When transfers go wrong for Manchester United, the supporters know they can point the finger at Ed Woodward. The executive vice-chairman is the most visible of the club’s board members and is present at almost every fixture.
But United’s transfer strategy is not solely down to Woodward — the role of his right-hand man Matt Judge, along with John Murtough, has increased significantly in recent years.
The United chief will step down from his role after the end of the calendar year after a fractious relationship with the club’s passionate fanbase, who fiercely opposed Woodward’s decision to include the club in the breakaway European Super League.
But one of his final acts in the position was to hand promotions to Murtough, who was previously head of football development, to football director, and Judge, from head of corporate development to their new chief of negotiations.
In truth, it only provided confirmation of the work Judge had been doing for nearly a decade after joining United in 2012.
Notably, in the March statement confirming the changes, there was an image of Murtough standing alongside new technical director, Darren Fletcher — but no sign of Judge.
His background in financial investment, similar to Woodward, saw him play a key role in transfer negotiations from 2016 onwards.
Judge is not one to bask in the limelight, however, and is thought to operate predominantly from United’s base in Mayfair to keep a low profile.
Aside from the fact he graduated from Bristol University and gained a masters degree in economics, there is limited information to gather about the mysterious figure working behind the scenes.
But with Woodward taking a step back from football operations towards the end of 2021, Murtough and Judge — named almost like an iconic detective duo — will be more accountable for the signings they bring to the club.
What must be said about Judge’s ability to negotiate deals is that he rarely fails to get the job done, as highlighted by sealing a new contract for David de Gea three years ago.
Indeed, it was telling when former boss Jose Mourinho revealed the identity of Judge when quizzed about the club’s transfers, telling reporters he “knows my people are doing everything they can”.
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Since 2016, the Red Devils have brought in 21 players for fees totalling an estimated £650million. That includes five transfers above £50m including Harry Maguire (£80m), Romelu Lukaku (£75m), Fred (£52m) and Aaron Wan-Bissaka (£50m).
While the club have recouped a large chunk of their outlay through sales, it resembles a huge investment — and the jury is still out on whether it was justified.
The biggest deal to bring Pogba back to Old Trafford in July 2016, which cost a club-record £89m fee plus other payments, was supposed to be the catalyst for United’s return to the top of English football.
Five years later, there is a nagging feeling the Frenchman has never quite lived up to what was expected and United have stagnated. What’s worse, he could leave for nothing next summer if United fail to agree terms on a new contract.
It will be down to Judge and Murtough to make it happen to avoid making a huge loss on the 28-year-old, who is still regarded as an important player by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Judge can look back at some of the signings he has been involved in with some sense of pride, notably the arrival of Bruno Fernandes from Sporting Lisbon.
Not only did United knock down the Portuguese outfit’s asking price from £65m to £47.5m, the playmaker enjoyed a fine start to his career with the Red Devils and is a contender for PFA Player of the Year.
Joining Fernandes in the success pile is Harry Maguire, who has embraced his status as United’s leader from the back following his world-record move from Leicester.
But there are some huge failures which cannot go unmentioned.
The swap deal involving Alexis Sanchez, handing the Chilean a four-year, £400,000-a-week contract, was simply baffling in hindsight.
That they paid Ajax close to £40m for Donny van de Beek, when the Dutchman has started four Premier League games, also summarises United’s botched transfer strategy. It is also a deal that Judge played an instrumental part in getting over the line.
It is only fair to say that not every transfer will go perfectly, but more often than not, United’s recruitment has been disappointing — something Murtough and Judge will be looking to adjust this summer.
United face a huge summer ahead after finishing second behind rivals Manchester City and will surely dip into the club’s coffers this summer to refresh Solskjaer’s squad again.
The club’s reported pursuit of Harry Kane will be crucial in measuring where the club are heading. Sign Kane and they will be forking out a club-record fee yet again, somewhere in excess of £120m, with pressure on him to succeed.
If Kane goes elsewhere, however, it will be deemed a failure by the club’s hierarchy to attract the biggest names, something they have never had trouble with in the past.
It will be down to Judge to preside over their key negotiations this summer and with his increased responsibility and reputation, he can no longer hide in the shadows if there are failings to be accounted for.
Manchester United’s signings since 2016:
Eric Bailly (£30m from Villarreal, June 2016)
Henrikh Mkhitaryan (£26m, Borussia Dortmund, July 2016)
Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Free, PSG, July 2016)
Paul Pogba (£89m, Juventus, August 2016)
Romelu Lukaku (£75m, Everton, July 2017)
Nemanja Matic (£40m, Chelsea, July 2017 )
Victor Lindelof (£30m, Benfica, July 2017)
Alexis Sanchez (Swap, Arsenal, January 2018)
Fred (£52m, Shakhtar, July 2018)
Diogo Dalot (£17.4m, Porto, July 2018)
Lee Grant (£1.5m, Stoke City, July 2018)
Paul Woolston (Free, Newcastle United, November 2018
Aaron Wan-Bissaka (£50m, Crystal Palace, June 2019)
Daniel James (£17m, Swansea City, July 2019)
Harry Maguire (£80m, Leicester City, August 2019)
Bruno Fernandes (£47.5m, Sporting Lisbon, January 2020)
Donny van de Beek (£40m, Ajax, September 2020)
Alex Telles (£16m, Porto, September 2020)
Edinson Cavani (Free, PSG, October 2020)
Facundo Pellistri (£11m, Penarol, September 2020 )
Amad (£37m, Atalanta, January 2021)