Richard Arnold has a whole host of challenges he needs to overcome if he is to be a success at Manchester United.
However, the biggest one – at least in the eye of the supporters – is to convince everyone on the outside that he is not just another Ed Woodward.
That was always the fear among an increasingly despairing fanbase when the 51-year-old was confirmed as Uniteds new CEO in January. Editors Picks Harness Ronaldo, liberate Sancho and win something! Erik ten Hags key objectives at Man Utd Laura Blindkilde Brown: England’s De Bruyne-inspired teen who overcame heart surgery Beckham, Henry, Ibrahimovic and the 21 best MLS transfer signings of all time Best Lionel Messi goals of all time: From Clasico crackers to Champions League solo efforts
A fellow graduate of Bristol University and PricewaterhouseCoopers, he was also Woodward’s right-hand man during nine years of failure at Old Trafford.
He was the easy appointment for Uniteds owners, the Glazers, the path of least resistance or turbulence – just the way they like it.
So quite apart from having to restore United to their former glories, Arnold must prove he is not Woodward MKII or – even worse – Woodward-lite.
Some might say those two tasks are intrinsically-linked. That being different to Woodward will be the first step towards ending the years of decline.
His unplanned meeting with fans in a Cheshire pub on Saturday will not have done his reputation too much harm, though. He spoke candidly and colourfully about the mistakes of the past – alluding to Woodward’s own failings and the “f*cking” billions wasted.
The problem is, Woodward talked a good game too.
Richard Arnold. Talking about the Glazers. pic.twitter.com/RnHXCQuXfk— Paul, Manc Bald and Bred (@MufcWonItAll) June 18, 2022
He was charismatic, and described as a people pleaser by some who worked closely with him. Privately, though, he was frank about his mis-steps right up to the very end.
He was also eternally optimistic and – whether he truly believed it or not – there always the element of “This time next year, Rodney…” It would be uncharitable to push the Del Boy analogy too far, but the goods Woodward peddled came up short time and again.
United fans stopped buying what he was selling a long time before he finally announced his plans to leave in the aftermath of the failed European Super League.
Arnold, then, deserves credit for fronting up to supporters who planned to protest outside his home. And he gave them cause for optimism by insisting the money was there to meet all of Erik ten Hag’s transfer wishes in the Dutchman’s first window as manager, and Arnold’s first summer in charge of the purse strings.
Now he has to deliver.
He has been savvy on two levels by handing over recruitment responsibilities to football director John Murtough.
Firstly, it provides a layer of distance between Arnold and any transfer flops that Woodward – albeit by design – never enjoyed. And secondly, he is leaving football matters in the hands of football experts.
He strongly pushed for the appointment of a director of football even before assuming the top job. Woodward had long-resisted such a move, believing any appointment would become a lightning rod for the ire of fans.
Such was Arnold’s determination to bring in more football expertise that he, alongside Woodward, pushed for Ralf Rangnick’s consultancy role, which has since been abandoned.
The theme of Arnolds early tenure is that he does not intend to be hands on when it comes to football operations, which is why he entrusted Murtough and technical director Darren Fletcher to lead the search for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s permanent replacement.
Mauricio Pochettino would most likely have been installed had the Argentine been available in November, with Woodward a long-time admirer, but Ten Hag’s arrival was the first sign of Murtough’s meaningful influence in this new era.
It is a sea change from Woodward’s reign, though privately the former executive vice-chairman intimated managerial appointments were not entirely of his choosing. And that is a key question going forward.
Sources who have worked closely with the club wonder if the Glazers will ever truly allow someone else the freedom to run it.
Such was the Americans’ micro-management that they stepped in at the last minute to block Marcos Rojo’s loan move to Everton in 2019 because the Merseysiders were seen as a top-four rival.
Jose Mourinho’s attempts to offload Anthony Martial a year earlier also came to nothing, with sources claiming the forward was Joel Glazer’s favourite player.
Yet this is a summer of significant change at Old Trafford, with Murtough’s power becoming increasingly evident. He is now leading United’s transfer strategy and has assumed control of negotiations from the departing Matt Judge, who was much-maligned as the club’s chief deal-maker under Woodward.
Chief scout Jim Lawlor and head of global scouting Marcel Bout have also gone. They were key figures in a recruitment strategy that has so underperformed in the years post-Sir Alex Ferguson.
The message from inside the club is that they finally have to start spending more wisely.
There have also been changes in the communications department, and the club has even begun the search for a new head chef for the first team this summer during a period of widespread overhaul.
Murtough’s responsibilities are reward for the behind-the-scenes reform he has overseen, which was credited for United’s FA Youth Cup success this season.
Arnold trusts his opinion – and it was Murtough who championed Ten Hag above Pochettino.
The pair are in agreement over this summer’s targets, with Frenkie de Jong seen as pivotal to the new manager’s system and Christian Eriksen a no-brainer, given his status as a free agent.
They also believe Ajax winger Antony will add another dimension up front.
Much of the groundwork has been laid for their business and incomings are now expected imminently.
Murtough oversaw the departures of Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata and Nemanja Matic in recent weeks. While they were out of contract – and in the cases of Pogba and Lingard, rejected contract offers earlier in the season – their exits were seen by Murtough and Ten Hag as pivotal to a long overdue squad refresh.
They are not expected to be the only players to go this summer, with Martial potentially following them, Dean Henderson set to join Nottingham Forest, and the futures of Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Phil Jones and Eric Bailly in question.
And so while it was Arnold who supporters were ready to protest against, it is clear he is relying on the people he has empowered to take the heat off him.
Andy O’Boyle has been appointed deputy football director and will be more involved at the training ground, allowing Murtough to take charge of big picture operations.
Fletcher’s role will be redefined, too, after it was accepted he had been asked to plug too many gaps following the exits of coaches Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna.
It is seen as important that the major decisions will be made in Manchester – a “corridor of power between Old Trafford and Carrington” with Arnold based at the stadium, rather than the club’s Mayfair offices in London.
It all sounds positive, yet fans will rightly only be convinced when they see results.
In his clandestine pub talk, Arnold came across as someone who shared their frustrations. Who wanted to enact change now that he has his hands on the wheel. He cares.
That was evident late on October 6, 2018 when he bear-hugged Jose Mourinho in the tunnel in-between the under-fire manager’s media duties.
Mourinho had woken that morning to stories that he was about to be sacked. And when United went 2-0 down to Newcastle after just 10 minutes at Old Trafford, he looked like a dead man walking.
But Alexis Sanchez’ dramatic 90th-minute goal in a 3-2 win earned him a stay of execution and the relief felt throughout the club was personified by Arnold.
Fans will be suspicious of his background in merchandising, sponsorship and licensing. It is no doubt what makes him so attractive to the Glazers. But he also has a record that suggests he understands match-going supporters.
He was heavily involved in the decision not to increase in season ticket prices for the past 10 years. He pushed for the creation of an “atmosphere section” at Old Trafford and backed barrier seating and the trial of safe standing. He has also been involved in the new Fan Advisory Board and share scheme.
The appointment of master planners to redevelop Old Trafford is also a major step towards the long-awaited modernisation of the stadium.Article continues below
But, crucially, he will be judged by what happens on the pitch – and his first summer is critical to that.
Woodward never shook off his calamitous first transfer window when he tried and failed to sign Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Cesc Fabregas – only to deliver an over-priced Marouane Fellaini. He was playing catch-up from then on and that set in motion nearly a decade of failure.
The stakes are that high for Arnold – and if he comes up short before the start of next season, he may never recover.
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