Jose Mourinho being sacked probably won’t change the basics of Louis van Gaal’s time at Manchester United, but it might make choices a lot easier. That’s because having an excellent manager free to take a job is clearly going to make a change seem less drastic, and less of a risk. But it’s also because the only two serious contenders for United’s job until now, Carlo Ancelotti and Pep Guardiola, seem likely to be heading to other directions.
For a year or so, Lionel Messi has been linked with a move to Manchester City. Rumors have again surfaced that City are planning to spend an awful lot of money on finally becoming an important team. Messi is the shortcut to this, by far the best player in the world with a cachet that is unrivaled after Cristiano Ronaldo’s decline. Whether he arrives or not, another large round of spending an excellent way to lure Guardiola from Bayern Munich.
It seems obvious now that Guardiola will not be staying in Germany. It is also clear that Guardiola has little interest in taking a job where there isn’t already a great deal of promise. United’s squad isn’t as bad as Van Gaal is making them play at the moment, but there is obviously work to be done in every single area except the goalkeeper. Even then, David de Gea is probably going to leave for Real Madrid, anyway.
The same can be said for Manchester City, in some sense. Manuel Pellegrini isn’t getting the squad to play to its potential, but there is a generally higher standard in the squad. Add Messi to that, or whatever City’s billions can also bring, and United would probably lose out on Guardiola. It seems sensible to predict that he would take a job that gives him the greatest resources.
And as a result, a space that will have to be filled at Bayern. Ancelotti is the name most recently suggested, something that makes a kind of underwhelming sense. Ancelotti, like Guardiola, is another manager who doesn’t look for the hard jobs. At AC Milan, he ultimately underachieved, but he put up with Silvio Berlusconi’s interference with an easy demeanor and lasted for years. At Paris Saint-Germain, he had all the money he needed to win the league and should have won two, but he couldn’t match the mighty Montpellier in his first six months. He took the nonsense of the Real circus, and the players still speak highly of him. If Ancelotti is offered the choice of City, United and Bayern, United are a distant third.
With Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool, that doesn’t leave United with many options. There’s Ryan Giggs, but if his succession was assured, you would imagine the club would be much more bullish about the possibility. There’s Gary Neville, who is learning the job at Valencia, but will have only half a season’s experience come the summer. The other problem with Neville is that any move might have to come along with a Peter Lim/Class of ‘92 takeover. The Glazers might sell for the right price, and some of them might be willing to sell for less than that, but it seems unworkable for now.
That leaves Mourinho as the only viable option. Lots of Chelsea fans claim otherwise, and there may be merit in their arguments, but there are many accounts of Mourinho expecting to take over from Alex Ferguson when he retired and being distraught when it appeared that United really were going to appoint David effing Moyes. When Moyes was sacked in April 2014, Mourinho even threw a strop in a press conference, seemingly goading Roman Abramovich into removing him, though it was obviously a fruitless endeavor.
Until the last couple of weeks, Mourinho’s availability was moot, anyway. The club were protesting that Van Gaal was a genius and would be supplied with bags and bags more money to deliver him a superstar; Ronaldo, probably, but that didn’t stop Ed Woodward chucking the names Neymar, Gareth Bale and Thomas Muller into the direction of anyone willing to write up the story on the back pages. But it seems things have changed. There have been recurrent and increasingly prominent rumors that United were considering a move for Guardiola. Woodward already has a habit of leaking the names of players, especially when the pressure is on, so it is no stretch to believe he is now doing the same with managers.
As the recent to-do over the Red Issue fanzine highlighted, United’s chief executive is susceptible to the fans’ opinion. He is motivated by two things: making lots of money for the Glazers, and being popular with the masses. This could serve as the starting point for a change in manager. Now United have been knocked out of the Champions League, you’d think there was a clause allowing for a cheaper termination of his contract, though perhaps there are other more significant failures which would make it cheaper still. United could quickly establish with Mourinho now how long he is willing to wait via their old friend, Jorge Mendes. The process to change managers could be a smooth one, if they wanted it.
A manager of the stature of Mourinho would be his very own superstar – a way to deliver a famous name in the middle of the season, if it can’t be done with a player. Woodward could paint a move not as a mistake to appoint Van Gaal in the first place but a sudden opportunity to upgrade the manager, as well as keep the focus away from his errors.
It also helps that Van Gaal recently set the parameters for his exit. When he loses the players, he’ll go. Well, he’s lost the players. Earlier in the season senior players complained over training. After the Wolfsburg game, Juan Mata lost his temper. Ashley Young has been apparently frozen out, as have other players at different times, and there are rumors Wayne Rooney’s absence is not as straightforward as claimed. Ryan Giggs was said in one story to be disillusioned with the manager, a story which wasn’t denied. The fans are regularly booing the side, the side is crap, the players aren’t interested anymore and the assistant manager doesn’t care. By Van Gaal’s own requirements, he should be removed.
Mourinho might not be perfect, but there’s plenty that might offer practical means to improvement. He might often fall out with his players, but he’s also capable of inspiring devotion among many of them. A move from the autocratic Van Gaal to Mourinho might even feel like a relaxing move for the players. He is demanding tactically, but again, not quite as defensive and sideways as Van Gaal. He does at least know you need to score one goal to win a game. He is also the only manager to have properly riled Guardiola in the past, even if it did seem to dent his long-term energy. His relationship with Mendes might secure the players both Woodward and the fans would like to watch, though perhaps Radamel Falcao might also make a return. He may have disagreements with the board, but Van Gaal has hardly shrunk back from past disagreements at United. He certainly made his point by curtailing commercial activities on the last summer tour.
United reacted to the last sacking by hiring his opposite: a strong, belligerent leader who would face up to zesty players taking liberties. Now, they might go back the other way, but only slightly. Not the happy one any longer, but not the impossible one in the job at the moment. They would not be wrong to expect more from this hard-nosed, combative and often inspirational Mourinho, and Van Gaal’s current performance is making it an easy choice.
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