Manchester United, Mauricio Pochettino and what might have been

The Paris Saint-Germain manager has twice been considered the perfect man to take charge by United, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has a habit of producing results when he needs them most

Melissa Reddy
Senior Football correspondent
Sunday 24 October 2021 09:47
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer delighted as Cristiano Ronaldo seals comeback over Atalanta

It is eerily quiet in the southwest of the French capital. The Parc des Princes has been fully vacated with the hot-dog sellers trolleying home and the neighbouring restaurants shuttering up.

Right here, through the silence in the shadow of the stadium, screams a fact: Paris is the location where two of Manchester United’s biggest decisions in recent years were made, which ultimately led to it becoming the home of Mauricio Pochettino.

This was not how it was designed to be. This still feels… off.

Only last October, contrary to denials, United were considering replacing an out-of-depth Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with the Argentine, whom Sir Alex Ferguson had charmed for an age with the endgame of having him in situ at Old Trafford.

Confidential meetings are understood to have materialised in London via intermediaries. United were stuttering and senior figures questioned whether it was careless to give a caretaker manager permanent status – a choice rooted in the emotion of the 3-1 victory against Paris Saint-Germain in March 2019.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer celebrates United’s comeback against Atalanta

The initial plan in December 2018 had been for Solskjaer to shift the thick cloud of the Jose Mourinho era and prime the path for Pochettino to swap Tottenham for a restoration job in Manchester at the end of the season.

But the unexpected, galvanising triumph in Paris had swelled pressure to hand Solskjaer a permanent deal with former players practically begging for it during punditry duties.

Results were good, the dullness around United had been dispatched, and the squad responded to a kinder, less-rigid approach doused in nostalgia.

Solskjaer was delivering everything possibly expected from a caretaker manager, which fogged the big picture: he was not elite level with the capabilities of rebuilding a dynasty.

United folded to sentiment and the public sway, much to the delight of their rivals. Manchester City, having Pochettino in mind as a candidate to succeed Pep Guardiola, feared what he’d be able to do at Old Trafford.

Liverpool worried that he made all the sense for United: a perfect fit at the right time like Jurgen Klopp had been.

Daniel Levy, meanwhile, hated the thought of ceding Poch to United, and even when he sacked the 49-year-old, he structured his settlement in such a way that clubs would still need to negotiate a compensation package with Tottenham during the first year of his departure.

One of the main motivations behind that was to make it as difficult as possible for the manager to conjure his magic on a bigger scale in Manchester given the backing he would have received.

The presence of Solskjaer in United’s technical area did not bother anyone the club would hope to unsettle. Such statements can feel harsh and sting, but it is the reality. Solskjaer has supplied plenty of good, positive touches but the contrast in feeling at the top end of the table when Chelsea relieved Frank Lampard of his duties and recruited Thomas Tuchel couldn’t have been starker.

So United messed up their first crack of securing Pochettino and would repeat that mistake a year ago. In September 2020, they were beaten 3-1 at home by Crystal Palace before being incredibly fortunate that a Bruno Fernandes penalty at the death saw off Brighton, who had hit the woodwork five times.

They were then eviscerated 6-1 by Spurs as Mourinho returned to Old Trafford to conduct a humiliation for the ages. At that point, United were 16th in the league, with just newly promoted Fulham and West Brom possessing a worse goal difference.

With PSG, Chelsea, RB Leipzig and Arsenal on the horizon, the club used the October international break to sketch a change in the dugout. Pochettino, having declined several offers, was on standby.

There was no great desire to axe Solskjaer, who is deservedly well-liked by players, staff, and the hierarchy. But United were alarmed by the state of performances and had feared the worst could happen during that spell of games, specifically in Paris.

Change had to be considered. After the break, as has been customary during Solskjaer’s reign, the ballooning pressure on him was punctured by huge results.

United scorched Newcastle 4-1, saw off PSG 2-1 and drew with Chelsea before smashing five past Leipzig. Pochettino was no longer on the cards, Solskjaer was safe and the club then stumbled against Istanbul Basaksehir and Arsenal.

That spin cycle of inconsistency continues. United released the weight on Solskjaer’s shoulders following the 4-2 embarrassment at Leicester with a comeback against Atalanta that was sealed with a late Cristiano Ronaldo intervention.

Bar the opening weekend win against an obliging Leeds that played into their hands at Old Trafford, United have not been in control of games and gift the opposition high-quality chances.

Their victories have been riveting entertainment; frenzied, dramatic, stirring, despairing. It is rare that they were deserved or a product of strategy rather than individual, decisive moments.

Liverpool, Tottenham, Atalanta away and City lie in wait. Anything could happen, which feeds into the uncertainty around United.

They continue to add pedigree to their ranks while whistling around the issue that they do not have the best person to unlock the overflow of quality in the squad.

The defence to keep Solskjaer largely centres around two strains of thought: the club have tried elite managers that failed and Pochettino isn’t exactly aceing fantasy football with PSG.

The first point seems to neglect that both Louis van Gaal and Mourinho were both well off their best when appointed by United and neither suited a long-term rebuild under the expansive, progressive football expected. Not all experienced managers are the same and it’s silly to scratch off the need for gravitas in the role just because the wrong two didn’t work.

Pochettino is being forced to adapt at PSG

Pochettino, meanwhile, finds himself in a situation where PSG are building a brand rather than a team and continue to undercut his strengths. He was sold on divorcing them from the idea of Expensive Individuals FC and implementing a sustainable structure with greater off-the-ball discipline.

But the club add, add, add – often for show and to spite Barcelona. PSG now have to find solutions for balance when Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar start, addressing unhappy players like Gini Wijnaldum and Gianluigi Donnarumma who believed themselves to be guaranteed starters, the never-ending saga of Mauro Icardi’s domestic issues…

Pochettino, when examining his catalogue at Espanyol, Southampton and Spurs, feels so out of place there.

It is a valid question to ask what the difference is between Mbappe and Messi carpeting PSG’s cracks to Ronaldo doing the same at United. Wouldn’t Pochettino be having the same issues as Solskjaer had he been at Old Trafford?

Well, no. The Norwegian has been able to craft the United squad he wants and does not have anywhere close to the amount of solid evidence as his counterpart in delivering playing identity, tactical structures and improvement to both individuals and the collective.

Sporting director Leonardo is the one who shapes PSG and the Qatar-powered club have much more on the agenda than football-specific aims.

United twice thought Pochettino was perfect for them, a position held by Sir Alex too, with their rivals believing the same.

What might have been circles the silence in Paris. Perhaps, considering the state of play at both clubs, it is not a situation resigned to the past tense.

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