When Jose Mourinho’s scorched-earth series was finally canned by Manchester United and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was given caretaker charge of the wheel, a select group of journalists had an off-record audience with Ed Woodward.
Naturally, an enquiry was made over the club’s big picture for the managerial position and their confidence over landing primary target Mauricio Pochettino, then at Tottenham, in the summer.
United’s executive vice-chairman is understood to have sniggered as he retorted: “You all think we want him, but that would be the easy choice. Too easy. It’s Julian Nagelsmann we like.”
This was a curious offering from Woodward in multiple ways. First, Pochettino had been openly courted by the club’s hierarchy with Sir Alex Ferguson campaigning for his appointment. The Argentine fulfilled all the criteria the promised but deserted “thorough recruitment process” was after: a charismatic personality with tactical acumen, who had the habit of exceeding expectations and defying restrictions, while also unsettling Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp.
The painting of Nagelsmann, the man every top European club had been assessing since his emergence at Hoffenheim, as some left-field, covert option was quite the spin.
But the real head-scratcher was Woodward so confidently declaring that United wouldn’t do the easy thing when they so effortlessly caved to romanticism with Solskjaer, and have shown an aversion to making hard decisions until there is nowhere else to manoeuvre.
The club only break glass when flames have already long torched the good. And Solskjaer was great for United’s power brokers, who extracted every drop of generosity derived from his legend status and very-nice-guy vibe – even down to his farewell interview.
The Norwegian became a saviour, a symbol of the “Manchester United Way”, a buffer, and ultimately the figure to field all the bullets. A shield for the Glazers, a shill for the repacking of the glory days as clicks and custom.
Letting Solskjaer go was put off for as long as possible because the spotlight would effectively turn to those who unnecessarily let him in on a permanent basis, unnecessarily handed him a new three-year contract when there were significant question marks against his capabilities, and unnecessarily allowed the nostalgia experiment to go on despite a series of crisis points colouring the past three years.
So all eyes are now on the men who waited until after the international break to sack Solskjaer, have not identified an interim manager despite having at least a month to do so, and have been forced into placing Michael Carrick in caretaker situ.
The guys who, rather than admit they were wrong and do right by United’s ambitions, chose to keep backing an out-of-depth manager regardless of cost or his metamorphosis into a consistent punchline.
Ed Woodward is set to depart Old Trafford at the end of the year
And these suits, despite all this evidence, insist they are better equipped to deal with designing the way forward than they were when Mourinho exited.
United credit such surety to a new structure, when in reality it is simply the same faces changing job titles: John Murtough was promoted to football director, Darren Fletcher moved into the technical director role and Matt Judge was made head of football negotiations. Richard Arnold will soon shift from group managing director to being Woodward’s successor.
Life after Solskjaer is awfully scary for them because he was the perfect employee – genial, grateful to be there, obliging – and his departure invites all the hard calls they’ve desperately tried to shirk.
United contorted in myriad shapes to avoid this juncture: rearranging the manager’s press conferences to a later time to reduce his rabbling, delegating tough conversations that were part of his remit to Judge, accepting his refusal not to bring an experienced coach on board, overlooked the wastage of Jadon Sancho and Donny van de Beek, while actively briefing against the heavyweight options on the market.
Last October, they swerved on replacing Solskjaer with Pochettino on account of the victory over Paris Saint-Germain. Sticking with the status quo was less daunting than opening the door to someone with greater gravitas that could force real change on the football front.
It explains why United scoffed when Chelsea so rapidly swooped for Thomas Tuchel, with senior officials gleefully predicting disaster at Stamford Bridge given his abrasiveness. Never mind the German’s elite coaching ability, that he was on their shortlist to replace Mourinho, or that he made it known he’d be open to taking over at Old Trafford.
Tuchel’s immediate and vast reconstruction of Chelsea should have been humbling for the club, but they let serial winner Antonio Conte slip through too.
He was apparently too much to handle and too at odds with United’s “cultural reboot”.
This phrase has been used to explain Solskjaer’s permanent hiring and the reticence to fire him over the past year despite the availability of top-tier managers. They are thus pretty weighty words, yet have only ever been explained as: “winning, playing with an X factor, and promoting youth.”
Deeper dives into it are usually met with that go-to gem: “We’re Manchester United.”
There has been a desperate determination from the club to spell out that they operate differently to their chief rivals Man City and Liverpool. United love to flag the spending of the former, insisting their recruitment is in a much healthier state despite squandering around £125m in misusing Sancho, van de Beek and Alex Telles.
One of the player-trade successes they share is the process of landing Aaron Wan-Bissaka from Crystal Palace, which started off with a database of 804 right-backs.
This was rightly ridiculed by the analytics community as the antithesis of smart, surgical profiling. From the jump, it had also been pointed out that he was not an offensive fullback in fitting with the club’s attacking blueprint, certainly not to the tune of £50m.
Even the deal for Bruno Fernandes, the most transformative signing post-Ferguson, could have materialised in the summer of 2019 but the club rubbished interest in him. Fast forward and they were frantically jostling with Barcelona to land the attacker at the end of the January window.
United have done an exemplary job in illustrating their contrast to City and Liverpool – just not in the way they’ve envisaged.
Neither of those teams would sleepwalk into such a situation in modern times. Despite Guardiola and Klopp being leading managerial lights, the football operations departments of both clubs have done plenty of contingency planning around them over the past three years in particular due to personal heartache, health, poor periods of form and uncertainty over contracts.
The best have to be ready for whatever worse-case scenario and work to ensure they are. United, meanwhile, are quite evidently functioning on the fly.
They are big enough, rich enough, and powerful enough to still attract a strong candidate in the summer. All signs currently point to United returning to Pochettino; the man who should have been permanently installed in 2019. It wouldn’t have been the easy choice, rather the right one.
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