United unwinds in Wile E. Coyote country
The winter transfer window has come and gone with a few departures and no Old Trafford arrivals. Ordinarily the headlines might have focused on the fact that United failed to bring in a fresh face in winter window for the first time since 2005. These are no ordinary times though as Manchester City confirmed football’s worst kept secret: Pep Guardiola will take charge of the Blues next season.
Guardiola’s move to Eastlands is the culmination of a pursuit that began in 2012 and, in fairness, City is perfectly suited for him. The club has an excellent youth system, there’s a well thought-out sporting structure in place, with Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain handling the footballing matters and, crucially, the hierarchy has a clear idea of what it wants on the pitch with a plan to meet the club’s goals. The argument that Pep is taking the easy option by joining City is countered by a simple rejoinder: why would he risk his reputation taking charge of a directionless Manchester United?
It is a bitter a pill to swallow for many United fans, but unlike the Reds, City has built the club’s foundations on the pursuit of footballing not financial success. It’s the adoption of a Fergusonian mantra: focus on football and the money will follow.
Under the Glazers and Ed Woodward United has not just failed to land Jürgen Klopp and Carlo Ancelotti, but now missed out on Guardiola twice. There’s nothing to suggest that there’s any long-term plan other than hoping that Louis van Gaal can dramatically turn things around. United’s 3-0 victory over Stoke City on Tuesday night is only a start, and far from a pattern.
Consider this – the Blues been working since 2012 to bring Guardiola to the Etihad, whilst United seems set on reviewing Van Gaal’s performance on a week-by-week basis. The contrast is stunning.
Even if Van Gaal does manage to bring his team out of its current slump, what of the future? The best case scenario, for the Dutchman at least, is that he sees out his contract and leaves in 2017. There’s no long-term planning in that. By that time José Mourinho – even if he isn’t to everyone’s liking – could be off the table, forcing the club to scramble for a new manager when the world’s elite may well be put off by United’s predicament. After all, if Gareth Bale was reportedly concerned about the direction the club is taking, the world’s best coaches may well think the same way.
In this the club is undeniably playing catch-up. City is now the Road Runner serenely moving ahead, with the Old Trafford club the hapless Wile E. Coyote. When the Looney Tunes villain needs a new toy he parses through his Acme catalogue. Similarly, when Woodward needs a player he invariably turns to Jorge Mendes. And if the coyote’s plans and contraptions to achieve victory are absurdly complex then what of Van Gaal’s tactical choices from team formation to bizarre substitutions? Remember the Dutchman turned to Nick Powell twice to dig him out of a hole away to Wolfsburg and Bournemouth. That’s the youngster, with no Old Trafford future, now loaned out to Hull City.
Whatever the tune at Old Trafford, it’s certainly loony. But then that’s what happens to a club that prioritises profit over everything else. The Glazers may even look back at January fondly – United signed commercial partnerships with an outdoor sportswear firm and an Indonesian isotonic drinks company.
The gauntlet thrown down by City leaves the ball firmly in United’s court. History suggests that Woodward and company will struggle to find the right move. The Moyes error was an unmitigated disaster, with the Scot tearing up the existing sporting set-up and setting the club on a process of accelerated decline. Van Gaal has steadied the ship, but is struggling for solutions to the problems surrounding the club. That the Dutchman reportedly offered his resignation – denied by the club – demonstrates his fragile confidence. No amount of expensive wine will remedy that quickly.
There are few apparent contingency plans. Woodward is unlikely to bite the bullet and appoint Mourinho, although the marketing men at Premier League HQ would be delighted if the Portuguese man o’ war was appointed United boss to renew his rivalry with Guardiola. It would certainly be box office.
Yet, the powers-that-be at Old Trafford are far from ready to tolerate the drama and soap opera that invariably surrounds Mourinho. It’s a principle that will only be tested if United slumps even further this season.
Then there is the risky bet of opting for Ryan Giggs in the hope that the Welshman could become United’s Guardiola. Giggs knows the club like few others, but there is a crucial difference between the pair. When Guardiola ended his playing career at Barcelona he went on the play in Serie A, Qatar and in Mexico for Dorados de Sinaloa; he was an admirer of then coach Juan Manuel Lillo. Guardiola may not have boasted any coaching experience prior to his position at Barcelona B, but he went out to explore new football cultures.
Giggs, conversely, has known nothing but United. His coaching education has come under Sir Alex Ferguson, Moyes and Van Gaal. It is understandable that he has been reluctant to learn his craft away from Old Trafford – after all Gary Neville’s Valencia stint offers a chastening lesson. The only former United star with a realistic shot at coming back to manage the club is Tuesday’s defeated manager, Mark Hughes – and he’s an outside bet not a front-runner.
Should Woodward reconsider his doubts about Giggs, Ferguson and the Class of ’92 cabal, then the executive would be wise to bring in a sporting director. Carlos Queiroz, currently with Iran, might fit as United’s first director of football. He would certainly be an intriguing choice as a tactically astute coach, who is hugely experienced, and aware of the club’s traditions.
In another scenario United could go for a surprise and hire an outsider such as Thomas Tuchel, Jorge Sampaoli, Massimiliano Allegri or Antonio Conte.
It’s hard to second guess what Woodward and the hierarchy will do though. If United hires Mourinho or another coach the obvious risk is that Giggs walks out of the club. Giggs’ departure may not resonate so strongly given his association with the Van Gaal regime, but it would still be felt. Yet, if Giggs is chosen to succeed Van Gaal, then United will be taking a huge gamble on inexperience.
This uncertainty lingers because United does not have a clear direction; it’s a point to repeat ad nauseam. City, by contrast, is built to succeed because it is a club with a structure and a plan that will last through Guardiola’s tenure and beyond.
And if the status quo is maintained then City could well streak ahead, like Road Runner on a clear stretch of highway, leaving United to figure out increasingly harebrained and not-so-wily scheme to catch up.
Or in other words, when it comes to near-term success, “that’s all folks!”