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How Manchester United recruit TrackerMan Ten Hags influence

Among the first things Erik ten Hag did once in the building atManchester Unitedwas gather together the main scouts to go through his idea for players. As well as needing the athletic and technical profile to match his high-pressing approach, Ten Hag insisted new signings must have substance.

He wanted some characters in the dressing room, says a source, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect relationships.

Ten Hag is direct in his coaching so too is hissenior assistant, Mitchell van der Gaag and the new United manager prioritises players who can take criticism on the chin and react to it well.

There has also been a recognition within Uniteds hierarchy that performing at Old Trafford, under global scrutiny, is a great challenge requiring the strongest mentality, and that this is an aspect deserving of more attention when bringing in players. The five permanent signings made last summer followed this principle, which also guided the aborted pursuit of Marko Arnautovic.

United have given Ten Hag a leading voice on transfers because he is the person who has to pick the team each matchday, and club executives have faith he will be in position to do so for a considerable time.

However, is buying certain players specifically to meet Ten Hags brief a long-term risk, owing to the chances of another change in the dugout at some point? Already this season, for example, United have fielded line-ups featuring players signed under four different managers, who each preferred a distinct style of football.

Others contend Ten Hags clear strategy provided a consistency across the latest additions, so they could glue together as a team, whoever is in charge.

Behind Ten Hag is a recruitment team that has seen significant change itself in the last year while at the same time using a system that has been in place for several seasons.It was built by football director John Murtough, who joined the club in 2013, and head of recruitment Steve Brown, who arrived three years later.

Dubbed TrackerMan, it is a centralised database of hundreds of players that collates information and opinion from a global army of 140 scouts 50 who work full-time and 90 casual staff who typically only work at weekends. From that pool, recommendations are made in committee meetings, with either Ten Hag or the recruitment team able to veto potential signings.

October 2021 saw Dominic Jordan appointed as Uniteds first director of data science after the club belatedly acknowledged they lagged behind major domestic rivalsManchester CityandLiverpoolin statistical analysis. Jordan has since hired four people, although they have yet to start working for United.

Questions have been asked about Jordans suitability for football given he came to the club from N Brown, a fashion retailer and why it took United so long to bring in a data analyst, but United are adamant his involvement adds an essential layer of empirical scrutiny.

The various changes over the years since Sir Alex Fergusons retirement after the 2012-13 title win have caused turbulence, with some hugely experienced people let go. Last April, it was announced Jim Lawlor and Marcel Bout were leaving the club. Lawlor had been at United for 16 years, was instrumental in their moves for Nemanja Vidic and Javier Hernandez, and assumed the role of chief scout.

In more recent times, however, Lawlor had his office at the clubs Carrington training complex taken away. United wanted him out in the field but others saw the shift as heralding a complete exit.

Lawlor had a high bar for recommendations and would push back in discussions on players. Another former scout, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect relationships, explained the thinking: Sir Alex always said, Never bring me a bad player. He wasnt fussed about having tons of players If there is nobody available, dont do it.

Executives at United felt this approach had gone too far, especially as the club were no longer in a position of strength as serialPremier Leaguechampions as they had been under Ferguson, leading to a shortage of options coming through.

Murtough and Brown are convinced United are better equipped to make good choices than they have been at any point post-Ferguson.The Athletichas spoken to former employees who would challenge that assertion, and during last years summer window, the clubs business touched on the chaotic.

So far though, Uniteds five permanent signings under new appointment Ten Hag have all made positive starts.

CasemiroChristian EriksenLisandro MartinezandAntonyare first-team regulars, andTyrell Malaciahas contributed too.

On those terms, the summer of 2022 can be argued as Uniteds most immediately productive since 2007, when Nani, Anderson, Owen Hargreaves and Carlos Tevez arrived and hit the ground running.

The ultimate success of the previous window can only be judged over time, and Ten Hags coaching abilities have been a crucial element so far, but for certain the cost of recruiting that quintet exceeded the original plan to such a degree that the budget for this month has United only looking at loan deals.

A move forCody Gakpowas considered but ruled out shortly before Christmas, based on finance. Joel Glazer had made plain in the summer that the spend of more than 200million ($244m) on players then would impact winter business and, despite Uniteds co-owner entertaining discussions on Gakpo, he insisted there was no money to be found for the PSV Eindhoven andNetherlandsforward. Liverpool, knowing their path was clear,signed Gakpo in a deal worth 44million.

Instead, United are limited to looking at players they can borrow this month and do not even want to be tied to permanent contracts for low-cost players, preferring to have a clear run at more desirable targets in the next summer window.

That is why they have held exploratory talks with Championship sideBurnleyover signingWout Weghorst on a temporary deal.Weghorst, a centre-forward in the mould required by countryman Ten Hag, would be delighted to join even on a loan basis whereasMemphis Depay, another Dutch forward being considered six years after his first spell at Old Trafford ended after just 18 months with a cut-price move to Lyon, would likely want a multi-year contract given his current one withBarcelonaexpires at the end of this season.

The Weghorst situation is complicated by the fact Turkish club Besiktas, where the 30-year-old is on a seasons loan following Burnleys relegation last May, would need to agree to any early recall by Uniteds north-west neighbours, meaning any agreement could take time.

United play second-placed City and leadersArsenalin two of their next three Premier League games, and there is no guarantee any new striker will join in time to be involved in those matches. In 2020, the last occasion United made a permanent signing in the January window,Bruno Fernandesonly arrived from Sporting Lisbon at the very end of the month, after successive 2-0 league defeats to Liverpool and Burnley.

United placed themselves at a disadvantage back in the summer by leaving some transfers until late, having begun their season with back-to-back defeats againstBrightonandBrentford. Ten Hags arrival from Ajax meant United couldnt tell prospective signings who their manager would be in 2022-23 before the end of last April and senior figures believe this setback progress on targets.

Results added pressure, however. United had declined to continue pursuing Antony when Ajax set the fee at 60million in June. But two months later, with Ten Hag pushing for a swift reunion with the Brazilian winger, United went back in and eventually agreed a deal worth 85million.

Edwin van der Sar, the former United goalkeeper who is now Ajaxs chief executive, handled talks with Murtough and chief executive Richard Arnold.

Van der Sar toldThe Athletic: We would have liked to keep him (Antony) here one year longer there was not a dire need to sell him, we had money in the bank but the fee got so high. We challenged United to go as far as possible. When you want a player, you probably pay a little bit more. It was a fair negotiation.

There is a determination within Uniteds recruitment department to act quicker and prepare better regarding their summer 2023 business now there is a clear plan from the man in the dugout.

Another delay last year came from holding out forFrenkie de Jong.

Ten Hag made clear De Jong, who he had managed at Ajax, was his No 1 choice for central midfield and Murtough tried to facilitate this. Much of the summer window was then spent waiting for the player to come around to the idea of swapping Barcelona for United. Multiple senior figures at Old Trafford felt the club should have moved on from him sooner.

It was not until after the opening-weekend defeat at home by Brighton that they shifted from the Dutchman to other midfield targets. A recruitment meeting lasting several hours was held at Carrington to assess the options, and Casemiro came out on top.

Scouts mapped Casemiros play onto various United line-ups to show how he would fit in and conversations had already taken place to gain references on his character and professionalism. United centre-backRaphael Varane, having played with the Brazilian for six years atReal Madrid, was unequivocal in his support of the move.

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People who work elsewhere in football found it astonishing decisions of that significance were being made at Unitedafterthe season had started.

Regulars at these meetings included Ten Hag, Murtough and Brown, as well as technical director Darren Fletcher, assistant manager Steve McClaren, deputy football director Andy OBoyle and interim transfer negotiator Tom Keane, plus senior scouts Simon Wells, Mick Court and Jose Mayorga.

Arnold was also present, to observe, on occasion; he is an executive who has shown a desire to understand the department without getting involved in the decision-making process. Arnold did so initially after taking over from Ed Woodward in February last year, asking questions of relevant staff and giving the impression he viewed recruitment as an area for major improvement owing to the amounts of money being spent.

It was a fairly fresh team deliberating the pros and cons of targets.

OBoyle started working for United in July, having been head of elite performance at the Premier League for five years. His remit was expanded to include recruitment and he got an appreciation for that aspect of the industry because his Premier League job required him to visit clubs to assess practices. This allowed him a peek under the bonnet at transfer strategies across the country, picking up what works well and noting what to avoid, and he has brought that information to United.

A Northern Irishman with a dry sense of humour, OBoyle was previously an academy coach at United for six months in 2006, and also worked with Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool as a first-team fitness coach from 2015-17. He has been establishing his exact brief at United but already he can go into meetings as de facto cover for Murtough.

Another new face was Keane, hired in June initially on an 11-week secondment from law firm Brandsmiths, where he worked on sports cases.

A replacement forMatt Judge,who had stepped down as director of football negotiations, Keane has acted as an agent for his footballer brothers Michael (Everton) and Will (Wigan Athletic), once agreeing contracts with Ferguson when his siblings were in Uniteds academy.

Keane flew to Madrid with Murtough to negotiate for Casemiro, and agreed personal terms with Antony.

He was judged to have done good work, and the intention was to make his position permanent in time for the January window. But several agents phoning him to check about ins and outs have been referred to other staff, such as Murtough and OBoyle. One theory is thatthe club being up for salehas put such structural appointments on hold.

Keane was seen regularly at Carrington over the summer a marked difference to Judge, who worked out of the clubs office in Mayfair, central London. It meant players could have natural conversations in the canteen with Murtough, OBoyle and Keane on signings and the general mood, leading to a more informed decision-making process.

When strikerOdion Ighalojoined in this window three years ago, Woodward and Judge hurriedly made calls while darting between their offices in London, detached from what was happening up in Manchester. Murtough wants Carrington to bethehub for United.

Another increasing influence on transfers is Mayorga, who has spent 15 years talent-spotting for United.

He gained seniority in 2019 and last summer took on greater status alongside chief scouts Court, whose speciality is video analysis, and Wells, who was a first-team analyst under Ferguson brought back by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Mayorga started out in Argentina, then went to Italy, and eventually began looking at other regions, even though that was not his specific brief. He put extra reports into the system and caught the eyes of Murtough, Brown and Lawlor.

However, to repeat, United are looking at the other end of the spectrum this month.

If the deal happens, Weghorst would be the fourth striker aged 30 or over they have signed in three years after Ighalo,Edinson Cavaniand the return ofCristiano Ronaldo.

Finding a quick fix was the reasoning behind the flirtation with formerStokeandWest Hamfront man Arnautovic last summer.

Backlash from fans on ethical groundscompounded the reaction to United chasing a player aged 33 who had spent two of the three previous years in China, but there was a feeling internally that acceptance could have been found had Arnautovic been a deadline-day signing rather than a central piece of the Ten Hag era which is what the timing of the bid to Italian club Bologna for the Austrian made him appear to be.

United also held talks over Benjamin Sesko, the 19-year-old Red Bull Salzburg striker.

Sesko agreed instead to joinRB Leipzigin summer 2023, confirming suspicions of a move between two clubs in the same ownership group, and United were in any case reluctant to hand a teenager the kind of sums that were being mentioned. Sesko and his family were also thought to hold reservations about his readiness for the Premier League and especially to lead the line for a club of Uniteds stature.

The story might have been different had Sesko arrived as a squad player, away from the pressure of having to perform instantly, or if hed come in 2019 at age 16, which is when United first scouted him. Sesko was then at Domzale, a club in his native Slovenia, and United viewed a proposed 2.5million price as excessive.

It is of course difficult to predict how players will develop, but better detecting the strike point was a persistent refrain from Solskjaer during his time as manager. He expressed frustration at the slow speed of movement from the hierarchy when players were flagged by the recruitment team. Frequently, United monitor targets, which allows the rest of the world to become alerted to that players qualities.

Solskjaer commissioned an internal review into how United came to miss out on signings, with agents called to retrace notable points of reference.

Erling Haaland, who got recommended to United by Norwegian countryman Solskjaer when he was his manager at Molde back home, is the most glaring example. United also lost out toBorussia DortmundoverBirmingham Cityand now England midfielderJude Bellingham, who was given a tour of Carrington and had been on the radar for five years.

There is of, course, a knock-on effect.

Casemiro is putting in stellar displays for Ten Hag but it has not escaped attention that Madrid could put the 70million fee United paid for him towards buying Bellingham, a player at the same position who is 11 years his junior. Real already haveEduardo Camavinga, 20, and 22-year-oldAurelien Tchouameni two France international midfielders signed in the past two summers.

United had trackedJulian Alvarezbut let Manchester City have a clear run at the now-World Cupwinner in last years January window because they decided to pull up the drawbridge when Ralf Rangnick was in interim charge after Solskjaers sacking two months earlier.

Rangnick got things wrong as a manager but his diagnosis of Uniteds wider issues had merit. He predicted Ronaldo would pose a problem for whoever replaced him on the touchline and urged the board to sign a new striker as early as last January.

Hannibal Mejbriwas signed for 10million in 2019, but he was at Carrington two years earlier playing in an in-house five-a-side tournament and was available for a fraction of the price at the time. Coaches recommended he should be signed immediately but he instead joined Monaco.

Alejandro Garnachois an example of United moving astutely after being tipped off he was available from Atletico Madrid. They paid Atletico just a 100,000 compensation fee in 2020 and Garnacho is already worth many times that and a useful member of Ten Hags first-team squad at age 18.

Scout Gerardo Guzman brought Garnacho to Uniteds attention, having been Atleticos chief academy talent spotter until 2016. David Harrison, head of youth recruitment, liked what he saw and Murtough gave the green light.

Senior figures accept that United can be better at acting decisively in the right moments. They describe the system as evolving all the time.

A revamp of the scouting department was instigated when Woodward, then chief executive, decided to modernise following Fergusons retirement almost a decade ago.

The process was codenamed Project Bethlehem, presumably a reference to it being the birth of a new era.

Much of Uniteds success in the transfer market had lain in Fergusons intuitive genius. He relied on a few trusted club scouts and a vast network of contacts throughout the football world. Information was largely hand-written or in peoples heads.

United felt they needed a more scientific approach.

Woodward tasked Murtough with the job. Murtough hired Brown, having worked with him at Everton.

On his arrival, Brown explained his expertise lay in organising scouts rather than passing judgement on players. He often attends United games.

Brown is calm and measured but, unlike those in a similar position at other clubs, not widely known outside of United. That is changing, with agents placing calls directly to him to recommend their clients.

There has been an arm-wrestle between those who worked closely with Ferguson and a newer phase of Uniteds recruitment.

During a meeting a few years ago, one scout made the point that United had got away from what propelled them to win 13 Premier League titles in 21 seasons: players who could operate at pace, had quality at high intensity, a tight first touch, game intelligence, and an ability to make repeat runs.

When Jose Mourinho was manager from 2016-18, the club hired 50 additional scouts all over the globe, using recruitment firm Nolan Partners. That company specialises in executive sport appointments, so this was a new area. Several interviews were conducted over Zoom, although all eventual appointees had one-to-one meetings. Some in the industry feel the scale and speed of the recruitment meant quality could not be assured, although these same people accept United did also make good choices.

Vast areas are covered, but it has been argued there is a balance still to strike.

For instance, United have three full-time scouts for senior football based in Argentinas capital city Buenos Aires. Their focus is the Argentine league, but they also cover the neighbouring countries of Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay. One source, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect relationships, regards this as overkill, given the modest strengths of those leagues.

At academy level, there are two types of report: short and long.

A short one might include feedback on several players, in a question-and-answer format, finished off with three things a scout likes about the player and three things they dislike. A long report contains more detail about a single player. A scout also gives a grade to a player: A, B, C or D.

A B-grade indicates a player who could feature for United but wouldnt necessarily become a valuable member of the first team. A-grades are given to players who are capable of going on to make an impact for the club.

At senior level, the grading is similar but there are extra elements that allow for nuance.

Two former employees, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect relationships, have felt the system is inconsistent because there are successful players, includingChampions Leaguewinners, who do not fit Uniteds style but there is no way they can be given anything other than an A.

Scouts do not have access to each others reports. There is a log-in to the database which is kept to a small circle of people because United want to ensure independent thinking. That secrecy can also extend to Carrington, where coaches have been previously excluded from seeing reports on players in their charge.

A repeated claim is that recommendations are not always followed up tips can get lost in the system.

One pertains to a player who is regarded as among the best in the world; a Champions League winner of the profile that would suit Old Trafford.

Dozens of reports were filed into United on him from the time he was 13 years old, the consistent message being that the clubmustsign him. Nobody at Carrington responded by email or phone until the player joined another big European club years later.

Murtough and Brown are said to be adamant that all information is collected and, where appropriate, acted upon. Scouts may not be given visibility on progress with players agents, however, or be given reasons for deals breaking down.

In autumn 2019, Woodward was proud of the progress made in the department and publicised how United had sourcedAaron Wan-Bissakafrom a pool of 804 right-backs. That became a stick to beat the club with, though, because insiders argued United should be casting a more refined net, given the number of players capable of performing for them is far lower.

One former manager would complain of being presented with monthly reports featuring 2,000 players and insist United should be focusing on 20. His argument was that United had turned the dial up too far.

Scouts have been sent to cover games knowing in advance there was no player on show even worth considering for United. Rather than a recruitment process, theyve ended up with a reporting system, says one employee at a rival club with insight into United, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect relationships.

Stories abound that more than one United scout has turned up at the same game.

A former staff member, also speaking anonymously to guard relationships, says: If youve got so much information and a lot of it is contradictory, or from people who dont understand what the standard is, you cant see the wood for the trees. You cant make up your mind.

Then there is a team of analysts who are looking at what the player did wrong and right without the experience to say, Does that translate?. Im all in favour of statistical analysis, it really helps, but its useless unless youve got a way to grade it.

Uniteds analysts are tasked with observing players in a particular country. Shortly before one overseas forward signed for another Premier League team, an analyst told colleagues, Im not sure about his one v one cutting inside. That analyst had only seen the player concerned on video. He has now spent several seasons in England, consistently scoring goals and winning trophies.

Football is about opinions, of course, and United feel that the robust conversations they have about signings is healthy in terms of coming to sustainable, consistent decisions.

Debates have extended to which matches scouts should attend.

On one occasion a couple of years ago, a foreign scout wanted to change his prescribed job from a second-division first-team game, where he felt there would be no worthwhile players to watch, to a youth fixture involving the two biggest clubs in that country. Brown insisted on sticking to the original plan.

As the system was developing, Brown wanted to maintain control.

Scouts had been known to cherry-pick matches at their favourite stadiums. This has evolved and more flexibility is now allowed. Brown wants scouts to be masters of their market, empowering those in the field to make choices on who to watch to try to get the best for United.

A major factor in Uniteds transfer approach is the Glazer familys ownership.

Joel Glazer,who lives in Florida but also has an office in US capital Washington DC,almost 1,000 miles away, has sign-off on all spending even minimal fees.

Getting answers quickly from him is said to be a time-consuming aspect of recruitment to navigate.

John Murtough still has to be accountable to Florida, says a source who has worked at United, in a view that is echoed internally.

Others contend that the process in Manchester is in any case paralysed by groupthink.

They rule by committee, says an agent who has dealt with them, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect relationships. You dont get clear answers. They are flakey. Nobody makes a decision unless everyone agrees.

One owner of anEFLclub inquiring about loans of United players was astonished at the amount of time taken over what appeared small-fry deals for a club their size.

Ronaldos motives for hisinterview with Piers Morgancan be questioned, but he continued what he had been saying privately by taking aim at Uniteds hierarchy. He complained repeatedly about direction from above in the organisation during his season and a half back at Carrington.

Such an opinion from an influential figure has provoked speculation at United about the prospect of some kind of sporting director coming in.Michael Edwards, who did that job for Liverpooland is now enjoying a year out of the game, has been mentioned by people close the club.

As things stand at United, though, the vision comes from the manager; in this case, Ten Hag.

Trying to make his debut season a success was why Murtough and Arnold convinced Joel Glazer to sanction the extra spending last summer, when the situation appeared bleak.

Antony was on Uniteds list, alongside two other right-wingers, before his Ajax boss Ten Hag was hired. Lawlor and Bout are said to have advised against signing the Brazil international for a significant fee but United do have positive reports on him from their since-departed scouts in the system.

Martinez, also of Ajax, was one of five left-footed centre-back targets flagged by scouts, with Ten Hag picking him out.

Clearly though, Ten Hags view carries significant, perhaps decisive, weight.

Tracing the exact origins of signings at United is tricky.

A former staff member says: If they (the signed player) do well, there are about six people saying, Yes, thats me. When it goes badly, you cannot find out who is accountable for that decision.

The irony of Ronaldos criticism about the running of United was that he wouldnt have been re-signed in the summer of 2021 had the club acted as he was advocating. Getting rid of him again in November was a sporting call, with Arnold and Murtough backing Ten Hag.

Amad Diallowill go down as a Solskjaer signing, even though he had never seen the then-Atalantaforward play. There was confusion about which level Amad would be entering the United ranks at. Solskjaer believed he was signing the 18-year-old as an academy player until the fee, a deal worth up to 37million, was announced.

Murtough worked hard to bring Amad over to England, spending two weeks working from a makeshift office set up in his garage as part of the COVID-19 quarantine process after travelling to Italy for talks. Work-permit requirements meant Amad had to play for Atalanta to qualify, but his price rose with each appearance.

Amad, now 20, has yet to establish himself at United but is currently enjoying a productive loan at Championship sideSunderland.

United do have to contend with raised fees, compared to some of their counterparts. Last summer, Murtough was talking to a club about a young player, knowing the quoted price was 15million. For United, he was told, the price would be 28million.

One football figure, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect relationships, believes there is a solution.

They need to get deals done before they step out of the shadows, he insists. Give a brief to trusted agents to find out what selling clubs will accept before they know its Manchester United, agree a fee, then United reveal themselves and the price is the price. Thereisa Man United tax, but only if clubs know its them.

Liverpools late gazumping ofTottenham HotspurforLuis Diazlast January, after Porto had agreed a fee with the London club, is a case in point.

There is jeopardy there to.