Ewan Robert Deputy sports editor…Metro UK
As Jose Mourinho stormed out of his post-match press conference on Monday night, muttering repeatedly about ‘respect’ after nearly two decades spent dishing out insults, it was hard not to feel as though he is entering the final chapter of his reign at Manchester United.
Despite two trophies – three if you include the Community Shield, as Mourinho himself rather bizarrely does – and a best league placing since Sir Alex Ferguson stepped aside, United have rarely looked like genuine title challengers and their style of football fluctuates somewhere between prosaic and just plain painful.
Away from the pitch, Mourinho’s relationship with the board is strained after a frustrating summer transfer window and there are regular reports of bust-ups with his players. But if this is the end, who could replace him?…
Zidane is the only manager to successfully defend the Champions League (Picture: Getty)
Three-time Champions League winner Zinedine Zidane is the obvious candidate to replace Mourinho. Alongside the vast haul of trophies and accolades collected during his time in charge of Real Madrid, the Frenchman comes with the added bonus of being available to take over immediately if, or when, United pull the trigger.
There are some question marks over quite how suitable he is to managing a side that isn’t rammed full of Galacticos though. Zidane’s great strength at the Bernabeu was managing a dressing room loaded with egos – and which became utterly toxic while Mourinho was in charge – and finding a way of playing that got the best out of his superstars. He also had one of the greatest goalscorers in history, Cristiano Ronaldo, to rely upon.
United do not possess such quality or trophy-winning experience, while many of the concerns fans have about Mourinho’s lack of trust in youngsters like Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial could be echoed in Madrid over how little game time Zidane afforded Marco Asensio and others.
It is also hard to pinpoint a particular style to Zidane’s football other than that it got results, even if not always on merit. If Mourinho is the Special One, many in Spain – and Catalonia in particular – would say Zidane is the Lucky One. Still, he is a great man manager, a classy figurehead and his CV more than rivals any of his peers.
Pochettino has overseen three consecutive top-four finishes at Spurs (Picture: Getty)
Not only was Mauricio Pochettino – appropriately dressed in all black – the architect of Mourinho’s misery on Monday night, inflicting his heaviest home defeat, he also struck a huge and lasting blow to the Portuguese’s psyche when Tottenham eviscerated Chelsea three-and-a-half years ago.
Mourinho’s title winners conceded five times at White Hart Lane, just the second time that has happened in his 888-game career, and after starting to play a more expansive brand of football with the Blues he abruptly put the handbrake back on… for good. It eventually cost him his job at Chelsea, his penchant for pragmatism turning into outright negativity, and the shackles remained when he moved to Old Trafford.
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Pochettino is almost the polar opposite. The Argentine sets his side up to dominate matches, regardless of the opposition, pressing relentlessly and attacking with ferocity – if he has a weakness, it is that he is often too adventurous in big matches.
Off the pitch, he is more of a diplomat too; while Mourinho publicly bemoaned a lack of signings (despite bringing in three players for around £70m), Pochettino allayed fears as Spurs became the first Premier League side not to make a single summer signing.
Sir Alex Ferguson is a huge fan, even dining with Pochettino and his coaching staff, and his sleek, affable image feels like a much better fit for United than the sullen and irritable Mourinho. There is just one problem: Daniel Levy. After signing a new five-year contract in May, Pochettino won’t come cheap – and that’s assuming he would even be willing to leave at all.
The Italian had a disappointing campaign last season, but still won the FA Cup (Picture: Getty)
If there was an ideal moment to part ways with Mourinho, it has probably already passed. Although United finished second in the Premier League last season – their best finish since Sir Alex left the club – the deeper-lying issues, both on and off the pitch, were already plain to see. Moreover, rarely have so many high-calibre managers been available at the same time.
Maurizio Sarri moved to Chelsea, Carlo Ancelotti joined Napoli as his replacement, Thomas Tuchel took charge of Paris Saint-Germain and highly rated Hoffenheim boss Julian Nagelsmann even signed an agreement to take over at RB Leipzig next year.
Were he still available, a manager in the Nagelsmann mould might have appealed to Ed Woodward – a bright, young coach to install a philosophy and rebuild United. But that’s not what they need right now.
For all Mourinho’s many shortcomings, he has rescued the club from the mediocrity of previous managers. Fourth place represented United’s best finish in the post-Ferguson wilderness, but under Mourinho they secured a points total (81) that would have won the Premier League in four of the Scot’s 13 title-winning seasons.
United just needed evolution, not revolution. A few tweaks, a couple of new signings. If Mourinho is not the man to make the necessary changes, perhaps Antonio Conte is.
The Italian is a fiery character himself: he routinely clashed with Chelsea’s board over transfer strategy before his departure this summer – though was never backed to the extent Mourinho has been – while successor Sarri has quickly done away with a number of draconian rules that inhibited the squad.
Conte also prefers a more cautious style of play, with his approach against City in March – in which Chelsea had just 29% possession and no shots on target – widely derided.
But he is a serial winner, taking the Premier League by storm just a year ago and racking up 85 goals to United’s 54, even changing the Premier League’s attitude towards tactics and formations in the process. He also knows how to get the best out of Paul Pogba, with the Frenchman utterly electrifying when they were together at Juventus. Conte is the best of Mourinho without many of his less desirable qualities.