This week, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s life got a little more complicated. Jose Mourinho will no doubt be enjoying his surprise return to football with Tottenham having the byproduct of muddying the waters at Manchester United for the man who brought sunshine to Old Trafford after he had presided over such gloom. Well, for a while at least.
Should Solskjaer falter – or more properly, continue to falter – the presence of Mauricio Pochettino on the market, length of gardening leave permitting, can only put pressure on. Pochettino has looked ideal for United ever since he was making great strides as a Southampton manager. He is youngish, progressive, a developer of talent, ruthless when he needs to be, someone players want to work with, and a manager with still much to prove.
None of the managers United have appointed since Sir Alex Ferguson’s abdication in 2013 has met those criteria to such a comprehensive extent. David Moyes was hardly known for blooding youth or being a manager with a global reputation for improving players. Prone to dither and delay, he could not in any way match his predecessor’s decisiveness.
Both Louis van Gaal and Mourinho came with too many miles on the clock, a set way of working that failed to transfer to the club’s culture. Tottenham and Daniel Levy may find that being a problem with Mourinho, even if briefings to the media suggest he has changed his ways and developed a new outlook. It might be recalled that much the same was said of him in the build-up to him cuckooing into Van Gaal’s nest in the summer of 2016.
In truth, in a game of Top Trumps, Solskjaer would be a far inferior card to Pochettino, probably only winning on age (he is just under 12 months younger) and on trophies won, as ‘Poch’ is yet to lift silverware. However, two titles in Norway’s Tippeligaen in 2011 and 2012, a league ranked 22nd by UEFA coefficients, hardly compares to energising Espanyol and Southampton, two clubs who define the term ‘unfashionable’, before making an underfunded club a power in the Premier League and Champions League.
To use Boris Johnson’s painful description of his Brexit withdrawal deal, Pochettino seems ‘oven-ready’ for Manchester United. In October, Ed Woodward’s multiple briefings, and one published interview with venerable fanzine United We Stand, contained repeated backing of the incumbent, a belief in a drive towards trusting youth, and slowly building United back up from the bottom. And with a club legend still loved by all but the most pragmatic, glory-thirsty supporters, time is being granted to lay such foundations.
That’s if performances like United no-shows at West Ham, Newcastle and Bournemouth do not become the normal run of things. United have looked one-dimensional, fallible, callow and unlikely to enter the conversation for the top four and a return to the Champions League, an absence from which it was this week revealed is beginning to sorely affect club finances.
At times, Solskjaer has begun to show the greying visage that both Moyes and Mourinho wore during their spiralling down the drain; Van Gaal never let his haughty deportment slip even when the end was clearly near. Had Woodward not already burned through three managers, each of whom have laid complaint at the support they received, then the Norwegian might already be on the toasting rack.
However, the presence of a high-calibre, readymade replacement, and one who has previously received the patronage of Ferguson himself, is the type of stalking horse that no manager would appreciate having around.
This is the new reality Solksjaer must face, that of a suitor being perpetually linked with his job, a similar situation that Van Gaal faced almost as soon as Mourinho was sacked by Chelsea in December 2015. Pochettino is a manager who appears in need of a long holiday, having burnt too many matches at Tottenham but will not be short of job offers. Paris Saint-Germain, where he is remembered fondly as a hard-bitten defender, looks a likely destination.
Bayern Munich, currently under the temporary management of Herr Hans-Dieter Flick, have lately been linked with tempting Pep Guardiola back to Bavaria, and should he demur, then it appears they are again open to bringing in someone from outside German football, links that are now growing in the German media. Real Madrid too may soon have a vacancy with Zinedine Zidane’s return yet to take flight. Pochettino has a wealth of options open to him, but the link with United will not go away until he takes up any of those blue-chip opportunities. Solskjaer must hope that a return to Spain, France or the Bundesliga’s winter break tempts the Argentinian away from the Premier League.
A year ago, as Mourinho was sacked, and until Solskjaer took on the temporary reins, Pochettino was favourite for the long-term job, though figures as large as £36m were quoted for how much it would cost for Daniel Levy to let his main man, and holiday buddy, leave North London. Even allowing for the paying out of Solskjaer’s contract, a bargain deal looks in the offing.
Pochettino, though, does not look quite as ideal as he did last December. Cracks in his relationship with Levy and his players had long been apparent and his management style does appear to have a finite lifespan. It was not long ago that Levy was talking of Pochettino being Tottenham’s Ferguson, but that came apart at the seams and spectacularly, rapidly so.
Like Mourinho, he has the ability to have his players buy into his vision but the signs of 2019 have been that, like his Tottenham successor, the edges will eventually fray and the slide can be rapid. And while he is not so outwardly full of himself, like Mourinho and Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, Pochettino is not a man unaware of his own genius.
And Woodward, who has more than enough troubles with transfers and spendthrift managers, may not appreciate working with someone else who thinks that being at Manchester United means a bottomless chequebook. Pochettino’s desire to run a club as he likes from top to bottom – and without a director of football – eventually led to tensions with Levy, who had other fish to fry with a new stadium to build and fresh investment to seek. One thing apparent from this week’s shocking though actually not too surprising departure is that working with Pochettino is not necessarily a bed of roses.
He does, though, remain a manager who has brought brilliance from the likes of Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen at Spurs, cradled the talents of Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana and James Ward-Prowse at Southampton. That makes him a manager of attraction to the best clubs in football.
Whoever lands him will take a manager of pedigree. And Solskjaer must hope that Pochettino heads somewhere else soon or those links will continue to damage his own standing.