Dan Ashworth will be judged on Man Utd's recruitment – this is how it works (and how it doesn't)

A sporting director’s job should not be solely focused on recruitment, as Dan Ashworth knows well.

In an interview with The Athletic in 2020, he described his role at then-employers Brighton & Hove Albion as one in which, metaphorically speaking, he “sits in the middle of the wheel and on the outside of the wheel is the head of each department”.

Similarly, Ashworth will now oversee every aspect of Manchester United’s football operations: from the academy to the women’s team, from the performance department to the medical staff. He is the point man for the new, INEOS-led era regarding all on-pitch matters and will report to incoming chief executive Omar Berrada.

And yet recruitment is an integral part of a sporting director’s role, no more so than at United and never more so than after years of profligate spending at Old Trafford. It is the most glaring area in need of improvement and something INEOS will be paying special attention towards.

When meeting journalists at the petrochemical firm’s headquarters in London upon completion of his minority investment in the club in February, Sir Jim Ratcliffe described the task of reforming United’s transfer dealings as “critical”, prioritising it above all else.

To get an understanding of how United’s recruitment does and doesn’t work, The Athletic has spoken to well-placed sources with experience of the club’s transfer procedures and learned of…

  • The impressive breadth and depth of United’s scouting knowledge
  • Frustrations over how that vast network has been used
  • How a 17-year-old Pedro Neto slipped through their fingers
  • Why haggling saw United lose out on a young Benjamin Sesko
  • Why they decided against deals for Moises Caicedo and Jamal Musiala
  • What cost them the chance to sign Stefan Bajcetic
  • What causes the infamous ‘United tax’ — and how to fix it.

Some of those with knowledge of United’s recruitment setup would argue that the club’s new operators already have many of the necessary tools in place, as part of a system that unearthed Alejandro Garnacho.

Signed for an initial £150,000 ($190,000 at today’s exchange rates) fee in 2020, Garnacho is now worth many multiples more, arguably in the £80million range that United have not had to spend to acquire a player of his quality in his position. The same applies to fellow academy graduate Kobbie Mainoo. Both are seen as products of a talent identification programme that is among the most expansive in European football.

The foundation of United’s scouting operations is TrackerMan, a database of thousands of players across the world. The system is described as something of a “black box” — individual scouts cannot access each others’ reports, with only a small group of people granted access to the full database.

There is, however, transparency over potential targets through formal weekly meetings, which offer scouts the opportunity to flag up players of interest. These are held in tandem with informal conversations between scouts and United’s head of scouting operations, Steve Brown, whose role is to organise which matches talent-spotters attend rather than pass judgement on targets.

The system is being refined by the INEOS leadership, with Christopher Vivell expected to join as director of recruitment, on a temporary basis initially, with a view to a permanent position. Having worked on transfers at RB Leipzig and Chelsea, his opinion on signings will be part of the process, with Berrada (who selected Vivell), Ashworth and technical director Jason Wilcox important voices too.

Sir Dave Brailsford has had significant influence in putting the team together and will continue to oversee United’s strategic direction while allowing those well-versed in the industry to lead on football-specific decision-making, such as picking targets. Manager Erik ten Hag retains a crucial vote on any incomings, and no player will be signed without his agreement.

What is undisputed is that the breadth and depth of the information at United’s fingertips is impressive, fed by an army of approximately 160 scouts working either full or part-time.

Garnacho is one of the success stories of United’s recruitment system (Crystal Pix/MB Media/Getty Images)

Ashworth will find himself at the head of a recruitment operation that has eyes everywhere. “I would go as far as to venture that there is not a scouting network in the world that could touch on what United has,” says one person familiar with it who, like others contacted for this piece, remains anonymous to protect relationships.

The system was tweaked in places last season by Brown. A restructuring of United’s academy recruitment saw international youth scouting now coming under the first-team level umbrella. After Brexit, Premier League clubs can only sign players from abroad who are over the age of 18.

There has consequently been a shift in the ages of players scouted, with United now focusing on those aged 15 and over internationally outside of exceptional circumstances.

While some sources argue this prevents talent being spotted at key development ages, the change is viewed internally as a more efficient use of club resources and still allows for visibility of 13- and 14-year-olds playing in older age groups — something typical of United targets at that level.

As part of the new structure, international scouts now report to three regional managers responsible for specific parts of the world, with recommendations then elevated — a change welcomed by those who have previously argued for more layers of oversight to avoid bottlenecks when reporting to Brown.

Simon Wells covers England and France, Jose Mayorga is focused on Spain and Italy, and Marco Desisti travels in Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, after being promoted last summer. Each has been at United for more than 10 years in total and they carry out in-person analysis of players. Mick Court is technical chief scout, providing analytical video assessments to the manager and executives.

There have been grumbles, with some of those involved saying TrackerMan’s reports could be standardised and simplified, with more concise assessments of a player’s strengths and weaknesses complemented by video rather than paragraphs of text.

Scouts have previously been left surprised by requests from former football director John Murtough to make their reports more “eloquent” than simply describing a player as quick, strong or athletic. United co-owner Joel Glazer was said to read all the reports on a Monday.

Others argue this was to give scouts more freedom to articulate what they saw and to encourage them to specify in which elements of the game players showed particular attributes — for example, being fast in accelerating away from a player, or fast in their movement to receive the ball. United argue that their reporting process is detailed but succinct and continually evolving. Murtough oversaw this evolution, increasing the inclusion of data and United’s global coverage.

The most common concern by far, however, is that the hard work of identifying talent and beating other clubs to the punch has been let down over the years by a lack of speed, clarity and certainty in decision-making.

Former employees The Athletic has spoken to claim United were first to several promising youth talents in recent years, only for the club to fail to move quickly enough when it mattered.

It was often unclear why targets were not pursued, but people within the building speculated on whether a contributing factor was Murtough’s hesitancy to engage on certain deals or the U.S. based Glazers’ own inscrutability and speed of communication. One counter-argument is that transfer deals at youth levels are never straightforward and can be delayed by multiple factors, ranging from following regulations to agreeing finances with players or clubs. There are also countless examples of players being passed on who did not come up to United standards.

“I think it’s just being decisive and getting things over the line, that was always the problem,” says Lyndon Tomlinson, who was United’s assistant head of academy recruitment between 2017 and 2021. “In terms of the scouting, the structure and system we had — look at Garnacho — was good. The reports were there, the process was there. We were just being let down at the end of it.

“That’s why I left, ultimately. I was getting frustrated that we were doing reports, I was travelling here, there and everywhere, (and) studying lots of video during Covid. We were making recommendations and then there was just nothing really happening.”

One of the more high-profile examples of that is Moises Caicedo, who had been monitored closely by United’s scouting operation in South America by the start of the January transfer window in 2021.

A $2million release clause in the midfielder’s contract at Ecuadorian club Independiente del Valle was not seen as an obstacle. United viewed Caicedo as a development signing, initially at a rung below first-team level, and confidence was such that potential loan moves for him were lined up until the end of that season.

A complex deal involving multiple agents never materialised, however, and negotiations with one party even saw United being presented with a version of Caicedo’s contract where the original release clause had doubled to $4million.

United ultimately backed away — perhaps wisely, given how messy it had become. Some people familiar with the case believe a deal should still have been possible, although others claim Caicedo was not top of the list of academy-level targets at the time. A decision was ultimately taken to concentrate resources elsewhere and Caicedo joined an Ashworth-led Brighton in that same winter window, then moved to Chelsea last summer for a British record fee of £115million.

GettyImages 1390990814 scaled

Caicedo ultimately joined Brighton and then Chelsea (David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

One of the scouts responsible for assessing and recommending Caicedo, Juan Mauricio Echeverria, was let go during United’s restructuring of the scouting department last year.

Another player United identified early was Pedro Neto, the now Wolverhampton Wanderers and Portugal winger. In early 2017, while only a second-year scholar in Braga’s youth setup in his homeland, Neto was invited to visit United’s Carrington training base and took in an academy match at Leigh Sports Village.

United would have only had to pay nominal training compensation to sign the then 17-year-old, and recruitment staff pressed for the move to happen. But those responsible for sanctioning a contract offer waited several weeks. Neto signed a new contract with Braga, then joined Lazio in Italy on a two-year loan with an obligation to buy.

In March 2018, United were offered the chance to take Jamal Musiala on trial, with the then-15-year-old’s exit from Chelsea on the agenda. United youth scout Andreas Herrmann had watched him at a Germany training camp and regarded him as the best player, with Tomlinson also impressed when Musiala played for England Under-16s alongside Jude Bellingham against Croatia. Musiala was weighing up which nation to represent. But there were complications with the deal and United, conscious of regulations, decided that entering the running would be too risky.

Then there is the case of Benjamin Sesko.

In 2018, United received word that Red Bull Salzburg had offered €2million for the Slovenian striker, then with Domzale in his homeland, yet United had only sanctioned a bid of €1m. When the matter was taken to director of football negotiations Matt Judge, the revised offer rose to just €1.1m. Another incremental rise to €1.2m a week later was never going to be enough to compete with the Austrian side. Sesko, now 21, joined Salzburg and has since moved to their German sister club, RB Leipzig.

mus main e1718819991940

Musiala has starred at Euro 2024 for Germany (Tom Weller/picture alliance via Getty Images)

“It was the same time we signed Dillon Hoogewerf,” says Tomlinson, who was hired by United because of his work at Manchester City. “We were saying, ‘Dillon will cost us €130,000 from Ajax, Sesko will cost us €2million. But we think if we spread the risk over the two players at least one of them should make it’. And they were different profiles. Sesko was athletic, tall, strong, whereas Dillon was smaller and more explosive. So we felt we had the bases covered if we got both. Then you end up getting the one that doesn’t quite do it. You always think, ‘What if?’.”

United continue to be regularly linked with a move for Sesko. Were he to join them in future, he will not be the first player to eventually arrive at Old Trafford for a much greater fee than initially possible.

Much was made of the potential €10million package United committed for Hannibal Mejbri upon his arrival in 2020 after a summer of criticism for a perceived lack of spending at first-team level, yet the 16-year-old had already been in the building, and available for free, only a year earlier.

Hannibal was invited to Carrington for trials during the 2017-18 season while still with French amateur club Boulogne-Billancourt and impressed hugely, leaving recruitment and academy staff believing that he simply had to be signed.

That interest was not acted upon, however, leading Hannibal’s agents and parents to chase up United officials with warnings that he would join Monaco if no formal offer was forthcoming. Hannibal signed for Monaco that summer, only eventually joining up with United’s academy the following year.

In other cases, recruitment staff say they were told United did not want to pursue deals aggressively if it risked harming relationships with other clubs. One example cited was paying more than the compensation fee to sign Alvaro Fernandez from Real Madrid. In May Fernandez left United for Portugal’s Benfica in a €6million deal, many multiples of his original fee. While this is not uncommon in football, other people familiar with executive thinking at the time say club relationships did not have a bearing on transfers.

On other occasions, attempts to drive the price down have backfired.

In 2020, United were scouring the market for a young centre-back and agreed a deal with Celta Vigo for Stefan Bajcetic, settling on a fee of approximately €250,000. However, their football negotiations manager Sam Barnett contacted Bajcetic’s father Srdjan and asked whether it would be possible to pull him out of the Spanish club, meaning United would only have to pay training compensation of around €100,000 instead.

Bajcetic’s father, not only an ex-Vigo player but also an employee, told him that was not possible. Bajcetic subsequently joined Liverpool that December for €250,000, where he has since switched to playing as a defensive midfielder. Barnett left United at the end of 2023 after three years in a negotiations role, having been promoted from working in the club’s financial department by Judge.

Tomlinson says: “But United still needed a centre-back. So we went to the next one on the list: ‘Well, we’re gonna have to go and watch him, which will cost money’. Then we got to about fourth on the list and we said, ‘Look, they’re on the list to give context, but we’re not confident of going and paying money for one of those’.”

Ashworth is sure to hear the familiar counter-argument against such signings — that United cannot take risks on relatively unknown players given the greater level of expectations at Old Trafford and the eagerness to restore the club to former glories.

It is not without merit. The ‘weight of the shirt’ is a frequent point of discussion within United recruitment meetings and regularly part of the equation. Signings are undeniably subjected to a considerable level of external scrutiny and pressure to perform.

Yet that has tipped the scales at times, to the point where a common criticism heard outside Old Trafford has been shared by many on the inside and even among the hierarchy at times too: that United have too readily fallen back on signing high-profile, household names, and paying the accompanying high wages.

That is not supposed to be how it works. Figures familiar with the club’s intended recruitment strategy in recent years claim it is not wholly dissimilar to the one repeatedly outlined by INEOS: with a defined style coming first, then signings and the choice of manager tailored to that style. To them, that is nothing new.

Instead, what would be new is committing to that strategy and having the discipline to stick to it, rather than bending to the will of a manager.

As part of United’s recruitment structure, Ten Hag and the wider recruitment department each have a veto over potential signings. It was written into Ten Hag’s first contract and remains in his new one. It is the legacy of a philosophy defined in the wake of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement as manager in summer 2013, which not unreasonably saw an inherent risk in signing players recommended by the recruitment department that the manager may not want.

Senior Old Trafford figures felt this approach was in line with many other top European clubs. There is a belief among some that had United not chopped and changed managers as much over the last decade, their recruitment would have been more stable over that period, and viewed more kindly as a result.

Nevertheless, the experience of many at United is that the manager’s preferences often hold sway, as transfer business during Ten Hag’s tenure has indicated. It was for that reason that some within the recruitment department were encouraged by the arrival of Rasmus Hojlund from Atalanta in Italy last summer.

While hardly unknown, Hojlund represented the type of young, promising talent that many had long argued United should pursue and the antithesis to signing a proven yet expensive, and already 30 years old, Harry Kane — Ten Hag’s preferred choice.

GettyImages 1977880811 scaled

Hojlund was chosen over pursuing a deal for Kane (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

United argue there have been several occasions where the manager’s preference in a targeted position has not been signed because scouting has presented a strong case to the contrary.

Identifying talent and then acting on an interest are only two-thirds of the process, however. There is also the matter of negotiating on price.

The idea of a ‘United tax’ has persisted throughout the post-Ferguson era and is cited as one reason for United’s extortionate level of spending over that period. As a club with revenues of more than £648million during the last financial year, it is difficult for those charged with leading negotiations to walk into a boardroom and argue they do not have the means to spend.

One person familiar with the situation compares United’s effect — and that of other Premier League clubs — on the transfer market to that of a bus of wealthy, American tourists entering a mountain-top village somewhere in Europe, where suddenly the prices in the shop windows shoot up. Even then, they insist there was a willingness to walk away from deals when necessary.

Yet others argue the ‘United tax’ is not an unavoidable fact of life at Old Trafford but something which the club’s approach to recruitment has created through consistently heavy levels of spending, with a view among rivals that they are there for the taking.

That is a perception which has to change, one that will only be shed by adopting a harder line in negotiations and having the discipline to walk away from talks once they enter nosebleed territory. 

The Jarrad Branthwaite pursuit is seen as a test case, with Everton wanting £70million for the young centre-back and United so far offering £35m, plus a potential further £8m in add-ons. United are also in talks with Bayern Munich over Matthijs de Ligt, a full Netherlands international at the same position who would cost less. “The club knows where shortfalls have been but they have to actually commit to avoiding them,” says one person familiar with the club’s thinking.



Matthijs de Ligt has time on his side to fulfil his prodigious talent

Signing players more effectively and efficiently would be made easier by being just as effective and efficient in the other half of the market. But United have historically struggled to sell well for a simple reason, according to some people with knowledge of the club’s approach: they never had to think about it.

There was always enough money coming in regardless, always enough room in the budget to sign players at the desired level. Proactively generating revenue through sales wasn’t required and therefore not seriously considered. Others argue that United’s perceived wealth is again a factor. Potential suitors for their unwanted players do not make competitive offers in the belief United do not need the money.

That has changed over recent years and a greater emphasis has been placed on generating revenues from player sales and on identifying talent with potential resale value. One such example was Maximo Perrone, the young Argentine midfielder who joined Manchester City at the start of 2023.

Perrone was extensively assessed by United scouts while at Velez Sarsfield in his homeland and a move was deemed possible in that January transfer window due to questions over his pathway to regular playing time if he went to City, but United hesitated on agreeing a deal and the Premier League champions pounced.

GettyImages 1788951576 scaled

Perrone has joined City (Ion Alcoba/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

Senior figures at Old Trafford argue that had United pursued Perrone, the loan signings of Wout Weghorst and Jack Butland, which addressed more immediate first-team level needs in that winter window, may not have been possible.

After making his City debut last February, Perrone spent the 2023-24 season on loan at Las Palmas in La Liga. Whether he realises the potential he showed coming through at Velez Sarsfield or not, his value will likely increase during his time as a City player, allowing him to be sold on at a profit.

It is that type of longer-term signing that United’s new football structure will hope to make more of to close the £101million gap between the two Manchester clubs’ profit on players sales last season, especially as compliance with financial fair play (FFP) regulations is no longer taken for granted.

“I think with Dan going in there, and a whole change of mentality in terms of wanting to put recruiting good players ahead of everything, I don’t see why they can’t eventually be on a par with Man City and Chelsea in terms of buying and selling,” says Tomlinson, who is now sports director of Slovenian side Tabor as part of his role within investment group FMCF.

United appointing a new chief financial officer in Roger Bell, who formerly held the same position at INEOS, was instructive in that respect, confirming that Ratcliffe’s influence will go beyond on-pitch matters and will also stretch to the purse strings. Ratcliffe has given current members of the recruitment team the impression that United will advocate assertive practices in the market under his watch.

Murtough’s departure came in April, before the end of the season, because his influence was at odds with how the new regime wished to proceed. His exit meant people in the tier below could have direct relationships with Brailsford more easily.

Deputy football director Andy O’Boyle has become prominent after appearing to be on the periphery under Murtough, while Matt Hargreaves, the director of football negotiations, has an increased role with agents, too.

Wilcox’s arrival as technical director meant he could take on much of Murtough’s work, although he was also getting familiar with the role and connections having operated in the academy when with neighbours City, before a year in charge at a senior level at Championship side Southampton.

The causes of United’s issues in the market over the past decade are complex and multifaceted, and personnel changes are only part of the story. Better recruitment will require sustained systemic improvements, backed by strong leadership and conviction on strategy, which is where Ashworth comes in.



Inside Manchester United’s $225m shirt sponsorship deal

(Top photo: Serena Taylor/Newcastle United via Getty Images)

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top