Manchester United: Six candidates to take over as sporting director at Old Trafford

Struggling Premier League giants are likely to look for new leadership to fix their recruitment problems after Ineos' investment in the club

Manchester United's Rasmus Hojlund celebrates scoring their side's third goal against Aston Villa. PA
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Change is coming at Manchester United. Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s deal to buy a 25 per cent stake in the club and take control of the football side of the business will inevitably see shifts in personnel.

A new sporting director is probable, someone who knows football across Europe and has extensive contacts. That may or may not mean the end for current football director John Murtough, a rated administrator who is amenable to working with the new group.

United’s recruitment has been heavily criticised in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era. Unlike at other clubs, the manager is still given near absolute power with recruitment. So David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and now Erik ten Hag have all brought in the players they want, but that invariably creates problems when the manager subsequently leaves. Yet, at United, that is not the only problem.

“There are so many layers involved in the decision-making at Manchester United, with so many approvals needed, that by the time they get the approval, the price has shifted significantly – they are the victim of their own process,” one high-level football agent told The National.

At the most successful clubs, the manager typically has an experienced sporting director working alongside them – like Txiki Begiristain at Manchester City with Pep Guardiola, or Erik ten Hag had with Marc Overmars at Ajax. Here are some potential candidates United might consider for the role.

Jordi Cruyff

The 49-year-old was the technical/sports director at Barcelona until earlier this year. He was close to the coach Xavi Hernandez and Mateu Alemany, who carried out negotiations.

“In England, you might describe us as the football CEO, the sports director and the manager,” Cruyff said. “This structure is normal in Spain but only a few clubs like Man City have it in England. It’s been the past and the present in Spain. And it’s the future.

“I’ve also been a coach so I can see this from different perspectives, but English clubs, for example, give the keys to the coach, who is the strongest person at the club – until he loses three games.”

Talking of how it worked at Barcelona, Cruyff explained: “Our system, our triangle here, gives us financial responsibility for the football area. It gives us balance, which is important for the club with different voices talking about the pros and cons of certain signings for example.

“The coach is responsible for the line-up, the training, and the dressing room is his place. He’s the leader but there’s also a club philosophy which needs to be followed. We support the coach, we don’t go against him. It’s a modern way of thinking by dividing the power a little bit.

“With balance and stability, we don’t lurch from left to right if there’s a change of coach. It also helps the coach, as he can focus on his job leading the team and takes some pressure off him. There are already too many games and too much work for a coach alone.”

Cruyff has played and coached around the world, he speaks four languages and Barcelona won the league when he was there, despite financial chaos enveloping the club. He personally pushed for new players like Andreas Christensen and Raphinha, while maintaining some balance in the squad when it was necessary to move players off the wage bill. He was under extreme pressure to win a major trophy while he worked there. Barcelona did.

Tiago Pinto

Pinto, 39, is currently the sports director at Roma, where he’s been tied up by Financial Fair Play restrictions, but he previously thrived at Benfica where the team won the league with nine players from their academy – something he pushed.

Ruben Dias and Joao Felix both shot to prominence and were sold for huge fees, but it was the structure he built around the players which told. Alex Grimaldo was so-so at Benfica, but a structure and support was created around him and he became a key player. Grimaldo is now thriving at Bayer Leverkusen, who are top of the Bundesliga. Pinto also signed Darwin Nunez, now at Liverpool after a huge transfer, from Almeria.

At Roma, youngsters Edoardo Bove and Nicola Zalewski have come into the first team who won their first-ever European title and reached the Europa League final in 2023, losing on penalties. Hamstrung by finances, Pinto brought in players on creative deals – including Paolo Dybala, Romelu Lukaku and Leandro Paredes – though results have underwhelmed this season considering the calibre of the recruits.

He also managed a working relationship with Jose Mourinho for three years. His contract is up soon and he’s keen to work in England. Pinto speaks Portuguese, Spanish, English and Italian.

Erik ten Hag: 'Ineos want to work with me and I want to work with them'

Erik ten Hag: 'Ineos want to work with me and I want to work with them'

Nemanja Vidic

A legendary figure among United fans and not one who readily courts publicity, the 42-year-old Serbian completed his Pro Licence with the English Football Association before embarking on and completing an executive masters course with Uefa for international players in collaboration with the University of Limoges in France.

Well-connected and respected, Richard Arnold sought Vidic’s advice frequently when he was United’s chief executive. When Luis Enrique was being considered to be United manager, a job he wouldn’t have taken in a World Cup year as Spain manager, Vidic called Ivan Rakitic to get a detailed breakdown on Enrique – and, because of who he is, the call was taken.

Based in Belgrade, where he was going to run to be president of the Serbian FA in 2023, Vidic also has a home in Manchester, the city where his children were all born. Speaks Serbian, English and Italian.

Markus Krosche

The man who replaced Ralf Rangnick at RB Leipzig in 2019, the former second-tier German footballer moved to Eintracht Frankfurt in 2021. Frankfurt have again become a force in German and European football, winning the Europa League in 2022, and rising to the 22nd in UEFA’s rankings – between Tottenham and Arsenal.

The 43-year-old brought in Dino Toppmoller, a promising young coach from Bayern Munich’s reserves, and they've barely missed star striker Randal Kolo Muani who was sold to Paris Saint-Germain last summer.

“He’s smart and ready to buy ‘unknown’ players if he’s convinced,” a leading agent told The National. “He’s been a player, an assistant coach too, which isn’t normal. He’s sympathetic but at the same time very self-confident.”

Michael Edwards

Edwards, 44, keeps a low profile but is best known for his work at Liverpool. The former analyst for Portsmouth and Tottenham arrived at Anfield in 2011 and worked in various data-heavy football roles, rising to sporting director by 2016.

Before that, there had been tension with boss Brendan Rogers, who felt the head coach should double as the sporting director. Edwards was criticised for his role in signing Iago Aspas, Lazar Markovic and Christian Benteke.

Things were much better with Jurgen Klopp, who Edwards identified to be manager. The German was used to working with a sporting director at Borussia Dortmund and the pair helped engineer the signings of players such as Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Andy Robertson, Georginio Wijnaldum, Fabinho, Alisson and Virgil van Dijk, as Liverpool won their first league title in 30 years. Edwards left Liverpool in 2022.

Dan Ashworth

Ashworth, 52, is Newcastle United’s sporting director. The Englishman was considered for a role at United in 2018. Highly rated for his work with the England national side, he already has admirers on the football side at Old Trafford. Before England, he worked at West Brom. After England, Ashworth worked at Brighton & Hove Albion before his move to St James's Park in 2022.

Updated: December 30, 2023, 3:14 PM