The biggest present day footballing side note to the Mourinho sacking is the ever growing clamour to know what the hell is wrong at Manchester United. Admittedly this is quite a small aside to the ginormous news of Mourinho’s sacking and just exactly what is going on in that dressing room. However with Mourinho on the market, Pep’s future still sort of up in the air (I will expand on all this a little later on) and Ancelotti circling over Europe’s biggest clubs, there hasn’t been many occasions when three of the best club managers in Football are looking for their next city to call home.
When I checked immediately after the José sacking on Sky Sports News, SkyBet had Juande Ramos somehow as 2nd favourite for the Chelsea job (if Roman had decided an awful Tottenham outcast was an adequate enough Captain to try and save his blue sinking ship I was intrigued to see if Jacques Santini odds were to be slashed…), I did start wondering who would appear on the Manchester United list if Van Gaal decided to exit stage left this summer from English Football’s biggest commercial asset. However, before such a hypothetical question, what is going wrong with Manchester United this season?
Manchester United to the Premier League is what Ferrari is to Formula 1. Both team and sport are inextricably linked with one another curtesy of a great character. For Ferrari it was Schumacher. For United it is Sir Alex and the shadow of Ferguson looming over the stand bearing his name is rightly a large one. After all those years at the helm, whoever was next in line to the throne was going to find it one hell of a hot seat, and whilst David Moyes came and went, the presence of Ferguson has diminished massively (at least in the media) since Moyes’ departure. Van Gaal has been afforded something Moyes wasn’t. Autonomy to be his own man. Van Gaal has been backed liked never before in the transfer market, his decisions have been unquestioned by the United hierarchy and he hasn’t had to face questions about being the chosen managerial love child of Ferguson. Despite this comparative freedom, something isn’t clicking at United and it offers almost as much as excitement as the Chelsea situation for any neutral Football fan in the country today.
Man Utd sit 4th in the Premier League with one of the best defences in the league. Yet this statement is an incredibly misleading interpretation of United’s season to date. Man Utd find themselves out of the League Cup after losing to Middlesbrough in the fourth round. Whilst the League Cup isn’t a big deal, United’s performances in the Champions League were lacklustre and insipid. In a group in which Manchester United were favourites to go through as group winners, finishing third and an Europa League tie against FC Midtjylland isn’t exactly what United fans were hoping back in September when Gianni Infantino gave them the good news of their Champions League group.
It is these lacklustre and insipid performances that offer Van Gaal the gravest concern to both his job at Manchester United and his reputation of being a perennial winner with Europe’s greats. The ‘Van Gaal millions’ are well documented. £250million spent. Against Bournemouth, Van Gaal named a back four of Varela/McNair/Blind/Borthwick-Jackson. Injuries aside, the signing of Rojo still raises eyebrows and the money paid for Luke Shaw still vast. Ashley Young remained on the bench despite Van Gaal previously utilising him as a left wing back last season.
Beyond the defensive frailties, Manchester United’s goal was scrappy. Scored by Marouane Fellaini, this goal represented only their 6th in their last 7 Premier League matches. This season United have managed to rack up five 0-0 draws at Old Trafford in all competitions, a score line that Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t manage to achieve in any of his last 116 matches in charge of the club. If this was a bank, such results would call for an enquiry into embezzlement because you just cannot see where the money has been spent. Yes Van Gaal has made them tight, Chris Smalling genuinely has flourished and has become a very good centre back. The retention of David De Gea was always going to be key to how United was going to fair this season, and has expected, he has been exceptional. Beyond these positives however Manchester United have been toothless, lacking depth, pace, creativity and goals. Yes Van Gaal, you have conceded only 12 goals this year in the league but equally you have only scored 21 in 16 games. You can win a title like that but you don’t win a Manchester United title like that.
And here comes the next sticking point. West Ham talk about a style of play. Liverpool have a way they like to play football, as does Tony Pulis (and I long for the day fans show discontent that something isn’t Pulis enough) and Manchester United have their own distinguishable style and swagger to dispense of teams in the theatre of dreams.
Van Gaal isn’t this. There isn’t a sinue in Van Gaal’s body that would love to see a swash-buckling counter attack, expressive wing play at speed and a deep running ginger midfielder to score a glancing header from 10 years out. He needs order, possession, more order and then a dollop of discipline. His Manchester United team has become turgid, devoid of expression and lacking so much pace that Berbatov is starting to look like a Grand National winning race horse. The fans, upon showing discontent at a 0-0 draw with West Ham, are reminded by Van Gaal that times have changed, United aren’t that team of 5 years ago. Expectations need to be changed because what fans crave of their United team no longer exists.
Such a message is a strong one for the fans to digest but at Manchester United where the bottom line is now more about commercial revenue, this message is much more far reaching than the fans who travel from around the world to see Manchester United. This is a message about what to expect from ‘Manchester United: The Brand’ in 2015. Or at the very least should be seen as a warning to the United board that Van Gaal and the United Brand might be incompatible with one another. Whilst I don’t want to get into the dynamics or the shortcomings of Van Gaal: The Football Philosopher and United: The Brand (this article by Mathew Syed is far more well researched and articulate than something I could muster – I just hope you are subscribed to The Times), it does offer another facet to the dilemma faced by Manchester United as commercial enterprise and Manchester United as a football club.
Back to the initial question – Who would United get to replace Van Gaal should he leave?
It is a million dollar question, and if Van Gaal was to leave this summer, the next man in charge would potentially have another 250 million reasons to take the job. Champions League football or not, United have become the most expensive project to oversee with the bizarrely named ‘war chest’ ready to be cracked open once more. Despite having such riches however, the managerial scene could change dramatically in the next 2 weeks and United could soon be on the back foot at home and abroad.
The central protagonist in this managerial soap opera is Pep Guardiola. The message coming from across the continent from Bild, Marca, Guillem Balague at Sky Sports and the English press (The Independent is just one example) is that he is on the move. Worried about out-staying his welcome in Bavaria, Pep needs a new challenge. Inevitably Chelsea will be linked almost to the point of hysteria now with Mourinho gone. However Manchester City’s long time courting of the enigmatic Spaniard may now be too great to resist. Ever since the appointment of Ferran Sorriano and Txiki Begiristain, City and their owners have longed for Guardiola to prowl the Etihad dugout in a well-tailored cardigan. Any overtures from Roman on his yacht might already be too late if Pep did decide to leave Bayern.
If this proves to be the case, Ancelotti seems destined for Bayern Munich. The Munich powerhouse of German football is famed for their efficiency and their planning of managerial change – the transition from Jupp Heyneckes to Pep Guardiola is a case in point. It was seamless. If reports are true, Ancelotti has already secured a three year deal to take over at Bayern Munich and will undoubtedly add further to his already trophy laden CV.
So who would be left for United if Van Gaal continued to be such a divisive figure with the fans, if the football doesn’t improve, if he lost the dressing room? Ryan Giggs? Gary Neville? Surely too inexperienced? What about Diego Simeone? His work at Atletico Madrid has been incredible, unquestionably so, but if he was too leave the Spanish capital then Chelsea must appear to be a more natural destination than Carrington.
One name remains. He is a winner. He brings with him a stature, a competitiveness that is built for that ‘big club mentality’ any Manchester United manager should have built into their fibre.
The ‘Special One’. The ‘Happy One’. Potentially the ‘Red One’. Mourinho and Ferguson have become very good friends since the latter has retired, with Ferguson even recently showing his support for Mourinho before the Porto game last week. Will Mourinho turn the job down out of loyalty to Chelsea? That is something only he can answer but to Mourinho the Manchester United job could well represent the pinnacle the sport has to offer.
And perhaps Manchester United need Mourinho to bring them back to their former glory. Even if it is just for two and half seasons.