Manchester United’s search for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s replacement could well be a long and difficult process, and certainly the early signs are not good.
Hiring a caretaker manager, Michael Carrick, with a view to installing an as-yet-unidentified interim manager is certainly a novel approach.
But Ed Woodward might just catch a break. Two years after United decided against hiring Mauricio Pochettino, they may have been handed the opportunity to correct the error.
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As revealed by GOAL on Sunday, the Paris Saint-Germain manager is interested in a move to Old Trafford, and could be available right away, which in turn would untangle what was shaping up to be a messy six months for the Red Devils.
Pochettino to United makes so much sense. It is the appointment the club should have made back in the summer of 2019, when Solskjaer was offered the job on a permanent basis mere few months before the Argentine was dismissed by Tottenham.
Woodward must make the right call this time, and must not be put off by the difficulties Pochettino has had in Paris.
He is a manager who expects loyalty and hard work from his players, who expects far-reaching powers at the club he works for, and who promotes youth over ego. None of these things are possible at star-studded PSG, where even an 11-point lead at the top of Ligue 1 is not considered good enough by some.
Instead, to judge whether he would be a good United manager, and to analyse what he would bring to Old Trafford, we must look back to his transformative tenure at Spurs.
Pochettino the moderniser United need
Before we get into the details of Pochettino’s tactical preferences, it is worth noting that what United need more than anything is a serious modern tactician; a coach with the expertise and elite training to bring the club in line with Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester City at the forefront of the modern game.
United lacked many things under Solskjaer, whose coaching was - to put it kindly - vague. To take just one example, he reportedly did not actually coach pressing, instead expecting his players to work this out on their own simply by closing down the opponent nearest to them.
United’s random patterns and positional indiscipline over the last three years has been in stark contrast to the precision coached by Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola, and Thomas Tuchel.
Pochettino can, and will, keep up with these three. As a disciple of Marcelo Bielsa, he is extremely demanding of his players, drilling them exactly where to stand and move, organising the collective both off the ball and on it.
This latter point is where the modern coaches deviate from history. Football is now almost as regimented in possession as it is out. That is the level of sophisication and structure Pochettino can give Manchester United.
Pochettino’s tactical blueprint
Pochettino’s Spurs were, at their best, sensational to watch. The basic idea was to build out gradually from the back, with a comprehensive strategy to create neat triangles up the pitch, before suddenly switching tempo and playing sharp vertical passes through the central column.
This is achieved with a high defensive line and a narrow attacking shape (usually a 4-2-3-1), the full-backs providing width so that the midfielders and forwards can all slip into the half-spaces and into the number 10 zone.
Positional rotation is common as the striker drops off, the No.10 makes runs in behind, the wingers come short, and the centre-backs carry the ball out of defence.
By staying compact in this structure, Spurs had multiple short-passing options to play quick one-touch football, often drawing the opposition down one side of the pitch before using a long diagonal to hit the freed-up full-back on the other flank.
This compactness and high line when on the ball was, of course, matched with furious pressing off it. Spurs hunted in choreographed packs, swarming for the first wave before dropping back into regimented rows of a ruthless 4-4-2.
How does that fit the Man Utd squad?
With sharp tempo changes, an emphasis on verticality through the lines, and hard pressing (all coached in punishing detail through the week), obviously not everyone is suited to the Pochettino methodology.
It is hard to see someone like Paul Pogba - who is at his best playing in a low block, sanguinely playmaking on the counter – fitting in. That should not be too much of a concern, though, considering he is expected to leave the club at the end of the season.
Cristiano Ronaldo is more of a problem.
His lack of pressing has undermined Solskjaer this season, and there is no way a more demanding system will work for the Portugal international, who would give Pochettino flashbacks to his current PSG conundrum.
Edinson Cavani’s good work in deeper areas makes him a more Pochettino-esque striker, and yet Ronaldo is undroppable.
In defence, United do not have the pacey or attack-minded full-backs they would need, which would have to be their top priority in the transfer market over the next two windows. Another bid to sign Kieran Trippier - who played under Pochettino in north London - makes sense as a quick January purchase.
Pochettino would also be looking for a more nuanced, playmaking forward, as the current United squad leans too heavily on quick out-and-out wingers. The narrowness of the system requires an inverted winger to play more like a 10.
However, on the plus side, Fred - who has been crying out for direction – could really come to life considering the agility and assertiveness in possession we saw when the Brazilian was at Shakhtar Donetsk.
That might sound far-fetched to United supporters, but there was a reason Guardiola wanted him to replace Fernandinho at Manchester City.
Elsewhere, Jesse Lingard could flourish in a Dele-like role, or as an inverted winger ghosting into central positions; Jadon Sancho has the speed and directness to excel on the right; and Marcus Rashford is a hard-working and explosive forward in desperate need of tactical focus.
His raw talent has never been properly honed and, with an arm around the shoulder from Pochettino, Rashford could reach a whole new level.
In fact, many young players at the club would enjoy Pochettino’s management style, forming a close bond and relishing their chance to impress. Having brought through lots of academy products at Spurs, the Argentine would thrive in making the most of what Carrington has to offer.
But perhaps more than anyone else, Donny van de Beek would be the one to watch.
The Netherlands midfielder, who played well in a rare 45-minute appearance in Solskjaer’s final game at Watford, is the quintessential Pochettino player: fantastic in tight spaces, a sharp eye for thrusting vertical passes through the lines, and an acute positional sense of when to drive forward in possession and when to run beyond the striker.
Van de Beek would be central to the revolution - and a symbol of the huge chasm between Solskajer and Pochettino. The former was not good enough to understand Van de Beek; the latter, a world-class tactician, would relish the chance to work with him.
The Ronaldo problem aside, United's squad is surprisingly close to being a good fit for Pochettino’s tactical mantra. He has the personality, experience, and intelligence to be a superb Manchester United manager.
Woodward already made the mistake of looking past him once. He must not do it again.