Manchester United might finally be able to get their Mauricio Pochettino plan right
When Manchester United considered approaching Mauricio Pochettino to be their next manager just over a year ago Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would have known the pressure was mounting.
The abject 2-1 defeat to Istanbul Basaksehir was United’s fourth in 11 games and those setbacks included losing 3-1 to Crystal Palace and 6-1 to Tottenham, both at Old Trafford.
Losing in Turkey was arguably another new low given the standard of the performance but as an available and keen Pochettino waited in the wings, Solskjaer saved himself again. United won four games in a row and within a couple of months they were top of the Premier League.
That is maybe one of many sliding doors moments in the last three years at Old Trafford. Pochettino looked destined to get the job when Jose Mourinho was sacked, only for Solskjaer to excel as a caretaker. The gig was made permanent in March 2019, but the season ended poorly. Had United waited – as they had initially intended – then maybe a different decision would have been made.
Solskjaer has had to ride out storms since then, the last significant one coming last November, when Pochettino was under consideration once more. Instead, United won at Everton, got a nervy win against West Brom and kicked on. Pochettino could wait no longer and was appointed Paris Saint-Germain manager in January.
Now, United are reaching the end game with Solskjaer, whose ability to find a result when the situation looks dire seems to have deserted him, while Pochettino is winning games with PSG but in a relationship that doesn’t look to really suit either party.
Successive Old Trafford defeats to Liverpool and Manchester City, conceding seven goals, scoring none and being totally outclassed on both occasions, should have already marked the end for Solskjaer, but the lack of an obvious replacement is saving him for now. United will try and limp on with the Norwegian in charge.
The three most likely candidates to replace Solskjaer are Pochettino, Brendan Rodgers and Erik ten Hag, but all are currently employed and PSG, Leicester City and Ajax will fight tooth and nail to avoid losing a manager in mid-season.
Rodgers is the favourite for the job at the moment and probably has the most to gain by jumping ship, but United have long admired Pochettino and it would be no surprise if they tried to continue with Solskjaer until the Argentine became available.
The 49-year-old tried to leave Paris to return to Tottenham this summer, a clear indication he’s not happy and it’s difficult to think of a squad in Europe more ill-suited to his demands. The all-action, energetic, pressing machine he created with Tottenham cannot be replicated in an attack including Lionel Messi and Neymar.
Spurs’ struggles since the premature parting with Pochettino have only served to highlight what a remarkable job he did in North London, even if silverware alluded him.
It took Pochettino just 11 days to win a trophy with PSG, but while his win percentage is close to 70%, it’s rarely been convincing. There were defeats to Lorient, Monaco, Nantes and Lille in the second half of last season as the title was surrendered.
This season PSG are already 10 points clear, but they lost at Rennes and had to turn deficits into wins with late goals against Lyon, Angers and Lille. In the Champions League there was an underwhelming draw at Club Brugge and a hugely fortunate 2-0 win over Manchester City.
In a crucial double-header against RB Leipzig, there was a 3-2 win in the French capital and a 2-2 draw in Germany. Qualification should be assured but it could become nerve-wracking if they lose at Manchester City in the next round of fixtures.
While Pochettino isn’t close to the sack at the moment, it’s not inconceivable that the situation could escalate if he fails to navigate the Champions League group stages, or if PSG come unstuck in the round of 16 in the New Year. Finishing behind City will probably mean a tougher draw.
And he may have taken his team to a commanding position domestically, but the natives aren’t completely sold yet on the Pochettino project. It doesn’t look like a union destined to last.
Having twice considered appointing Pochettino, maybe it will be third time for lucky for United. For now, Pochettino continues at PSG and Solskjaer remains in charge at Old Trafford. The future of both could yet be linked.