Paul Mitchell’s name has become synonymous with the modern transfer market – but he is about much more than just trading players.
The ex-Southampton and Tottenham head of recruitment, who is currently sporting director at AS Monaco, is one of the leading examples of a technical director; an expert at putting in place all the aspects of a player’s working environment in order to maximise their talent.
It was at the RB Leipzig, working under Ralf Rangnick, that Mitchell established himself as one of the best in his realm, and it is for this reason that he has been repeatedly touted as a messiah to come in and save Manchester United.
That chance is yet to materialise and so Mitchell is concentrated on restoring another great bastion of European football – AS Monaco – and has completed two of the most challenging years in his career there, he tells Sky Sports News in an exclusive interview from the Southampton Marina, where he once lived.
In a wide-ranging and fascinating discussion, Mitchell explains the blueprint he has put forward to get them back to the summit of Ligue 1 and Europe’s top competitions, while revelling in some of his legacies back in England, such as that of Heung-Min Son, whom he brought to Tottenham in 2015 and has gone on to become the Premier League’s golden boot winner.
But perhaps most intriguingly, he opens up about that picture of him alongside Rangnick at a United youth game earlier this year, why it did not work out for his former boss at Old Trafford, and what the great club from his native north west need to restore supremacy.
‘United need a top blueprint’
“It’s a synonymously big club isn’t it,” says Mitchell, who grew up on a council estate in Denton in Greater Manchester. “It has such a role and reach and there have been some tough times there.
“It is sometimes hard to comment when you’re not in the internal and always understanding the context. I use that word a lot because I think context is important to measure what Manchester United’s current situation is, but I think they do need to get to the point of really putting down what Manchester United needs to be in the modern game.
“We are a long time from the Sir Alex Ferguson era. Eric ten Hag is a top coach from Ajax but they need a top blueprint not only for now but for the next five years, and work towards that, and sometimes on that journey there are hard moments when you don’t get the right results, even though you’re doing the right things.
“You have to know that, over that period, the consistency of the decision-making will yield a good end result. I think we’ve seen that both Manchester City and Liverpool, that when you adopt that long-term strategy you can get real consistency and sustainable success.
“I think that’s the biggest thing for Manchester United; putting down their identity of what they want to be today, but most crucially what they want to be in five years’ time, and where they want to be, and what they want to look like; from everything from young players, to the style of play, to the whole culture peace in Manchester United.”
In March 2022, while Rangnick’s future was under much speculation having only signed a deal as manager until the end of the season before potentially moving into a consultancy role, Mitchell was pictured alongside the German at a United Youth Cup game.
Mitchell says: “We had the famous picture didn’t we where we were both sat in the stands together watching the cup game. But between us, our time is always limited. We are good friends and we worked very closely together (at RB Leipzig), so we got to chat a little bit at the game.
“It was a tough one (for Ralf) because the opportunity came later in his career and I think Ralf is a profile that you need to give time to; to build and research and analyse your infrastructure and your organisation, and build it from the ground up, and the time was short.
“His remit was really short-term, winning and getting Manchester United into a rhythm to try and get them in the Champions League. The Premier League doesn’t often give time and patience, and it comes with a ferocious rhythm and working demands.
“I think after all the experience it was a learning for him. Speaking to him, (it was) a great experience, as I know he’s always had one eye on coming to the Premier League. But I think he will leave probably with a feeling of being unfulfilled.”
‘They said Son wasn’t a good finisher – I said ‘you’re wrong”
One remit that has been fulfilled – and then some – is that of Heung-Min Son at Tottenham, whom Mitchell brought into the club in 2015 from Bayer Leverkusen. A relative unknown, Son struggled in his first season under Mauricio Pochettino and had a lot of doubters both in and outside the club.
Mitchell believes the South Korea star is proof that all players need time and patience to settle into new surroundings, and if a club trusts the judgement of recruitment staff it can pay off dividends long-term. Son was last season’s joint-Premier League golden boot winner alongside Mohamed Salah.
“My time is open for debate a little bit just because of the decision that I took to hand in my notice and leave,” Mitchell, who resigned in 2016 after a difference of opinion with the hierarchy, said. “But from a professional point of view the job could not have gone better for me.
“I took quite a lot of criticism in my first year at Tottenham for some of my decisions and Sonny was kind of at the centre of that, and it was a bit of a learning curve for me; that sometimes players need time. They’re human beings, they need time to settle.
“There was this narrative that started to grow internally and externally that he wasn’t a good finisher and I remember one of the staff members saying that to me when I was watching a training session, and I said ‘you’re wrong, because his history shows at two different clubs that he’s a very astute finisher off both sides’.
“And we have this seen over the years, since that first year of integration, because you know the qualities of the individual – it’s everything we saw. The coach effect obviously (helps) growing that potential to be consistent and he will, I think, go down as one of the greatest players in Premier League history.”
‘Minamino brings maturity – and excitement’
A player Mitchell is excited about in the here and now is Takumi Minamino, who Monaco secured in a £15.4m deal from Liverpool this summer.
One of Mitchell’s focuses has been to oversee a turnover in players from the bloated squad he inherited in 2020 to a more streamlined group with clear pathways for youth talent.
Monaco has become synonymous with youth development over the years, having produced the likes of Thierry Henry and Kylian Mbappe – but they had lost their way by the time of Mitchell’s arrival, a year after they were almost relegated from Ligue 1.
Despite being only 27, Minamino is seen as a mature player in Monaco’s model, having gained elite experience at Liverpool despite struggling for regular games. Mitchell believes Minamino is exactly the kind of player Monaco should be signing.
“We build squads over a period of time and sometimes people look at recruitment as being very reactive and emotional,” Mitchell explains. “But it has to be more premeditated than that. We spent €350m over the two years previous to me coming in and it didn’t go well.
“A player like Taki can sometimes seem like an obvious one because he comes from Liverpool and not a small unknown part of the world, but everything is about balance. We are the second youngest team in French football and one of the youngest in Europe, and with Taki we wanted to bring a bit more of a mature element, that was multifunctional.
“Monaco has to be playing in the big games in Europe too, so we should have profiles like Taki Minamino, who are exciting and offensive. It was difficult for him at Liverpool, because you look at the wealth of quality that Jurgen Klopp has at his disposal, and Liverpool have always recruited really strongly and very efficiently. Options and opportunity were so limited, and we are fortunate because of that. We get a player coming into his peak years.
“There is a global strategy for assigning players. I know everyone likes to look in isolation and signings are very exciting part of all of our jobs and all of our lives, but for me I have to think long, medium and short-term. Investments, if they go badly, can haunt and stop progression, so I have to take it very seriously.”
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