THE SMELL OF SUCCESS TAKES A LONG TIME TO WASH AWAY. For a football club with a history as illustrious as Manchester United’s, the odour develops a particularly powerful resistance. It lingers in Old Trafford’s nooks, gathering from the exhalations of every expectant fan, often overwhelming those who bestride its turf.
Louis van Gaal was Manchester United’s first great saviour in the wake of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. He succeeded David Moyes, the Chosen One-turned-flop, the man Ferguson himself anointed, with the confidence of someone acquainted with the rigours of the job. He had more than a whiff of silverware under his belt from time spent with Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Results could only improve and the football was going to be better, too. But less than two years into the tenure his position has become frail.
Before van Gaal’s arrival Manchester United fans yearned for a return to successful ways. A season under Moyes, a season without, saw a slight pang become a desperate thirst. After a decade building a stable Premier League reputation Moyes was hastily shuffled off less than one year into a six-year contract, van Gaal – a winner – was installed, and normalcy was supposedly restored. However victorious normalcy never really returned. Instead the club can still be found flailing, groping embarrassingly for a mere top-four spot.
Calls for change are back again, only now any idealistic ambitions have fallen by the wayside. Fanciful notions, such as playing ‘the Manchester United way’, become unnecessary burdens at moments like these. To speak of the club as if it were individual human being, all Manchester United wants, all it needs, is a win.
The wins can be one at a time for now, though obviously this must be encompassed within a slightly longer-term pursuit of success. The club has a history to live up to, you know. As it stands those tours of the trophy cabinet must be imbued with an increasing sense of nostalgia. Not acceptable. So who to bring in? Who can lift the veil of failure? As the club’s demands continue to shrivel in size and quantity, as its need for results swell, the primary choice is ominously clear.
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Van Gaal’s tenure at Manchester United has been controversial and damming
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José Mourinho still gets cheered by Chelsea fans. Even after the non-stop sequence of catastrophic collisions that was the prematurely-terminated second season of his second spell in charge, the Special One is adored at Stamford Bridge. It’s a strange thought that similar adoration might come his way from the club he once considered a nemesis, but the rumours are swirling with foreboding intent. If van Gaal is to go, Mourinho is to be pronounced Manchester United’s latest saviour.
It’s certainly the sort of thing the Portuguese would do. Brazen, cocksure, unconventional and emotional, he would have no qualms casting himself as the true heir apparent to Ferguson, revealing himself – hidden as he was for all those years behind thick layers of public courteousness and unspoken envy – as his gruff rival’s real successor, determined to outdo him. The Brian Clough to Manchester United’s Don Revie. It’s starting to make glorious, ridiculous sense.
A club as rich in history as they are resources; Manchester United’s cravings are intense and they can’t let the Ferguson years go. Even while cognisant of the uniqueness of that hegemonic period, they need to replicate them in whatever small way they can. The club hasn’t successfully tapered off Ferguson’s medicine; rather it has gone cold turkey. And while the new drug will come with some unpleasant side effects, there’s a good chance it’ll get the job done. So it might just be worth bearing, at least for a little while.
Mourinho may not be to every Red Devil’s personal tastes, but – given developments not just at Manchester United but elsewhere in the Premier League in recent weeks and possibly in the months to come – he might be precisely the correct man for the gig.
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ACROSS TOWN, Manchester City have already laid waste to that most tired of clichés, that money can’t buy success. In doing so, the achievement of success itself became a levelled criticism; that because their success had been “bought” it was somehow not organic and therefore less valid.
In reality by winning the Premier League – a championship of vast riches – they simply won by playing the game on its own terms. But that achievement, whichever way people choose to perceive it, is actually a slight distraction from their underlying goal. The net transfer spend, the sudden burst of silverware, that’s the conspicuous stuff. In the background more subtle themes are being put in place.
Behind the vulgar openness with which the club has spent transfer money has been a conscious decision to pursue deeper meaning. They too crave success, but perhaps they do so currently at a slightly less aggressive setting to their city rivals. Concealed by the bodacious expenditure on players something more holistic is happening, a conscious exploration of the possibility that ideas too can be bought.
Philosophy is a footballing buzzword usually reserved for the already-rich, the already-famous and the already-successful. For them, a football club’s status is built on ideas, and those ideas are ingrained in its mystical history. Generally, this is not true. Behind any perceived mythical aura is a real starting point, when a normal everyday football team becomes a corporate goliath.
Stripped down to their most basic, ‘football philosophies’ are the side-projects of clubs already well-established. When a team is a part of the rat race, when its sole desire is chasing positive scorelines – saving its skin – on a weekly basis, philosophies are wasteful. Truthfully, a football philosophy is a luxury. It requires the capacity to cast aside practicality.
Manchester City have adapted well to their fresh success. They have been quick in scaling domestic heights and competing continentally, coming as they did from what was generally the same middling up-and-down, week-by-week grind of uncertainty that almost all football clubs face. Given the speed of their adaptation, naturally their aspirations have quickly modified. Safe in the knowledge of unalloyed wealth and probable regular success, they have been philosophising.
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Is Pep Guardiola the answer for Manchester City?
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Over the last decade it has become generally accepted that Barcelona are quite good, though that goodness went beyond the pitch. The consensus appreciation for the Catalan club wasn’t founded on a childlike fondness for the players. Okay, it was a little bit of that, but it was also an admiration for the way they handled their business.
La Masia, the focus on youth development; the steady route from there to the first-team. Then there was the beautiful, intoxicating possession play and, of course, the consistent and unnerving capability to thrash all opposition in their path. At the root of this whole process, or at least a large part of it, was a philosophy.
So, how much? How much for such a philosophy, that is? Those are the questions Manchester City have acutely posed in the last few years, since their ascent towards the top of English football transcended into a quest for sustainable triumph. Perhaps arrogant, certainly bold, though they can’t be faulted for trying. The idea that a philosophy could be transposed, copied and pasted from one club onto another is naïve and this is not what Manchester City are doing, but they have quite openly utilised Barcelona as a tool of navigation.
Pep Guardiola is at the forefront of this quest. The soon-to-be not-Bayern Munich boss apparently knows who his next employers are but he’s not telling anybody yet. There’s a distinct possibility that it might be Manchester City. Again, it makes sense. Already, former-Barcelona vice-president Ferran Soriano and former-Barcelona sporting director Txiki Begiristain are working on behalf of the City vision. Former-Barcelona head coach Guardiola would be the conclusory piece of the puzzle as the club attempts to move beyond the nouveau riche stereotype into another realm.
A man at the avant-garde of football coaching, Guardiola has a reputation for the experimental, the abstract, the intellectual and the tactical. He, to be short, is a deep thinker. At the same time he’s an achiever, someone who thrives under intense pressure in a contorted, troubled-genius sort of way. He is a perfect fit for any wealthy, successful club with deeper ambitions. Having won with Barcelona and Bayern he couldn’t be readier to handle the scrutiny of the Premier League, and in Manchester City he would find a club willing not just to tolerate but encourage him in his conceptual approach.
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MANCHESTER UNITED HAVE BEEN UNDER the auspices of Ed Woodward since 2013. Woodward, an accountant, had been an integral figure within the club during the latter years of Ferguson’s managerial reign and has continued to be in the time post-Ferguson. According to the club’s corporate structure he is ‘Executive Vice Chairman and Director’ though to the layman he is referred to as ‘the man in charge’. He has played a key role in facilitating the club’s commercial strategy, something for which he has been lauded.
However, Woodward is also responsible for other matters. He has huge influence on transfer policy, managerial appointments and thus essentially points the direction in which the football team itself moves. It is in these areas that his decision-making seems to have been found wanting. Bringing in van Gaal was supposedly a step towards more attractive, more effective football. In both aspects the decision has backfired. No Premier League club enjoys more possession than Manchester United but the team’s goals-per-game is lower than it was under David Moyes. So too is their win percentage. For all the magazine sales and sponsorship agreements, the football remains underwhelming.
It is at times like these when rich clubs typically can become reactive. Scared and confused, spending but not accumulating, they trade in the last vestiges of romanticism for something more certain, something more comforting. Spying the maths, they place greater faith in the result. A win is good, a defeat bad. All that is required is for the numbers to add up again, for the league table to once again look right. ‘Style’ becomes an untrustworthy, difficult-to-measure, costly pursuit; consequently it is abandoned. This could potentially be a turning point in Manchester United’s path and, if Woodward and his fellow businessmen do embrace resultism on the pitch with the same wholeheartedness as they do off it, Mourinho is the best man they could call.
Mourinho’s lust for victory is likely to be at its apex in the aftermath to his shortened Chelsea legacy. Hurt and bewildered, the charismatic fieriness with which he so vehemently defended himself in the past was gone by the end of his time with the London club. With Manchester United equally wounded, the possible symbiosis between a football team and its manager may never be so perfect than it is in this particular instance.
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Many United fans have been calling for Mourinho’s appointment
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In contrast to their rivals, Manchester City – perhaps bolstered by the fact that they remain firmly entrenched in the title race and the Champions League – continue to deal in cycles rather than years. They are already at a certain stage in the development of their vision with their Elite Development Squad competing well in domestic and continental youth competition and an agreeable style of football progressed by Manuel Pellegrini at first-team level. However Pellegrini may be nearing the end of his own personal phase with the club.
Club CEO Soriano mentioned the importance of his sporting director, Begiristain, relative to the manager in an interview back in 2013 with the Telegraph’s Mark Ogden. Soriano said: “The difference in role between Txiki and the manager is that the director of football has, and has to have, a long-term view. So what we are asking him to do is build a squad, but also football concepts, and a way of working that will last for the next ten years. The manager has a shorter span.”
Begiristain, now in his fourth year at the wheel of City’s long-term visionary process, is well-adjusted to his role and the concepts involved and, most importantly, is already in sync with the manager he may next be working with. He was the man who, while working for Barcelona, convinced club president Joan Laporta to hire Pep Guardiola and not Mourinho as manager. It was an inspired move and, if he could bring Guardiola to the Etihad, he would put into motion the next phase of Manchester City’s development as a club. But beyond that, he would potentially herald the next chapter in a remarkable story.
José Mourinho and Pep Guardiola have competed directly before. The result was a managerial contest so scintillating that it threatened to consume football’s grandest match. At Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively they toyed with and frustrated one another. Their contrasting personalities added a cinematic edge to a club rivalry that was already a political and cultural inferno. The very idea that the pair might again square off in future is exciting; that they might do so in the same city is tantalising. And, given the current circumstances of Manchester United and the strategy of Manchester City, it seems evermore plausible that this may well be the case inside the next six months.
Manchester United, a global behemoth without a core philosophy. Manchester City, a growing club with idealistic clarity underpinning their pursuit of success. The additions of Mourinho, a results man, and Guardiola, a combination of winning mentality and principled play, would make an already fascinating intra-city dynamic almost unbearably enthralling. The Premier League thinks it’s the best league in the world; God help us if and when the two most intoxicating managers of this generation clash within its confines.
The two managers’ juxtaposing ideals suit the respective clubs, meaning the growing ideological divide between United and City would only be further embedded. Red would come to represent winning by whatever means necessary, a cynical maintenance of the status quo. Blue would represent the raw, rebellious idealism that winning can be achieved with noble principles. One city, two grandiose contrasts. Manchester could soon be home to a riveting next stage in the Premier League storyline.
Join us for part two next week as we examine Liverpool’s role in the future of the Premier League.
By Blair Newman. Follow @TheBlairNewman