Belfast Telegraph

United must not pass up on historic opportunity to land Poch

In hand: Mauricio Pochettino is better suited than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to lead this misfiring Manchester United side
In hand: Mauricio Pochettino is better suited than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to lead this misfiring Manchester United side

By Miguel Delaney

It was one of those lines that sounded ominous at the time and now just seems like it will be another of those that goes down in the history of a great manager; that presciently captured a feeling.

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 said. "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 seems like: lip service. The recent comments about Manchester City "respecting" United by playing a strong team in the League Cup also betray that there is barely 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 so seems the right man and represents the spectre hanging over every setback.

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 as he drastically over-performed with Tottenham Hotspur and transformed 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.

For anyone that wants to point to Ferguson's anointment of David Moyes as some apparent blind spot in his perception, it barely needs to be added the Old Trafford great is far from the only one who thinks this. So do most in football. Others within the corridors of power at United do. So do some of the players.

There are still some figures at United who hope a deal can be done for the summer.

It just seems so… obvious.

Even if there are debates about Pochettino's lack of silverware and ability to adapt to a big club of United's stature, 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. It was how he built Spurs, as he invigorated them with a sense of mission.

It was a similar sense of mission that Ferguson literally 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 all 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; and that might yet echo through football history.

That's how big this could be. That's how a big decision should be considered.

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 perseverance itself isn't another reactive decision of the type of the club has been criticised for - only this time going against a reactionary perception.

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.

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 fit.

"You can see Klopp's dedication on the sideline," Ferguson previously observed. "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?

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 good-naturedly 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 when they eventually got 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.

Belfast Telegraph


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