In the space of eight days at the end of 2023, Manchester United were in crisis, were back, and then in crisis again.
Lurching between such extremes seldom ends well for the person in the dugout. Throw in the fact that Erik ten Hag now effectively has new bosses after Ineos agreed to buy a 25% stake in the club, and it only adds to the sense that the Dutchman is circling the drain.
The 2-1 defeat at Nottingham Forest was United’s ninth Premier League loss of the season, as many as they suffered across the entirety of Ten Hag’s encouraging maiden campaign in charge. At this stage, it would take a brave punter to back him still being in the Old Trafford hot seat come 2025.
If these are the dog days of the Ten Hag era then it’s reasonable to ask where United turn next. Since Sir Alex Ferguson’s generation-defining reign, they’ve had the anointed successor (David Moyes), the sure-thing proven winners (Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho) and the en-vogue contemporary tactician (Ten Hag).
These contrasting figures have all ultimately come to fail in similar ways and it’s notable that whenever United manage to rouse themselves – the stirring second-half comeback to beat Aston Villa 3-2 on Boxing Day being a prime example – that they look a lot like the vibes and Man United DNA version overseen by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
They were a team much mocked and Ten Hag was generally viewed as the antithesis of all that. Yet, in more than a decade after Ferguson walked off into the sunset, it’s hard to argue against his former pupil Solskjaer being their most effective manager by some distance.
Perhaps that’s a painfully low bar and you can point to Van Gaal, Mourinho and Ten Hag all lifting domestic knockout cups while silverware evaded the former Norway international. The end of Solskjaer’s time in charge also demonstrated the main thing that Ineos chief Jim Ratcliffe and his sporting supremo Sir David Brailsford have to fix.
United’s failure to build a cohesive, elite sporting structure around any of their head coaches might be the most damning indictment of their 21st-century malaise. Although given this is something that takes time, costs money and doesn’t yield instant dividends, it can be no surprise that it’s not been at the top of the loathed Glazer family’s priority list.
When Solskjaer led United to a distant second place behind Manchester City in 2020/21 and the Europa League final in the same season, where they suffered a marathon penalty shootout defeat to Villarreal, the team had made obvious progress. It was also fairly evident that, at the very sharp end of competitions, they needed an upgrade on Solskjear.
An effective director of football and a functional overarching plan would have handled such a succession. Instead, Solksjaer stayed, was backed in the transfer market and then had the Cristiano Ronaldo vanity signing thrown at him to completely upset the balance of his side and be out of a job by November 2021.
From Brailsford’s previous dominance of the cycling world and Inoes’ other ventures in football — albeit with mixed results – you would expect there is enough nouse around to ensure that no future United manager will operate in such a vacuum.
Nor will Ten Hag’s successor sign a parade of players on the apparent basis of them having played for him previously or having an agent in common. As we’ve seen via the assorted trials of Antony, Andre Onana, Rasmus Hojlund and Sofyan Amrabat, that does not amount to a coherent transfer policy.
A glance at the most recent odds for the next United manager has Graham Potter leading the market, given Ineos’ purported admiration for the former Brighton & Hove Albion and Chelsea boss. One has to wonder whether United is the place for a coach who still has a reputation as a respected and innovative tactician, but also a man coming out of bruising failure at Chelsea — a basket case of contrasting proportions.
There’s a similar case to be made against Sporting Lisbon’s highly-regarded Ruben Amorim. His standing is comparable to that of Ten Hag in his Ajax days. If your club career is on an upward trajectory, it’s maybe not best to throw your lot in with Manchester United in 2024.
The perennially-linked Zinedine Zidane is also on the list as a man with big-game success on his CV and a reputation for managing and massaging dressing room egos. Zidane’s sustained lack of interest is unlikely to waver and, if Ratcliffe and Brailsford want that sort of coach, they can look a little closer to home.
Gareth Southgate as Manchester United manager is a scenario likely to be roundly dismissed and greeted online with a mix of incredulity and hilarity. The long-serving England manager has an uneven standing within the court of public opinion.
But the United job feels like a unique and poisoned position right now and Southgate’s experience with the Three Lions means he probably ticks a lot of boxes.
Southgate took the reins with England in 2016, after their Euros humiliation against Iceland and Sam Allardyce’s aborted tenure. The national team were at a low ebb and widely loathed by their public.
If you were to study England fans’ attitudes towards their side in 2016 and United supporters’ feelings about many of the players donning their club’s shirt right now, you’d find a lot of crossover.
Through a refreshingly open media policy (very much the opposite of banning critics from press conferences) and his talents as an empathic communicator, Southgate built bridges.
There is no requirement for an elite manager to be a supreme orator but Ten Hag’s public utterances leave something to be desired and have not helped when United’s form and struggles are thrust under a harsh glare every week. A boyhood United fan who possesses obvious emotional intelligence, Southgate would be a boon in that regard.
Of course, good PR counts for little without backing it up through performances on the field. Southgate guided a limited England squad to the semifinals of the 2018 World Cup before they came within a penalty shootout of glory at Euro 2020. Those campaigns represented the Three Lions’ best consecutive performances in major tournaments.
They bowed out at the quarterfinal stage of the 2022 World Cup having gone toe-to-toe with reigning champions and eventual beaten finalists France. The criticism Southgate continues to face down is that he is ill-equipped to get the best out of a lavishly gifted England line-up that has evolved massively since that heady summer in Russia.
Claims of a golden generation might be a little over-stated, given the lack of depth in central defence and holding midfield or a reliably fit left-back. But when his team lines up with the likes of Bukayo Saka, Phil Foden, Jude Bellingham and Harry Kane at Euro 2024, much will rightly be expected.
However England fare in Germany, it should not be forgotten that Southgate has proved to be a tactically flexible pragmatist, who has spun through 3-5-2, 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 setups depending on the situation and personnel available. This makes him better suited to a horribly imbalanced United squad than any committed ideologue.
Marcus Rashford and Harry Maguire are two players who have been through the mill at United over recent years. At the same time, they have enjoyed success with Southgate’s England. Like Maguire, Luke Shaw has been one of the Three Lions’ most dependable tournament performers.
This is far from a flawless plan. International football has not been the pinnacle for elite coaches for some time. If and when Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp take on national teams, expect it to be in their professional dotage. Southgate’s modest club management career at Middlesbrough and subsequent stint as England Under-21 manager means he still has much to prove as a day-to-day operator.
The idea of him being a “company man” at the FA is another stick for detractors, but again this could make him ideally suited to the sort of fresh structure at United that Brailsford will be tasked with building. In the long term, the 19-time English champions might have the luxury of being able to appoint a football visionary who can focus solely upon events on the field.
Right now, they need a firefighter, a pragmatist and a politician with skin thicker than a rhinoceros’ behind. They are a mighty football institution in shambles that needs turning around.
That doesn’t happen with an interim, as Ralf Rangnick emphatically proved. Ten Hag should have the rest of the season to limp on and right a few wrongs. Come July 2024, United might be able to appoint a coach with plenty of the qualities they need and, who knows, a Euro 2024 medal in his back pocket.
Southgate will never be flavour of the month but he has unquestionably succeeded more than any contemporary in England’s “impossible job”. He is not the perfect candidate for a perfect Manchester United, but he could be the best suited to their deeply imperfect present.