Who should manage Man United? Here’s the best overall fit

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It’s been nearly nine years since Sir Alex Ferguson retired and Manchester United needed a new manager. Well, we’re almost a decade in and the search is still ongoing. David Moyes lasted for less than one year. Louis van Gaal made it two, Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer both fell shy of a full third season, and the guy in charge since Nov. 29, Ralf Rangnick, signed on for only six months as manager (with the potential for a two-year consultancy beyond that).

After 27 years under the stewardship of maybe the best coach in the history of professional sports, Manchester United have become just another Premier League team, hiring and firing a new manager every two-plus years. The issues at the club clearly go deeper than just the guy on the sideline, but the same dysfunction that seems to affect their player-acquisition strategy — take a deep breath and then give this list a quick read — extends to how they hire their coaches.

While Liverpool and Manchester City‘s successes are triumphs in organizational cohesion, they’re also proof-positive of the transformational impact that certain coaches can have at the highest level. Manchester United can easily afford a manager of Jurgen Klopp’s or Pep Guardiola’s quality, so why haven’t they hired one?

With a new manager due to join the club this summer, Mark Ogden and Ryan O’Hanlon are going to play Director of Football and answer that question. First, it helps to know how United got into such chaos; from there, we’ll look at the style of play United should aspire to if they’re to be winning trophies again, assess the field of possible candidates and finally, hopefully, make the pick.

You’re welcome, Man United.

Jump to: Where United went wrong | How should United play? | Coaches on radar | Which coaches actually make sense | Our pick


How Man United got into such a mess

It was never going to be easy to replace Ferguson, but the club has made crucial mistakes at every turn with each appointment since. The next choice — and the fifth permanent manager since Ferguson stepped down — has to be the right choice, but should it really have taken the self-styled « world’s biggest football club » nine years (and many notable failures) to successfully replace their greatest manager?

It helps to know what went wrong with the previous appointments, and how can United learn from it.

When Moyes was hired in May 2013, he was anointed as Ferguson’s hand-picked successor after an 11-year stint at Everton. He was considered a disciplinarian and team builder who would give United a threat of continuity, but Moyes was wholly unsuited to the job. Where Ferguson was a risk-taker, demanding that his team played on the edge, Moyes was cautious and his football was the same. Having won nothing at Everton, his lack of success quickly led to Ferguson’s players losing faith.

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Craig Burley debates whether Carlo Ancelotti would be interested in taking the Manchester United job.

When Moyes was sacked in April 2014, United were in disarray and had gone from being champions to failing even to qualify for Europe. In came Van Gaal, a man with a stellar track record with Ajax and Barcelona. The only problem was that his biggest successes came in the 1990s, and the game had moved on dramatically by the time he arrived in 2014, having not worked in club management since being sacked by Bayern Munich in 2011.

Ultimately, Van Gaal was too stubborn to alter his rigid approach, and he also made a series of expensive mistakes in the transfer market. The players and fans were switched off by his formulaic football, and Van Gaal seemed like a coach from a different age. United’s mistake in appointing him was that they hadn’t realised that high-energy, high-pressing and attacking football was the new way. He was an analog coach in a digital age.

The same could be said of Mourinho, who arrived in 2016 having been sacked by Chelsea six months earlier. With Manchester City hiring Pep Guardiola, in came Mourinho across town, though his reign was similar to Van Gaal’s: outdated football, mistakes in recruitment and unhappy players. When he was sacked in December 2018, sources told ESPN that Solskjaer was hired as the « anti-venom » to Mourinho, who had left behind a club mired in acrimony due to his abrasive style.

Solskjaer, initially an interim appointment, was soon given the job on a permanent basis despite United having identified Mauricio Pochettino as the ideal replacement for Mourinho. But as in 2013, when Carlo Ancelotti, Mourinho and Diego Simeone all rejected the chance to replace Ferguson, and in 2014 when Simeone and Jurgen Klopp were unsuccessfully approached before Van Gaal’s appointment, United ended up without their first-choice for the job.

Since Ferguson retired, United have paid compensation for only one manager — a £1.5m payment to Molde for Solskjaer — due to a reluctance to get in an expensive fight for a coach who’s already employed. With the leading candidates this time (Pochettino, Erik ten Hag and Luis Enrique) all under contract, United must accept the prospect of paying a transfer fee for a manager. If not, they could repeat the mistakes of the past when they’ve ended up with the easy option rather than the right one. — Mark Ogden


So how should this Man United team play, anyway?

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Steve Nicol criticises Manchester United’s inability to turn chances into goals in their 0-0 draw vs. Watford.

This one larger question can be answered by asking two smaller questions.

The first: How do you have to play if you want to win the Premier League? Given Manchester United’s annual revenues, this is a team that should be competing for Premier League titles year in and year out. Frankly, that should just be their baseline. So how do those title-chasing teams play?

To define title competitors, we’ll just call them « teams that have won at least 80 points in a season. » Since 2009-10, that includes 23 different sides.

How do they all differ from the average team?

  • We’ll start with control. These 23 move the ball upfield, on average, at 1.54 meters per second, while the average across the Big Five leagues, the Eredivisie and the Champions League is 1.76 meters per second.

  • They also press more aggressively. Their average uninterrupted possession starts higher up the field — 48.4 meters from their own goal, compared to 45.5 for the European average — and they break up play more frequently (10.81 passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA) in the final 3/5ths of the field, compared to Europe’s average of 11.54). By pressing, they also tend to dominate territory, creating a field tilt (ratio of final-third passes completed to allowed) of 61%.

  • They complete 84.3% of their passes, compared to the Europe-wide average of 78.9%. Those passes travel 17.6 meters on average, compared to the continental average of 19.3 meters. In the final third, crosses make up just 14.1% of the passes among the top Premier League sides, while in all of Europe it’s up to 18.5%. Lastly, the 23 attempt 63% of the shots in their matches.

Of course, these are averages, so by definition there are contenders both above and below each metric, but they provide a decent outline of the stylistic markers United should be aspiring to: pressing, shorter passing, field control and limited crossing.

The second question: If United play within those guidelines, how should that be informed both by the players they have and the players they acquire?

Given that this is a long-term project — despite all the money poured in, this team is miles away from City and Liverpool in 2022 — the only players who should have a real effect on team-building and strategic philosophy are the ones with both the talent and age profile to potentially contribute to United’s next realistic title challenge. Players who theoretically fit a generous definition of that: Harry Maguire (28), Raphael Varane (28), Bruno Fernandes (27), Luke Shaw (26), Marcus Rashford (24), Diogo Dalot (22), Jadon Sancho (21) and Anthony Elanga (19). That’s it.

Most of those players have succeeded in teams that played in transition, ceding a little bit of the possession control in order to create more space in the attacking third and prevent the defenders from having to cover too much space in behind. In short, this isn’t a group of players suited to smothering teams with 70% of the possession in every match. — Ryan O’Hanlon


Who are United looking at?

There are three main contenders to land the United job, with Paris Saint-Germain coach Mauricio Pochettino and Ajax’s Erik ten Hag the front-runners ahead of Spain coach Luis Enrique.

Inter Milan’s Simone Inzaghi, Bayern Munich’s Julian Nagelsmann, Italy coach (and former Man City manager) Roberto Mancini and Leicester City‘s Brendan Rodgers have also been, or are being, considered by United chief executive Richard Arnold and the club’s owners, the Glazer family. Although Rangnick has been in charge as interim manager since December, sources have said that the former Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig coach is not a candidate. The 63-year-old will, however, advise the club and football director John Murtough in the recruitment process. (News broke Wednesday that Real Madrid‘s Carlo Ancelotti is a « backup » option for United as they continue to search.)

Pochettino has been on United’s radar for the past four years, dating back to his time in charge of Tottenham. Although the Argentine didn’t win a trophy at Spurs, he built a young, exciting team and took them to a first-ever Champions League final in 2019 before losing to Liverpool. Sources have said that Pochettino has yet to settle in Paris since taking charge of the club in 2021. The 50-year-old still lives in a Parisian hotel while his family is based in London, so a return to the Premier League would appeal.

Pochettino’s frustrations at PSG are multilayered — a difficult dressing room, huge expectations of European success and the inability to build a team for the future rather than one stocked with expensive stars — and sources have said he’s interested in the chance to rebuild United, but right now, he is under contract in Paris. That could change in the weeks ahead, depending on PSG’s progress in the Champions League.

Ten Hag, meanwhile, is regarded as the next big thing in European coaching, despite being 52 and getting into coaching in only 2012. Having worked under Guardiola as the coach of Bayern Munich’s second team between 2013 and 2015, Ten Hag has taken his own path with Utrecht and Ajax, whom he guided to the Champions League semifinals on 2019.

Ten Hag has built a high-energy young team at Ajax and has admirers at United. Sources have told ESPN that the club have monitored his development since his time at Utrecht. But having never managed in one of Europe’s major leagues, there are questions over whether Ten Hag is ready to step up. As a coach who has built a career working with young players, could he transform a United squad that has stars with big reputations? Is he the next big thing, or is he another Moyes?

There are no such doubts over Luis Enrique, who played for Real Madrid, Barcelona and Spain and has since coached Barcelona to Champions League success before taking charge of the national team. The 51-year-old has impeccable credentials for United: an excellent track record, experience of managing big clubs and star players and his teams play with a style that would appeal to United’s supporters. The issue with Luis Enrique is his contract with Spain, which runs until the end of their involvement at the 2022 World Cup. If United choose Luis Enrique, they might have to wait until December to appoint him, which would risk even more months of uncertainty and drift.

A compromise could be found with Rangnick remaining in interim charge until Luis Enrique’s commitments with Spain come to an end, but after nine years of false steps, United cannot waste more time trying to catch up with City, Liverpool and Chelsea. — Mark Ogden


Who should they be looking at?

Last year, an analyst named James McMahon threw some match data into an algorithm and had it organize coaches into a number of stylistic clusters. The cluster that tended to produce the best performances was the one he characterized as « relentless. » They are, as McMahon writes, « Dominant in possession and aggressive in the press, with a high defensive line (judging by the metrics surrounding loose ball recoveries and opposition through balls and offsides) and a short-passing attacking style that keeps opponents firmly entrenched in their own half. »

That sounds a lot like the style we described above, and 15 of the previous 16 Champions League semifinalists were classified as such. (The only holdout was Ajax because McMahon didn’t have data for them, but they absolutely would’ve qualified if he did.) Because he’s a good data scientist, though, McMahon didn’t definitively label any manager with one particular style; instead, he gave a confidence interval for how likely that manager’s team was to produce a performance that would get label within a given cluster.

We don’t want an extremely possession-dominant manager, so let’s take a look at a list of the coaches that get at least a 20% confidence interval for being « relentless » and at least a 10% interval for being what McMahon labels as « pressing », which essentially means you still press a ton but the opposition breaks through the press more often. This should produce a list of coaches who don’t skew too far toward the slow passing we’re trying to avoid.

The names who fit the criteria: Hansi Flick, Klopp, Emma Hayes, Bob Bradley, Gian Piero Gasperini, Pochettino, Luciano Spalletti, Solskjaer, Unai Emery, Niko Kovac, Julian Nagelsmann, Edin Terzic, Frank Lampard, Rudi Garcia, Antonio Conte, Ronny Delia, Casey Stoney, Eduardo Berizzo, Jesse Marsch, Eusebio Di Francesco, Paulo Fonseca and Vincenzo Montella.

I left the MLS and WSL names in there and well, why shouldn’t Manchester United give Emma Hayes a look? She’s brilliant. But we can cross those four names off. (It’s Man United, after all.)

Neither Klopp nor OGS are realistic options for polar-opposite reasons. The likes of Lampard, Terzic and Kovac show up only because they had the opportunity to coach a big team. Berrizo hasn’t coached in Europe since 2018, while Montella is in the Turkish league and Di Francesco was fired by Hellas Verona last September. Marsch, meanwhile, just got scooped up by Leeds, and United missed out on Conte earlier this year. Plus, I’m picturing rioting in the streets if Unai Emery were named next United manager.

So, one version of a realistic shortlist might be: Flick, Gasperini, Pochettino, Spalletti, Nagelsmann, Garcia and Fonseca.

Among the names Mark mentioned, both Pochettino and Nagelsmann fit the stylistic billing, and they both have a long history of making clubs better. Inzaghi isn’t quite there, as his teams don’t have a robust history of controlling matches, while Rodgers just doesn’t seem realistic with Leicester so low in the table. At Ajax, Ten Hag’s teams meet pretty much all of the stylistic markers, and he has turned the Eredivisie side into a truly dominant team capable of exchanging punches with the best teams in the world, but going from the Netherlands to the richest team in the richest league in the world is a massive leap. As for Luis Enrique, he’s easily the most accomplished of the bunch — and he did introduce a lot more vertical pace into Barcelona’s play — but he’s still the most possession-heavy of the managers mentioned.

Compared to Nagelsmann, Pochettino, Inzaghi and Ten Hang, Luis Enrique’s teams have moved the ball up the field the slowest, while they’ve completed a higher percentage of their passes, crossed the ball the least, and played the shortest passes. Will that work at Old Trafford? — Ryan O’Hanlon

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Julien Laurens and Stewart Robson discuss Cristiano Ronaldo’s impact on Manchester United.


Ok, it’s time to pick

O’Hanlon: If United could get anyone, I’d go with Nagelsmann. He’s made every club he’s coached significantly better. He took Hoffenheim to the Champions League, he somehow convinced a Red Bull team to press less, and his version of Bayern Munich might be the most explosive attacking team of the past 10 years. But barring a massive pay raise, I don’t know why he’d take the job.

So, instead, let’s go with Pochettino. He transformed both Southampton and Tottenham, with an emphasis on a kind of physical and vertical pressing play that shouldn’t be out of place at Old Trafford. While his stint with Paris Saint-Germain has been somewhat underwhelming, that gig is way more about man-management than it is transforming a club culture and style of play. He took Spurs up to second in the table — ahead of Guardiola’s City and Klopp’s Liverpool — and all the way to the Champions League final. With more financial resources, could he take United a step further?

Ogden: There is no obvious, outstanding candidate to become United’s next manager, but there are some very good, and convincing, options.

Ten Hag’s inexperience at the highest level puts him at a disadvantage and after so many years in the title-winning wilderness, United can’t afford to take a gamble. And while Luis Enrique has all the credentials and a glittering track record, as Ryan points out, his teams play a way that is perhaps not in tune with the style that the best club sides now operate. He’s also highly unlikely to walk away from the Spain job before the World Cup.

Nagelsmann would be an ideal candidate in terms of age profile, style and big club experience with Bayern Munich, but after less than a year with Germany‘s biggest team, he is highly unlikely be leaving anytime soon. So that leaves Pochettino — the man that United have admired from afar for so long — and he is by no means a « compromise » for what United need.

Pochettino knows the Premier League, has enjoyed relative success here, trusts young players, demands a high-energy pressing game and, despite the challenges that come with managing PSG, has won silverware in France and worked with the biggest stars in the game. Pochettino also yearns for a return to the Premier League, and he and United appear a perfect fit.

Everything points to Pochettino — but will United read the signs and finally get their man?

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