Pochettino, Ten Hag would be biggest United upgrade since SAF

Date published: Saturday 5th February 2022 6:53 - Ian King

Mauricio Pochettino is in trouble at PSG, but the possibility of him becoming available to Manchester United is being met with growing indifference.

 

For all the advantages that immediately spring to mind, being the manager of a superclub must often feel like a thankless task. The resources at your disposal mean that explanations for underwhelming results will be ignored, and the pressure to keep on winning comes from all sides, including many who are actively willing you to fail.

Paris Saint-Germain have played 32 games in all competitions this season, losing just four: one in the league against Reims at the start of October, their Trophée des Champions match against Lille at the very start of the season, a Champions League group game against Manchester City and, most recently, a Coupe de France tie against Nice on penalties. They remain 11 points clear at the top of Ligue Un and they’re still in Europe’s premier competition.

Yet Mauricio Pochettino’s job seems to be hanging by a thread, with breathless reports following every match his star-studded team does lose. We had exactly the same situation at the end of November after the Manchester City defeat, when PSG’s sporting director Leonardo had to come out and deny rumours that they were considering replacing him with Zinedine Zidane. Manchester United, whose interest in Pochettino is long-standing, had sacked Ole Gunnar Solskjaer just a few days earlier. Speculation was rife.

Pochettino and Manchester United have been connected by the rumour mill for a considerable amount of time now, but there is an irony at the heart of how this story has developed. The more the rumours have started to spread that he might become available, the colder Manchester United supporters have gone on him. A couple of years ago, it was simply assumed that he would eventually arrive at Old Trafford to sort out the mess left by whoever his predecessor may have been, but even though PSG remain almost uncatchable at the top of Ligue Un, Pochettino’s style is proving unpopular with some and it increasingly feels to critics as though United taking him on now would be the applying the thinking of several years ago.

There is a shiny new alternative. Erik ten Hag has been earning admiring glances for his progressive work at Ajax for years and told the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant in December that he considered himself ready for a move to one of the Big Five leagues. Few would argue that ten Hag wouldn’t be a bold and brave appointment; United fans are starting to get excited at the prospect of this coming to pass.

But Manchester United remain a deeply dysfunctional football club and Ten Hag hasn’t given much indication that he is in any particular hurry to leave Ajax just yet. Pep Guardiola’s contract at Manchester City is up in the summer of 2023 and Ten Hag might well hold out for that job to become available instead, should it be confirmed that Guardiola will not be extending deal. Coincidentally, Erik ten Hag is also contracted to Ajax until the summer of 2023.

It’s not difficult to see how this could develop into another front in the battle between Manchester United’s supporters and the Glazers. A narrative is opening up among Manchester United’s support that Ten Hag equals ‘good’ football while Pochettino equals ‘bad’. Others believe the latter is simply incapable of winning the biggest trophies.

These claims warrant further investigation. There’s no doubting the quality of football that Ten Hag’s teams play, but to describe PSG’s as ‘bad’ sounds like hyperbole. The PSG job may be ‘easy’ because they’ve got all the money in the world, but it’s also very difficult because they’ve got all the money in the world. The bar for them is set incredibly high.

It is the signings of Kylian Mbappe, Lionel Messi and Neymar that has raised expectation levels surrounding PSG to stratospheric levels, and two of them preceded his arrival. PSG’s squad is a microcosm of the inequalities of modern society, only with a 12.5% rather than a 1%, and that imbalance raises an increased possibility of friction among the players. Managing a squad like this is categorically not ‘easy’ – certainly not the way PSG have set it up.

PSG trio Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe

As for the question of Pochettino’s competence in the biggest competitions, well, his Champions League record with PSG has been fine, but that isn’t good enough at that club at the moment. They were comfortably beaten over two legs by Manchester City in last season’s semi-final; one of his four defeats this season came against the same opponent in the group stages. But he also got Spurs – Spurs! – to the final in 2019. That campaign, of course, Spurs knocked Ten Hag’s Ajax team out in the semis.

From the distance at which we watch the game, the margins that can determine matches are often over-magnified. Pochettino and Ten Hag are excellent at this level. The former, for example, replaced Thomas Tuchel, who’d had a terrible first half of the season at PSG, falling out with all and sundry, yet the German ended up lifting the Champions League with Chelsea a few months later.

But elite-level managers aren’t swappable parts. They all have distinct character traits, skill-sets, blind spots and strengths, and these need to bind with that indeterminate thing that makes a football club for them to get the most out of each other. Guardiola did this with Manchester City; indeed, the structure of the club was essentially rebuilt for him. Jurgen Klopp definitely did it with Liverpool, though in a different way.

But you can’t just parachute a manager into any club and blithely demand that they win every game now and in perpetuity. Ajax are a completely different type of team to PSG. They earn around €10m a year in television money, around a tenth of the amount of the lowest-paid side in the Premier League. They are the wealthiest team in the Netherlands but they operate on a completely different financial plane to PSG. Considering the team he brought through at Spurs, you could even argue that Pochettino himself might thrive more at Ajax than in Paris. He’d likely enjoy it more.

The truth is that in 2022, almost a decade from their last Premier League title and almost a decade and a half from their last Champions League crown, either Erik ten Hag or Mauricio Pochettino would be a significant upgrade from all of those who have come since Sir Alex Ferguson. And the bottom line remains the same: a football club is considerably more than just the manager and the 11 players on the pitch at any one time.

Manchester United have already burned their way through four permanent managers since 2013, but it has been clear for many years that the far greater issue has been those who hire and fire them, and they show very few signs of leaving their highly lucrative positions. United will likely stumble upon a winning formula in the fullness of time anyway, but the quickest route back to greatness – whether the manager is Pochettino, Ten Hag or any of the other names that have been thrown around like confetti – would be for the Glazers to get out of the club. They’ve been the common theme behind the decline since the manager they inherited retired.

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