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Mauricio Pochettino’s Big Dilemma: United Job His If He Wants It

Mauricio Pochettino’s Big Dilemma: United Job His If He Wants It

Monday, 31 December, 2018 - 07:45
Mauricio Pochettino was overlooked for José Mourinho by Manchester United in 2016 and the club are keen to rectify what is seen as a blunder this time round. Photograph: Michael Zemanek/BPI/Rex/Shutterstock
London - Paul Wilson
There is no question that Manchester United have identified the right man to fill the Old Trafford vacancy in Mauricio Pochettino; the Tottenham manager is an even more impressive candidate now than he was in 2016, when he was shortlisted as a replacement for Louis van Gaal but considered riskier than José Mourinho because of his lack of trophies.

If that has come to be viewed as a blunder, then United are in a position to correct it, even if it ends up costing north of £40m and Pochettino would be leaving a better team and more stable club behind at Spurs. The Argentinian has an extremely difficult decision to make but until he chooses his next course of action the list of alternatives merely forms a backup plan. Trophies or not, the fact that United and Real Madrid are both interested in the same manager says everything that needs to be said about Pochettino’s pedigree and potential.

Many would advise a young, progressive manager against a move to Madrid, because while the glamour is real the expectations are immense and the club has a reputation for burning through well-qualified coaches at a wasteful rate. The concern at the moment is that the same might be becoming true of Manchester United.

It is easy on the one hand to suggest that none of the last three permanent managers was a perfect fit. Each had flaws that were only magnified at the biggest club in the country. On the other it could be the case that United really are ungovernable now, too big and too demanding for one man to bring under control, with the glories of the recent past condemning virtually any aspirant to fall short in trying to match them.

Now Mourinho has joined David Moyes and Van Gaal on the failure list, with Liverpool resurgent and Manchester City still gliding along under Pep Guardiola, it is not difficult to understand why United might view £40m as a price worth paying for a coach considered capable of restoring the club’s battered pride. Yet this is not 1986. United are no longer a sleeping giant waiting for someone with the drive and determination to show everyone else in the division what a modern club looks like.

The division is full of high achievers now, there is money all around and United’s size alone will not trump City’s wealth, Liverpool’s vibrancy or the newfound consistency of the leading clubs in London. If United want their new manager to emulate what Pochettino has achieved at Spurs, then fair enough. But they will have to give him a similar amount of time and not fret too much if the trophies do not start raining in immediately.

The mistake would be to expect their new appointment to emulate what Sir Alex Ferguson achieved, because that is unrealistic. The Premier League is not currently designed to allow one club to get so far ahead of the rest on an almost permanent basis. While City may seem poised to reign supreme for the foreseeable future, with due respect to Liverpool, much depends on how long Guardiola stays. Chelsea were once in a similar position under Mourinho, yet already that was 11 managers ago.

An idea is abroad at the moment that managers are only highly paid stooges in any case, there to act as a buffer between the players and the public and to shield the owners from the flak when things start to go wrong. There is no doubt their influence is frequently overstated, especially in an age when players and their agents seem to call most of the shots, though one has only to look at Pochettino and Spurs to appreciate that the right man at the right club can still make a huge difference.

Looking further back, it was clever of Arsenal to appoint Arsène Wenger when they did because his knowledge of continental football allowed them to tap in to a market that others could not reach and build a title-winning side without having to compete directly with the financial might of United.

Mourinho was ideal for Chelsea first time round because his tactical rigour corrected years of unfocused inconsistency. Coming back to the present, it would be churlish to deny Jürgen Klopp has made an enormous impact at Liverpool, in terms of defining the way the team play, bringing in players to suit the system and proving his high-energy style can produce results.

United need something clever right now, a new angle of attack. They have tried the Ferguson clone (too much had changed after more than two decades) and the safe pair of hands (too safe, too sedate) and have now parted with the obvious expert in the field who also leaves without enhancing his reputation.

Old Trafford is not yet a graveyard for managerial promise, though one could easily see how it might happen, particularly when one considers how long Liverpool have had to wait for the good times to return once their period of domination was over. The next permanent appointment is a chance to put down a marker.

Does the club wish to rediscover continuity or will it allow a constant churn of managers to become a distracting sideshow? United know the importance of patience better than most – Ferguson’s long wait for a breakthrough is part of the history carved into the stadium walls – but the key now might be to understand that the process is cyclical.

For the first time in more than 20 years United are not in a position to trade on their name and reputation, at least not on the pitch. They have money to spend, though they are not at present as attractive a destination as some of their rivals.

The task facing a new manager will be to build again and bring the club together, and in that sense it is legitimate to wonder whether Zinedine Zidane’s three Champions League successes in a row qualify him for the job, or whether Antonio Conte can seriously be considered after his fractious time at Chelsea. Ole Gunnar Solskjær could put himself in a good position if he does well in the next few months and, though United would not normally be looking to pinch the manager of Molde, this is not a normal situation: most of the regular solutions have been auditioned and found wanting.

What Solskjær has in his favour is an obvious connection with the club and a willingness to stay for the long haul if things work out, which is what Ferguson wanted in the first place. Yet Pochettino is a stayer, too, and has the experience and the proven record, in the Premier League and in Europe. The only question appears to be whether he has the stomach for another major construction project so soon after the new White Hart Lane.

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