Ratcliffe’s to-do list at Man United: Recruitment, Ten Hag’s future and much more

Manchester United are under new management. The owners haven’t changed — the Glazer family still owns more than 50% of the club — but following the approval of the Premier League and English Football Association last week, Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s Ineos group will now control all football operations at Old Trafford. On Tuesday, United confirmed that his minority stake had been completed.

For the first time since the Glazers bought United in 2005, the American family, who also own the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, will have no involvement in the club’s key football decisions such as player recruitment, the hiring (and firing) of the manager and the upgrade of infrastructure including the stadium and training ground. Ratcliffe’s £1.04 billion ($1.3bn) purchase of a 25% stake in the club, which will rise to 29% by the end of 2024, has given Britain’s second-richest person the responsibility for what happens on the pitch at United and, after more than a decade of decline, the 71-year-old has a huge job to do to make the club competitive once again in the Premier League and Champions League.

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So with Ratcliffe and his team having been given the green light by the game’s authorities to get to work at Old Trafford, what are the big issues facing him as he attempts to revive the Premier League’s biggest club?

Improve recruitment

ESPN reported last October that Ratcliffe and his senior team at Ineos had embarked on a full audit of Manchester United’s dealings in the transfer market over recent years, due to the club’s repeated failures in terms of making the right decisions with incoming and outgoing transfers.

Since the start of the 2018-19 season, United have spent £867.84m ($1.06 bn) to sign new players and raised just £210m ($255.5m) by offloading those deemed surplus to requirements. Only Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain have spent more over the same period, while none of United’s major rivals have raised less with their outgoing transfers. It won’t have taken long for Ineos to realise that United’s lack of success has been down to wastefulness and a lack of expertise rather than their financial outlay.

United need to be smarter in the transfer market, move quicker to identify and secure new signings and avoid paying what one Old Trafford source described to ESPN as the “United Tax,” which sees clubs take advantage of United’s reputation for making expensive panic signings by hiking their asking price out of the belief that desperation will force them to pay whatever it takes.

Sources have told ESPN that Ratcliffe will hire Dan Ashworth, Newcastle United‘s director of football, to head the club’s recruitment department. Sam Jewell, Brighton’s head of scouting, was another name high on United’s target list before he moved to Chelsea. But after seeing United fail to get value for money from recent big signings including Antony, Mason Mount, Jadon Sancho and Harry Maguire, the summer window will be a test of the club’s ability to learn from past mistakes when it comes to recruitment.

Decide who should manage

After Sunday’s 2-1 win over Luton Town, Erik ten Hag is on his best run of form since March 2023, with United unbeaten in seven games. Ten Hag’s team have won six and drawn one since a 2-1 defeat at Nottingham Forest on Dec. 30 left United nine points adrift of the Premier League top four.

Despite this recent revival, United are still three points behind fourth-placed Tottenham and their prospects of Champions League qualification remain unlikely. Furthermore, Ten Hag’s contract as manager expires at the end of next season, so a decision on his future will be close to the top of Ratcliffe’s to-do list.

Historically, a new regime at a football club tends to appoint a new manager within months of taking charge, and Ten Hag is vulnerable at United because his team has under-performed so badly this season. United crashed out of the Champions League by finishing bottom of their group in December.

The former Ajax coach has also been involved in high-profile clashes with players like Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford, disciplining both for failing to meet his standards, and his judgement on players has been called into question by the failure of many of his signings (Antony, André Onana, Mason Mount) to deliver at Old Trafford. So even if Ten Hag is able to inspire his team to a surge into the top four and Champions League qualification, it may not be enough to save his job.

Quite simply, Ratcliffe and Ineos must decide whether Ten Hag is the man to lead the team or if he should be replaced. Here, his contract length will force the situation to a head.

Ratcliffe either gives Ten Hag an extended deal and backs him as his man, or he decides the team needs a new direction under a new coach. The least likely scenario is Ten Hag staying without a new deal as that would point to uncertainty on Ratcliffe’s part – a reality that won’t work for either Ratcliffe or Ten Hag.

Build a structure United can trust

Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement as manager in 2013 was a seismic event that continues to destabilise United, but the departure of long-serving chief executive David Gill at the same time was similarly damaging to the club. Without Ferguson and Gill, United lacked experience and expertise off the pitch and the Glazers contributed to the club’s decline by failing to acknowledge the new trends within the game when it came to replacing them.

All of United’s rivals had either adopted, or were in the process of adopting, a new management structure populated by a chief executive, director of football, sporting director and a coach prepared to embrace a more collegiate approach. United, in contrast, retained the old model of a manager and CEO making the key decisions. The Glazers promoted Ed Woodward and Richard Arnold from internal commercial roles to the CEO position — neither man was successful — while five full-time managers with contrasting styles and personalities (David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ten Hag) have taken charge of the team.

United still don’t have a director of football — Newcastle’s Ashworth is set to fill the role under Ratcliffe — with John Murtough and Darren Fletcher hired by the Glazers to lead the football department, despite neither having previous experience in these areas of responsibility.

Ratcliffe has already started to build a new structure at United, with Omar Berrada leaving his role as chief football operations officer at Manchester City to become United’s new CEO. Ashworth will follow, with other appointments anticipated within the football structure. Sir Dave Brailsford, the Ineos sporting director and the man credited with turning British Cycling into serial Olympic champions, is leading the search for the best talent to fill the football roles, while Jean-Claude Blanc, the former Juventus CEO, is also set to have a senior role under Ratcliffe.

Restore Old Trafford to its best

As part of his agreement to buy 29% of the Glazers’ stake, Ratcliffe has committed to investing an initial £238m ($300m) into the club’s infrastructure — namely Old Trafford and United’s Carrington training ground. But while that figure will fund a much-needed upgrade for both locations, the reality is that it will only cover maintenance that’s been neglected in recent years.

The bill for a full modernisation of both sites is likely to exceed £1bn. Ineos is investigating the possibility of building a new training complex in nearby Knutsford, with Ratcliffe’s team already scouting the state-of-the-art centres recently built by Leicester City and Tottenham, and that would cost at least £250m. Meanwhile, plans for upgrading, rebuilding or even demolishing Old Trafford have been gathering dust in the United boardroom since being drawn up almost two years ago.

Sources have told ESPN that a modernisation / rebuild of Old Trafford would take up to five years and potentially cost £1bn in today’s prices, while a completely new stadium at the same location would start at £1.2bn, but be completed in a shorter timeframe.

Since buying United in 2005, the Glazers have not undertaken any significant building work at Old Trafford, but Arsenal and Tottenham have moved into modern, new stadiums and Liverpool and Manchester City have substantially increased the capacity of their grounds. In Europe, Bayern Munich and Juventus have moved into a new stadium, while Real Madrid, Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain have committed to expensive modernisation of their existing venues.

Old Trafford has become a relic of a different age, with a leaking roof acting as a metaphor for the stadium’s decline. It will be expensive, but Ratcliffe will have to find a way to restore the stadium to its former glories.

Get the fans to move on from the Glazer toxicity

When the Glazers announced a strategic review of their ownership of United in November 2022, it was perceived by many supporters as an intention to sell their stake after almost two decades of hostility and opposition from the fans. But despite both Ineos and a Qatari bid initially offering to take full ownership of United, the Glazers instead chose to retain a majority stake and sell 29% to Ratcliffe.

As the Glazers remain, so too does their opposition and Ratcliffe has come under fire from fans’ groups for allowing them to remain at the club. Every United game is marked by anti-Glazer songs and chants and supporters’ groups have said they will continue to protest against their ownership, so Ratcliffe and Ineos will have to navigate a path through the discord and find a way to diminish the toxicity that still surrounds the club.

Start winning trophies again

Manchester United are a club that are accustomed to winning and they expect to do so. No English club have won more league titles and, in England, only Liverpool have won more Champions Leagues. The post-Ferguson years have been a humbling, and at times humiliating, experience for United, and the only true barometer of Ratcliffe’s success at Old Trafford will be how much the team win during his time in charge.

That’s the key to everything for Ratcliffe and his team. If he can restore United to a position of prominence in England and Europe, his investment will have paid off and he will be regarded as a hero by the club’s supporters. It’s as simple as that.

Ratcliffe can make many changes and drag United into the modern era, but ultimately, he has to make the team winners again. Everything else is just minor detail.

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