overall technical director role. Probably the key part of the role is taking a holistic view of the path for players from our academy to our first team. That pipeline of academy talent is a massive part of who we are [and the player who has] prospered most under Ralf Rangnick is Anthony Elanga.
“Anthony has done brilliantly since he broke into the first team, and Hannibal Mejbri has also been more involved in the squad,” said Fletcher, who also acknowledged the support from United fans in Madrid last week when Elanga’s song was sung non-stop after he equalised.
Fletcher also insisted that United’s youth system is in good shape. “Our Under-19s recently finished top of their group in the Uefa Youth League, and our Under-18s have reached the semi-finals of the FA Youth Cup," said the Scot.
"I’m working closely with Nick Cox, as head of academy, to look at the long-term strategy for bringing players through. We have to manage the balance between allowing them to develop and creating the right steps for that, without piling the pressure on to them.
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"Along with Nick, I’m looking at how we best use the loan system to give academy players invaluable experience at other clubs. We currently have 13 young players and academy products on loan and playing regularly in other divisions or leagues.
“Hopefully we’ll see players like Brandon Williams, Teden Mengi, Jimmy Garner, Ethan Laird, Tahith Chong and Amad Diallo reap the benefits of that. All of them are doing really well on loan and we’re excited to bring them back in pre-season to see how they fare with our first-team players.
“It’s been a brilliant experience since I took on the role, and the combination of long-term planning and contributing to our strategic goals, with the opportunity to still be close to the team and management, makes it a unique role.”
United are fourth in the Premier League and have drawn five and won two of their last seven matches. Arsenal, in sixth, are only two points behind with three games in hand.
United have rightly been criticised for failing to score from set pieces this season, with set-piece coach Eric Ramsay blamed for a lack of impact. Fletcher defended his colleague.
“People only give the one narrative about scoring from set pieces,” he said. “The biggest reason Eric was brought in was because we were conceding too many goals from set pieces. We have really improved our defending from set pieces and wide free kicks this season. Eric is a fantastic coach.”
John Murtough, United’s football director, was another who interviewed Rangnick for the job and he said of recent months: “In the Uefa Champions League we won two and drew two of our group stage games in the three-month period, finishing top of our group.
"We were subsequently drawn against Atletico Madrid in the Round of 16, the first leg of which took place last Wednesday when we drew 1-1 in Spain to set up an exciting second leg at Old Trafford to be held on March 15th.
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“In the Premier League, we saw improved results under interim manager Ralf Rangnick, following a run in the October and early November period that had seen the departure of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as manager. We know that consistency is key as we strive for a top-four finish this season. I want to reiterate, however, that this is not the ultimate objective for Manchester United, and everyone at the club is focused on challenging for the top trophies.”
Murtough also maintained that United intend to appoint a permanent manager for next season. “We are now conducting a thorough process … [to recruit] who will take charge this summer, with the objective to get us back to challenging for those domestic and European titles,” said Murtough, who is also heavily involved in United’s women’s team.
“[They] are enjoying a strong campaign in the Women’s Super League under their manager Marc Skinner, consolidating our position among the leading forces in the women’s game after less than three seasons in the top division,” he said.
“We look forward to a historic moment in March as the team makes their Old Trafford debut in front of fans against Everton on March 27th. We are in the process of recruiting for a head of women’s football, emphasising our commitment to our women’s team operations and the women’s game as a whole.
“Our men’s academy also remains a key focus for us, and we were pleased to see the Under 18s reach the semi-finals of the FA Youth Cup last week, reflecting the strength of talent we continue to see coming through our youth system."
A further appointment was a Director of Data Science “to bring together and drive forward the club’s use of data to help players and staff deliver success on the pitch”.
As you would expect, Murtough’s message was upbeat and focused. “Overall, while there is potential for further improvement and progress, we do feel that we now have the right structures in place across our Men’s, Women’s and Academy teams to support long-term success and we will continue working relentlessly and investing to achieve that.”
The club’s view is an optimistic one which does not tally with how most United fans are feeling after a disappointing season and, while results have improved under Rangnick, the fixture list has been a forgiving one for him so far. That will soon change.
United’s next games are difficult ones: Manchester City away in Sunday’s derby, Spurs at home, Atletico Madrid in the Champions League, also at Old Trafford, and Liverpool away.