Ed Woodward's Underrated Legacy: Man United's Youth Recruitment Is Paying Off

Say what you want about the former chief executive...
19:01, 04 Jul 2023

Despite leaving the club in January, Ed Woodward remains a pariah at Manchester United. Seen as the smiling face that carried out the will of the Glazers for the majority of their leveraged reign, Woodward won’t be welcomed should he return to catch a game at Old Trafford. 

It’s easy to see why. As chief executive, Woodward oversaw many of the problems that plague the club to this day. The uneven recruitment, the philosophical chopping and changing of managers, the crumbling stadium, the mounting debt. The Glazers are the root cause of United’s issues, but Woodward kicked the door open for them as a financial advisor during the takeover.

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There is a part of Woodward’s legacy that is underrated though. While he often fumbled the ball with first team transfers, his work in youth recruitment is bearing fruit. Post-Brexit rules were announced, limiting clubs to signing six non-EU nationals aged between 18-21 per season. Dropping down the age groups, EU players aged 16-18 now could not be signed at all. As the United Kingdom cut itself off from its continent, the footballing bodies of Europe simply gave them what they voted for and pulled out the rug.

Usually caught in the slipstream when compared to England’s other top clubs these days, Woodward and United quickly went to work. The 2019/20 season saw a raft of youth buys brought in to pre-empt the looming restrictions. Hannibal Mejbri joined from Monaco’s youth set-up for €10 million. He was joined by Real Zaragoza starlet Mateo Mejia, NAC Breda under-17s defender Bjorn Hadley, Ajax youngster Dillon Hoogewerf, Real Madrid’s Alvaro Fernandez and Johan Guadagno of IF Bromma. 

The recruitment would continue the following season, with the regulations set to launch halfway through the campaign. In came France under-16s international Willy Kambwala from FC Sochaux, Marc Jurado from Barcelona’s vaunted La Masia school and a player you may have heard of by the name of Alejandro Garnacho. The boldest success story of Woodward’s youth-centric recruitment drive, the Atletico Madrid youngster is now a crucial part of manager Erik ten Hag’s plans, having made 34 appearances last term. Woodward also signed off on deals for goalkeeper Radek Vitek of Olomouc and Tromso midfielder Isak Hansen-Aaroen.

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While Garnacho is the standout, the highest profile signing of the 2020-21 season in terms of youth players was Amad Diallo. Signed for a reported fee close to €25 million, there was pressure on the Atalanta youth player as he went straight into the first team squad. In truth this billing was premature and owed something to the fact the club had missed out on Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho. The need to put a winger in front of supporters on deadline day, even one who had been signed with the future in mind, was obviously seen as paramount.

The strategy is starting pay off on the field. United won the 2022 FA Youth Cup, with Garnacho scoring twice in a 3-1 win over Nottingham Forest. That team also featured Vitek, Aaroen and Jurado from the pre-Brexit recruitment drive. Hannibal impressed on loan at Birmingham last season, with there now being considerable interest in his signature from Borussia Dortmund. Fernandez did well during a season-long Preston North End. Amad was one of the best players in the Championship, notching up 13 goals in 37 games in his season with Sunderland.

The second phase of this plan is a branching one. Players like Garnacho are already making a first team impact, while loan standouts like Amad could soon follow. Meanwhile, players like the aforementioned Hannibal can bring in all-important transfer fees as United look to raise funds while staying in line with Financial Fair Play. 

Woodward rightly gets criticised for his part in United’s decade without a Premier League title. Several vital decisions have been made poorly and the club still suffers for it to this day. But his forward-thinking, Brexit-busting youth plans are paying off big time. If more of the players bought during those heady summers can match Garnacho’s contributions, perhaps that ten year wait for a title won’t last much longer.

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