Under Ed Woodward’s leadership, Manchester United became overly generous employers. The executive vice-chairman had more than one eye on the bottom line but his desire to protect the value of players ended up in some baffling contract renewals.
Some of them were so unexpected that even the players were surprised to be told they were getting fresh terms. It’s partly why Ralf Rangnick is now complaining about the bloated squad he has to work with.
United have 29 first-team players and when most of them are training at Carrington it would even provide subs for an 11-v-11 game. The current risk of a Covid outbreak might make an enlarged squad more desirable, but no modern manager wants to work with a squad of nearly 30.
Not only does it make getting messages across more complicated, but it can lead to a situation where several players are unhappy, which is where United find themselves now. It doesn’t take many unsettled players to bring the energy and spirit of a group dwindling downwards.
One of the most obvious examples of an egregious contract renewal was to Phil Jones in February 2019, at a time when he was no longer a regular and his form was dwindling. The 29-year-old shone on his long-awaited return from injury against Wolves on Monday but it was exceptional circumstances that led to him playing. In reality, Jones needs to move to try and resuscitate a career decimated by injuries, but the decision to give him a four-year deal in 2019 has kept him locked into the club.
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Rojo was handed a new three-year contract in March 2018 but still had that deal terminated early as he disappeared from the first-team picture. More recently, Eric Bailly was given a three-year deal despite making 39 Premier League appearances in the four proceeding seasons. Bailly was threatening to leave within a month of that renewal and his prospects of becoming a regular haven’t improved.
In terms of bloating a squad, giving Juan Mata a one-year extension was also unnecessary. The Spaniard has started United’s two most meaningless games of the season to date and has played one minute aside from that. He could try to leave this month and should have left in the summer.
If the era of Woodward was one of generosity when it hadn’t always been earned, then the decision to hand over the reins to Richard Arnold should signal a change in approach. The fact Arnold is becoming the chief executive might be a sign he plans to do more delegation and the power base of football director John Murtough should increase, especially when he can have Ralf Rangnick on speed dial for the next two years.
Woodward is hardly handing over the keys at a time of prosperity. United have no manager beyond the summer and are facing a battle to avoid missing out on the Champions League. That would be embarrassing on the field and financially calamitous off it.
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But there is an early opportunity for Arnold and Murtough to show they can do things differently. There’s plenty of discontent at Carrington and there are six players out of contract this summer and another nine in 2023. Many of them will have one-year extensions that can be triggered, but there should be no rush to renew right now.
Most of those who have entered the final six months of their deals will expect to leave. Mata and Edinson Cavani will depart, there should be no great effort to try and change Jesse Lingard’s mind and it might be best for all concerned if Paul Pogba walked away on a free again. Lee Grant’s future probably depends on coaching ambitions and Tahith Chong isn’t going to make it at Old Trafford.
Pogba is probably the first big task for Arnold and Murtough. A contract offer from the summer remains on the table but the 28-year-old’s return date is again drifting. It’s time to plan without him.
United might feel they can win the PR battle by keeping that offer on the table, but trying to hand a midfielder who should be at his peak a pay rise when he’s not shown he’s one of the best players in the league would be another mistake. A pay hike for Pogba would make it almost impossible to get rid of him before any new contract ends.
The reality is protecting the perceived value of a player is no longer a top priority. The transfer market has been hit by the pandemic, especially on the continent, and selling unwanted players is now extremely difficult, as United can attest to. It’s more important to have the flexibility to get contracts off the wage bill.
United have over the next 18 months. Nemanja Matic will surely leave in 2023 and there should be no great rush to offer new deals to Fred or Diogo Dalot.
This feels like a time of change in the first-team squad and Arnold and Murtough have a chance to put their stamp on a new era.
I feel like a footballer again
Phil Jones says he finally feels like a footballer again after making his Manchester United return earlier this week.
The experienced defender made his first senior United appearance in almost two years on Monday night when he started against Wolves in the Premier League.
Jones, 29, stole the show with his commanding display in the heart of defence, picking up many people’s Man of the Match award despite ending up on the losing side.
At one stage, it looked like Jones might never play professional football again, and now he has lifted the lid on just how much it has meant to finally be back to fitness.
“You know, I spent so long out, off the pitch and out of the squad – it’s been horrible at times, but it’s nice to be back out with the lads. I feel like a footballer again,” he told Team Viewer.
It’s just a great feeling. As soon as you step out, I think I was on the bench for West Ham in the (Carabao) Cup. Even for a cup game at Old Trafford it was absolutely packed and it was just – was sat on the bench and I was thinking ‘God I’ve missed this.” I’ve missed this feeling of being involved with the stadium and the fans there, the excitement, the buzz. It all came flooding back straight away. ”
Jones, who United signed from Blackburn for £16m back in 2011, also went on to thank his teammates for the support they have shown him and insisted he would always be there to repay the favour to anyone who needed it.
He added: “You know the lads, they were great, they were considerate at times and understood the situation I was going through. They know it’s tough, what it’s like to be out for a while, let alone a year or whatever it was.
“I’m more than open to helping players when they’re struggling with different parts of the game. Different things they encounter outside of football. It doesn’t always have to be on the pitch.
“I’m sure the fans see everything that happens on the pitch, but sometimes it’s off the pitch that determines what happens on the pitch.
“I’d like to think that if someone’s struggling, or if one of the young lads needs help, then yeah, for sure I’d always give that advice.
“Any time I represent this club and put the shirt on, I give my absolutely everything and I put my blood, sweat and tears into everything I do for this club.”