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Other SportsDan Ashworth: Five issues at Man United for sporting director to address...

Dan Ashworth: Five issues at Man United for sporting director to address if Newcastle deal happens

Even if they have to abide a protracted wait for Dan Ashworth to be able to take up his new role, Manchester United seem set to appoint the Newcastle sporting director as a key figure in the transformation Sir Jim Ratcliffe hopes to oversee by taking over football operations at Old Trafford.

Ashworth’s success with the Magpies and former club Brighton was rooted in long-term strategic planning and clever transfers – neither of which United have been readily associated with during 11 years of decline since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure.

As Ashworth prepares to plot the revival of the biggest spenders in British football, what are some of the key issues the most sought-after of the new wave of technical executives will take on? Business Manchester takes a look at five of them.

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Reckless spending

If former chief executive Richard Arnold’s off-the-cuff remarks about United’s spending continue to hold a haunting accuracy, his observation that £1 billion had been wasted on transfers has evidently not produced lessons.

Record signing Paul Pogba’s underwhelming second spell at the club came at a cost of £89m, and the enigmatic midfielder’s move to Juventus for nothing in 2022 was followed by the arrival of the second-most expensive player in the club’s history, Antony, whose £86m price tag means each of his six goal involvements in the Premier League – none of which have come this season – has cost more than £14m.

Harry Maguire is the world’s most expensive defender and has often been portrayed as a symbol of United’s frailties, turning down a move to West Ham at the start of the season, while even a shadow of Jadon Sancho’s best would be a generous description of the former England attacker’s impact since he signed in 2021 for £73m.

Everyone knows United have huge spending power, just as the takeover by Newcastle’s Saudi-backed consortium changed perceptions of their might in the market. The reality is an increased risk of repeated wastefulness, and while Ashworth is not afraid to oversee large outlays – Alexander Isak is on the way to paying Newcastle back their record £60m fee – he will need to change a club with form for frittering financial resources.

Wasted talent

An absence of realised potential is part of the insult to injury for United fans, personified by Sancho and Antony. Both players are about to turn 24, which will give optimist Ashworth belief they can blossom again.

Sancho’s return to Borussia Dortmund until the end of the season may not be the end of his United career, and Antony did not dazzle for Ajax and become a Brazil international by luck. Nor are they the only squad members who have sunk severely short of their best: see Marcus Rashford, the scorer of 30 goals in all competitions last season who has looked a long way from a line-leading striker on his way to one every six games so far in 2023/24.

Ashworth has a reputation for working at teams whose players exceed expectations, often through understated moves. Dan Burn went from Wigan Athletic loanee to Brighton regular and a Uefa Champions League goal against Paris St-Germain for Newcastle, his combined price with Magpies teammates Nick Pope, Sven Botman, Fabian Schar and Kieran Trippier coming in at £7m less than Maguire.

Some of United’s existing players will inevitably decide how Ashworth’s impact at United is judged, making his ability to identify why the talent drain is happening and stem it vital. He’ll want to re-imagine United as a club better known for operating with canniness than clout.

Shaky foundations

From their impressively productive academy to mutually inspired loan transfers and a bold playing style, a key part of Ashworth’s blueprint at Brighton depended on managerial stability and a shared philosophy across the club.

Starting with David Moyes’ brief reign, United have had a curious, even chaotic approach to appointments since Ferguson left, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tenure of almost three years the longest a coach has been in charge.

There was considerable scrutiny on Erik ten Hag at the end of 2023 after a dreadful first half of the season, United looking less than ever like 20-time champions and leaving Europe at the first exit by finishing fourth in their Champions League group.

A seven-match unbeaten run since then has seemed more of a relief than a resurgence, but United remain below par and a decision – probably at the end of the campaign – will have to be made on giving Ten Hag longer than Solskjaer to implement a revised masterplan or entrusting a successor to lead the way.

United are yet to find the coach to take them back to the top, although there were flickering signs of Ten Hag’s capabilities in that respect in his first season in charge. Whether or not he remains, Ashworth knows that chopping and changing is the surest way to hopelessness.

Background uncertainty

The Theatre of Dreams has come closer to a circus during United’s malaise, with rumblings of dressing-room unrest this season persisting in an embarrassing pattern that has undermined elements of progress.

Ashworth can bring a unified intelligence and level of professionalism to United, taking the pressure off Ten Hag and using the knowledge he has from his time on training pitches and in boardrooms to lessen the noise.

When he joined Newcastle, Ashworth surveyed every aspect of the club with an emphasis on connecting people and departments. “He dilutes conflict and oils the machine to make it run seamlessly,” Tony Mowbray told The Athletic of Ashworth’s time at West Bromwich Albion while he was manager.

“Dan’s very good at bringing people together and getting the maximum out of everything and everyone.”

In a post-Ferguson era when managers are rarely all-powerful, Ten Hag is the latest United coach to have seemed isolated. Ashworth knows how to create fluency in vast institutions from his time at the FA, as does Sir Dave Brailsford, who he will work closely with under Ratcliffe’s set-up.

Losing culture

Few United fans expect a repeat of the dominance their club held between 1993 and 2013, winning the Premier League 13 times and the Champions League twice during that period.

Winning the Europa League and FA Cup once each and the Carabao Cup twice since then, though, is a reflection of how far they have fallen from regularly challenging for trophies.

Their Carabao Cup win in 2022/23 was their first silverware since 2016 and denied Ashworth’s Newcastle a first major honour since 1955, but their opponents went some way to avenging that result with a 3-0 win at Old Trafford in the competition this season.

That was one of 14 defeats United suffered in little more than three months – a dismal run which led to the mentality of the squad being heavily questioned.

England manager Gareth Southgate has praised Ashworth for helping England to become world champions at youth levels and serious contenders at a World Cup for the first time in 28 years. At a club yet to finish within single-digit reach of the champions since Ferguson’s finals season, Ashworth will be thinking about how to inspire a collective mindset shift.

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