Why Manchester United Mustn’t Miss Third Chance to Land Pochettino

On Tuesday, Mauricio Pochettino’s spell as Chelsea manager came to an abrupt and surprising end, and an extra layer of intrigue was added to a summer where the managerial roundabout is already more chaotic than it has been for some time.


It is incredibly rare that so many of Europe’s top jobs are all available at once – there have been vacancies at Liverpool, Barcelona, Juventus, Bayern Munich, AC Milan, and Ajax. There is also now an empty seat at Chelsea, and with both the Euros and Copa America starting next month, a number of high-profile national team jobs are likely to become available too.



There is, of course, another potential vacancy that could still be added to the list. With Manchester United having produced their worst season in the Premier League era, an FA Cup final against Manchester City could represent one last chance for Erik ten Hag to save his job at Old Trafford.


Since Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s investment in United was completed back in February, his INEOS Sports Group has been gradually hacking away at the club’s executive team, and putting the building blocks in place for the start of a new era. They have been quite clear in stating they view it as a three-year project – that is, three years until they believe they can be competing for major honours – which undoubtedly presents complications when making a decision on the managerial situation.


Erik ten Hag has just one year remaining on his Manchester United contract, and it would be irresponsible for INEOS to kick their new project off with a manager who has just 12 months left. A manager working under the pressure of a ticking clock is much more likely to compromise on principles and play style in the search for hard-nosed results, in an effort to save their job and reputation, whereas INEOS need somebody at the helm who is going to implement their required style of play, even if it means going through a year or two of pain to get there (see Mikel Arteta at Arsenal).


This ultimately leaves INEOS with two choices: 1) back ten Hag with a contract extension, giving him some breathing room and relieving the pressure to deliver immediate results; or 2) respectfully say goodbye to the Dutchman, wipe the slate clean, and kick the project off with a new manager.



While it is difficult to argue that ten Hag deserves a new contract, the decision has been made more difficult for Ratcliffe and Co. by the relatively uninspiring list of potential replacements. This is also an issue faced by the likes of Liverpool, Bayern Munich, and Barcelona.


The names most heavily linked so far include Gareth Southgate, Thomas Tuchel, Roberto De Zerbi, and Kieran McKenna. All good managers in their own right, but none without specific concerns or question marks. But, this all changed on Tuesday, with the news of Pochettino’s sudden availability.


The Argentine seemingly ticks all of the boxes for Manchester United, and consequently, he has actually been close to landing the job twice before. First, when Jose Mourinho was sacked back in December 2018. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was appointed as an interim, but Pochettino was the bookies’ favourite to get the job once it became available on a permanent basis at the end of the 18/19 season.


Of course, it didn’t play out that way, and Solskjaer’s impressive caretaker spell saw him rewarded with the job full-time. Fast-forward three years to November 2021, and Solskjaer was sacked himself. This time, Ralf Ragnick took the temporary job while the club looked to appoint for the 22/23 season. Reportedly, the final decision was between ten Hag and Pochettino, and United’s leadership team at the time ultimately favoured ten Hag.


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It has always been reported that Pochettino would be extremely keen on the United job, and if INEOS do find themselves in the market for a new manager in the coming weeks, his resume should make him the clear favourite.


Delivering Projects and Working with Youth


Pochettino’s reputation has been built on his ability to deliver long-term projects, particularly with young players and developing teams. At Southampton, he quickly established a competitive side that played attractive football and punched above their weight. He then transformed Tottenham into a consistent top-four Premier League side, and took them to their first-ever Champions League final.


Despite often working with limited resources, particularly at Tottenham, Pochettino has consistently produced high-performing teams, and he has demonstrated a fantastic ability to maximise the potential of his squad, placing a strong emphasis on developing young players and promoting academy graduates to the first team.


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In fact, during his time at Southampton and Tottenham, several players went on to make their debuts for the England national team, including Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Luke Shaw, Jay Rodriguez, and Adam Lallana, among others.


Experience Managing Big Teams and Big Personalities


Pochettino’s time in charge of Paris Saint-Germain has also given him the experience of managing big-name players and handling delicate dressing-room dynamics. He oversaw a star-studded team that included Neymar, Kylian Mbappé, and Lionel Messi, so he wouldn’t be intimidated by the prospect of leading United’s squad.


As with all managers at PSG, Pochettino also had to manage the immense expectation to win the Champions League, and whilst he was unable to do so, neither were Carlo Ancelotti, Laurent Blanc, Unai Emery, Thomas Tuchel, Christophe Galtier, or Luis Enrique (so far).


He is highly regarded as a brilliant man manager and is known for his personable and approachable demeanour which helps him build strong, trust-based relationships with his players. Speaking on The Overlap, Dele Alli said: “I couldn’t have asked for a better manager for the time I was in.”



“It wasn’t like a footballer-and-manager relationship, it was deeper. He was just so understanding of the decisions I was making and he cared about me as a person before football, which is what I needed at that time.”


Pochettino’s man-management style could be exactly what some of United’s players need.


Playing ‘the Manchester United way’


Since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, United fans and executives alike have always wanted a manager who could deliver the ‘typical Manchester United style of football’, and struggled to do so. Although this intangible, almost mythical, footballing ‘identity’ is actually quite difficult to pin down, most United fans would describe it as something along the lines of ‘direct, attacking football, with aggressive defending and exciting wide players’.


David Moyes’ team was accused of being too direct, so they replaced him with Louis van Gaal. Van Gaal’s football went too far the opposite way and wasn’t direct enough – his side often seemed to keep possession just for the sake of keeping possession.



Then came the switch to Mourinho, who was too pragmatic and defensively passive. Solskajer’s Manchester United side certainly came closest to delivering the expected style of football, but the Norwegian was deemed to be not capable enough tactically. Under ten Hag, the style of football has quite simply descended into pure chaos.


So, how would Pochettino fit? Defensively, his teams deploy an aggressive high-press and counter-press, looking to win the ball back quickly after losing possession, often high up the pitch. It is worth noting that ten Hag would also like to do this ideally, but has cited United’s injury problems as the key factor in his inability to deliver.


In possession, Pochettino wants to implement elements of positional play. Like many managers in the modern era, he wants his team to dominate possession and establish themselves in the opposition’s half, strategically occupying spaces to create positional, qualitative, and numerical superiorities.


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However, his tactical preferences do differ slightly from the likes of Pep Guardiola and Mikel Arteta, as he prefers his team to play with more direct attacking intent. This is much more aligned with Manchester United’s values than overly possession-heavy football, and should keep both the fans and the board happy and entertained.


Tactical Suitability with United’s Current Squad


Another thing that would play into Pochettino’s favour is that a great deal of Manchester United’s current squad would suit the Argentine’s preferences quite nicely.


He has traditionally deployed a 4-2-3-1 – the formation that United have primarily favoured under ten Hag, Solksjaer, and Mourinho – and the roles within that system are well aligned with some of the Red Devils’ key players.


Take Bruno Fernandes, for example. The ‘10’ in a Pochettino 4-2-3-1 is almost perfect for him. At Tottenham, it was Dele Alli who performed this role, and his constant interchange with Harry Kane often saw him playing as a second striker.



Fernandes is much better higher up the pitch, where he can use his attacking instincts and incredible ability to create chances to function as one of his side’s main goalscoring threats. Under ten Hag, the Portuguese has often been expected to drop deep and support the midfield with ball progression, which negates his strengths and exposes his weaknesses.


The two wide players in Pochettino’s system are often given quite different roles. He prefers to have a dynamic, pacy, inside forward on one side, and someone on the other flank who can drift centrally and almost serve as a second ‘10’, supported by an overlapping wing-back. At Spurs, it was Son Heung-min on the left, and Christian Eriksen on the right.


At Chelsea, it has been Mykhailo Mudryk or Raheem Sterling on the left, and Cole Palmer on the right. These roles would align perfectly with the skillsets of Marcus Rashford and Alejandro Garnacho on one side, and someone such as Amad Diallo or even Mason Mount on the other. Also, say it quietly, but this role would suit a certain Jadon Sancho very nicely indeed.


In midfield, Pochettino’s double pivot is often comprised of one physical and aggressive ball-winner (e.g. Victor Wanyama, Eric Dier, Idrissa Gueye, and Moises Caicedo) – let’s call them the ‘6’ – and a partner capable of retaining possession, resisting a press, and progressing the ball (e.g. Mousa Dembele, Marco Verratti, and Enzo Fernandez) – we’ll call them the ‘8’.



While United unquestionably need to invest in a new holding midfielder, Scott McTominay would perform well in this role, and would make a very useful backup ‘6’. Whereas the ‘8’ role is practically perfect for United’s new star boy, Kobbie Mainoo. With Pochettino’s record for developing young English talent and his tactical preferences, Mainoo’s future could be very bright under the guidance of the Argentine.


Defensively, Pochettino wants a ball-playing sweeper keeper, which would suit Andre Onana. Similarly, players like Diogo Dalot, Lisandro Martinez, and Luke Shaw would be valued highly. Although United would probably need to make signings in these departments, that will be the case no matter who is in charge next season.


The Perfect Time for Both Parties


With multiple top European clubs looking for a new manager, United cannot afford to miss out on Pochettino for a third time. His track record of long-term project delivery and youth development aligns perfectly with United’s current needs and future ambitions.


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His experience managing big-name players at PSG equips him well to handle the egos and expectations at Old Trafford, while his preferred style of play fits the traditional Manchester United ethos of direct, exciting, and attacking football, that INEOS are looking to reinstate.


Pochettino’s tactical preferences are well-suited to United’s existing squad which would make the transition nice and smooth, and the typical player roles within his trusted 4-2-3-1 can maximise the potential of key players like Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford, and Kobbie Mainoo. After years of on-again-off-again flirting between the two parties, now might be the time for Pochettino and United to finally come together.


By: Jake Lane / @jakerslane

Featured Image: @GabFoligno David Ramos / Getty Images