Manchester United are passing up an historic opportunity to appoint Mauricio Pochettino

Even if there are debates about his lack of silverware, this is a big club currently looking to reshape how they do things, and build again through youth. No modern manager has a better track record of this than Pochettino​

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Wednesday 15 January 2020 08:26 GMT
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer: United still have something to hang onto

It was one of those lines that sounded ominous at the time, and now seems like it will be another sound bite that goes down in the history of a great manager.

Just a few months into Jurgen Klopp’s time at Liverpool, Sir Alex Ferguson was discussing the German’s impact and how impressive he’d been. “He’s revived Liverpool’s enthusiasm,” the great Scot told Kicker. “He’s a strong personality. That’s absolutely vital at a big club. I’m worried about him because the one thing United don’t want is Liverpool to get above us.”

Ferguson, in other words, had an instinct for where it was going. What was happening at Liverpool just felt right. It fit.

Nothing seems to fit at Old Trafford right now. The sense of “something special” building – as one key figure said in the aftermath of the victory over Paris Saint-Germain – has long since evaporated, proven to be little more than a fleeting emotion in the euphoria of victory. Manchester United haven’t really looked right since that run, the club’s many problems instead coalescing to collapse back in on each other.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer tries to say all the right things, but that’s all it is: lip service. The recent comments about Manchester City “respecting” United by playing a strong team in the League Cup demonstrated that there is little clarity of language now, let alone clarity of thought.

The Norwegian increasingly seems to be illustrating he is the wrong man for the job, rather than the other way around in the way that was hoped. It’s all the worse when someone available seems the right man, and represents the spectre hanging over every set-back.

It is worth remembering, after all, that Ferguson had a similar feeling as he did about Klopp with another manager. That was a few months later, the following spring in 2016, when he met Mauricio Pochettino for lunch. Ferguson was willing to tell anyone who’d listen at the time that the Argentine was the best manager in the country. Pochettino certainly proved he was one of the best over the next few years, drastically over-performing with Tottenham Hotspur and transforming the entire outlook of the club.

He now looks by far the best option for Manchester United. It just seems to fit, to feel so natural. There are still some figures at United who hope a deal with Pochettino can be done for the summer. Even if there are debates about the Argentine’s lack of silverware and ability to adapt to a club of United’s stature, this is a big institution currently looking to reshape how they do things, and build again through youth.

No modern manager has a better track record of this than Pochettino. It was how he built Spurs, invigorating them with a sense of mission. It was a similar sense of mission that Ferguson espoused in his first years in the United job. “This isn’t just a job to me,” he said in 1988. “It’s a mission. I am deadly serious about it. Some people would reckon too serious. We will get there, believe me. And when it happens, life will change for Liverpool and everyone else – dramatically.”

It’s also clearly what Ferguson recognised in Klopp – and Pochettino. It feels like a natural choice. It feels like the time is right. It also puts executive vice chairman Ed Woodward and the United board in a curious position, where a decisiveness of the type that defined Ferguson’s career is actually warranted.

It could be a decision that echoes through football history. That’s how big this could be. It is also a situation United have been in before, in 2013, and that spring in 2016. It did feel four years ago as if it was almost coming down to a straight choice between Pochettino and Jose Mourinho.

There is at least one significant difference, mind. While everyone knew Louis van Gaal would be leaving that summer – bar, it seems, the man himself – that is far from the case with Solskjaer. Woodward has instead spoken with a zeal of his own on why the Norwegian is the right man for the job. He is convinced.

It should also be acknowledged that there is an admirability about the United chief sticking with his man, and persevering with a plan. The hope, however, is that this perseverance itself isn’t another reactive decision of the type of the club has been criticised for.

Those decisions in 2013 and 2016 also illustrate timing is hugely important here, and even from a historic perspective.

There is a strong argument that Mourinho was never the right man for United, but he would undeniably have been a better appointment in 2013, when he was closer to his peak and his huge personality would have been better suited than David Moyes to the daunting task of succeeding Ferguson. Mourinho would have made it about something else: himself.

Pochettino feels like the right man to step in at Old Trafford (Action Images via Reuters)

By 2016, it felt like he was something else, and just not the same force. The 2015-16 collapse at Chelsea, and what it reflected, should have been a much bigger concern for United. Pochettino felt like the future, Mourinho the past.

In choosing the Portuguese at the time – and in a move many suspect was itself a reaction to Manchester City getting Pep Guardiola – United effectively wasted three years. In persisting with Solskjaer, there is not just the danger of more time being wasted. There is the danger of missing out on a manager that even Woodward himself has seen as the right man, as clubs like Manchester City, Bayern Munich and Juventus look at Pochettino for the future.

A fair response to all that is that the nature of big clubs means any manager has less influence, and that United have many bigger problems right now beyond the man in charge of the first team.

That can all be true, but still shouldn’t preclude the importance of the right appointment.

You only have to look at another manager who would have been a fine choice for United, in Antonio Conte. Internazionale have remained a basket-case for so long, but he has made them a force again through sheer force of his own personality. He can be that effective. He will make opposition clubs worry. He has made Juventus worry.

It is the same with Klopp. There has inevitably been a lot of fair praise for Liverpool’s intelligence over the last few years, and especially their analytics department, but some sources at the club maintain some of this is retrofitted out of the fact Klopp just makes it all work.

“You can see Klopp’s dedication on the sideline,” Ferguson added. “I’m convinced his work in training is similar. He’s a strong personality. That’s absolutely vital at a big club.” Do United really have this now?

Jurgen Klopp has transformed Liverpool into a force of English football again (EPA)

It is entirely possible that Solskjaer could prove everyone wrong, and that Woodward’s patience will be seen as visionary, that it will be testament to their perseverance in their own sense of mission. They could well be laughing at words like this in a few years, as they sit beside the major trophies.

It’s just that position takes an awful lot of faith on the evidence we’ve actually seen, and a lot of risk when a choice like Pochettino seems like such a sure thing.

United should appreciate all this better than most. They spent so many years trying to find the right man before eventually landing Ferguson. The right fit at the right moment in history. It almost feels like karmic retribution that the retirement of Ferguson has been followed by another such search.

“It can happen that big clubs lose it,” he also said in that Kicker interview. “For two decades, Liverpool changed managers without building their own identity.”

Then they got the right man. It now feels like Pochettino is the right man. It will be remarkable if they pass it up. It wouldn’t just be passing up on a manager. It would be passing on a moment in history.

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