Rewind to 2016 and Manchester United were soon to part company with Louis van Gaal. Sir Alex Ferguson was on a lunch date at a Mayfair restaurant, dining with the manager who had steered Tottenham into title contention.
Mauricio Pochettino’s formula, featuring hungry, hard-working young players and attacking football, seemed to come straight from the Ferguson blueprint. His high-profile fans already included Ferguson’s former captain, Gary Neville.
Tottenham professed themselves unconcerned, even though Ferguson was on the record praising Pochettino. Rightly so, perhaps, given that Jose Mourinho was lined up to replace Van Gaal. Six years on, it appears the Argentinian has not become United manager again. Arguably, few people have not become United manager as often as Pochettino. Forever in the running, never actually winning the race, he may be the great lost United manager.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s heir apparent may wonder how he came to be usurped by Erik ten Hag, who was manager of Utrecht when Pochettino was meeting Ferguson. The explanation may involve Paris Saint-Germain. If a criticism of Pochettino was long that he had not won any silverware, arguably his reputation has declined during a time that should bring a French title to accompany last season’s Coupe de France. An overachiever with Tottenham has come to look an underachiever with PSG.
Perhaps Pochettino’s standing was at its highest when he piloted Spurs past Ten Hag’s Ajax to reach the 2019 Champions League final. PSG’s European exits, their bad-tempered loss to Manchester City and their self-destructive defeat to Real Madrid, instead showed an inability to get an overpaid bunch of big names to be anything remotely like the sum of their parts. United can do that without requiring his help.
If PSG, with their forwards’ reluctance to press, with some selections dictated by form not merit, can seem the anti-Pochettino team, the shift in thinking did not just seem confined to the boardroom. Polls showed the vast majority of United fans preferred Ten Hag.
Admittedly, recent history suggests the job at Old Trafford will come up again in two or three years but if Pochettino is never United manager, it may be one man’s fault: Bruno Fernandes.
Because if one of the deterrents to United now was the potential cost and difficulty in extricating Pochettino from PSG, he was available and willing for 13 months after leaving Tottenham.
And at the start of that time, Solskjaer was struggling: even Ed Woodward’s excessive faith in his ally might have tested. A home defeat to Burnley, three days after a loss at Anfield, left United 14 points behind Leicester and 30 adrift of Liverpool. Their season had already included beatings by Bournemouth, Crystal Palace, Newcastle, Astana and Watford. The sheen Solskjaer had acquired as caretaker manager was wearing off.
Enter Fernandes. A transformative figure salvaged Champions League football, rendered United more attacking and more potent. While there were other wobbles during Pochettino’s period of unemployment, most notably United’s 6-1 thrashing by Tottenham, Solskjaer’s talisman offered the illusion the team was making progress. The Norwegian stayed.
Some might argue that, in the process, Fernandes set United back two years with a flurry of goals and assists. They would have been better off appointing a world-class manager in 2020. But by the time Solskjaer’s reign unravelled, Ralf Rangnick’s interim regime proved unsuccessful and United belatedly got around to finding a replacement, Pochettino lost his status as the successor in waiting.
Instead, he may be the United manager who wasn’t, the man who always hoped to gravitate to Old Trafford, often looked destined to but never quite did.
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Manchester United rumours
There are big rumours about a busy summer at Old Trafford: Ten Hag apparently wants to bring three Ajax stars with him to the Premier League, Youri Tielemans is a potential arrival in midfield and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is also on the radar.