The Red Devils have faced criticism in the past for lagging behind their rivals, but a recent embrace of technology has come just at the right time
Manchester United have been accused of falling behind their Premier League rivals when it comes to recruitment in recent years, both at youth and senior level.
Within the first team, multiple big-name new signings have been brought to Old Trafford at huge expense, only to fail to live up to the hype thanks, in part, to the lack of a clear strategy.
Former manager Jose Mourinho famously aimed a thinly-veiled dig at the way the club bought players, saying he would rather work with “five very close scouts than over 500”.
Questions have been asked of their academy’s recruitment too, with a number of young players from the local area choosing to join other clubs despite United’s record of developing teenage talents.
A recent embrace of scouting technology, however, has allowed the Red Devils to play catch-up – and it could not have come at a better time given the current situation brought about by Covid-19.
Once it became clear that the pandemic would have a huge significance on the working patterns of the club’s staff, United made it clear they would not be furloughing any of their employees, and certain members of staff who were unable to work from home were encouraged to volunteer in their local communities.
And while many of the roles behind the scenes at a multi-billion pound football club can be performed from home, traditional methods of grassroots scouting have, for obvious reasons, become impossible.
The change in United’s thinking began with the club’s scouting network across Europe, South America and Asia being tripled in size over recent years. This was not necessarily done in an effort to bring in more talent, but instead to ensure that United are across all potential rising stars.
“We’ve expanded our recruitment department in recent years and we believe this now runs in an efficient and productive way,” executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward said in 2019. “Player recommendations and decisions are worked on by this department and by the first-team manager and his staff, not by senior management.”
The expansion of the scouting team has also seen the club adopt technology that was not previously being used. In turn that has allowed the vast majority of the department to continue their jobs during lockdown.
Goal understands there’s been a change inthe scouting department over the past few years because of different technology the club is now using and they are now seeing the benefits of that evolution.
Scouts at United are now connected via video link and as a team there is cross-communication and referencing from leagues across the world as the club try and land the best talent. That process has not changed during lockdown.
Clearly conversations that were previously held face-to-face are now being done online, but the same joined-up thinking that has been applied in recent years has been maintained, and that could be important for United when the transfer window opens again.
The club have also begun to use data analysts where they previously had not before as they try to get on an even keel with rivals Manchester City and Liverpool.
Piotr Sadowski, United’s Central Eastern European scout, gave an indication as to how he sees the transfer window playing out this summer, suggesting that the club are going to have to rely on the database they have been building up over the years with live games having ground to a halt.
“It means such things like scouting and recruitment are still very important, because you have to have your database on players and you have to know what’s going on in the market,” he told an online discussion hosted by International Centre for Sports Studies (CIES) at the University of Neuchatel in Switzerland. “You have to always follow the last trends and know what’s going on.
“The transfer market will not disappear but prices might be lower. There will probably be less money in the market but you always have to build and strengthen your squad and know what players you can get. Such things like scouting and recruitment are important, and even more important at the moment.
“Players from Central Eastern Europe, from let’s say Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, are lower value than players from Spain, Portugal or France. So there is a chance for clubs in Central Eastern Europe to transfer players and to get money out of the situation.”
Woodward has already warned that it will not be “business as usual” when the transfer window does open again, but at least with United’s evolved methods over the past few years they will not have been left months behind their closest rivals.