“He’s got incredible energy and very importantly he likes attacking football.” It was the kind of off-the-cuff boast that Manchester United’s executive vice chairman has become known for. Summer 2014, brimming with the kind of bravado inspired by victory, Woodward added another supposed truism to his unveiling of a new manager secured: that Louis van Gaal’s style would bring “the kind of football Manchester United fans love.” That attacking football is “part of our DNA.” Woodward got only one part of the story correct.
More than 500 days on and Woodward’s confidence is now laid bare; Van Gaal’s time at United surely drawing to a close. Whether he jumps, as Van Gaal is prone to do, or is finally pushed, it will end a period of ignominious failure at Old Trafford, and bring to a close a stellar career on a desperately sour note. More than 20 years and 19 trophies on, Van Gaal has no wish to retire in these circumstances.
Yet, the Dutchman was sent back to the Netherlands over the weekend to contemplate his future after reportedly handing in a third resignation in as many weeks – a story denied by the club. The clock is ticking. Not least because failure is really the only appropriate word to describe Van Gaal’s performance. In an industry where poor results will break even the best managers there is normally only one outcome when they are as underwhelming as those achieved at United this season.
The delay is political and, frankly, desperate. Van Gaal is contracted to the summer of 2017 and will be due a substantial pay-off if United pull the trigger on a sacking. It is one reason – not a good one – that the Dutchman remains in post. The other is even more insidious: Woodward’s requirement for his coach to turn United’s ship around. There is scant evidence that Van Gaal will, can or even wants to achieve that goal.
Still, should United lose at Derby County in the FA Cup on Friday night, then the pressure for change may become unbearable, with Ryan Giggs waiting to step in until a permanent manager is appointed. Either way, it is now inconceivable that Van Gaal survives beyond the summer… and there are others that want the job.
Jose Mourinho – 4/5
There is more than one group at United that wants nothing to do with the controversial Portuguese coach. It was, and is, Boardroom disagreement about the managers’ merits, or lack thereof, that first prevented Mourinho from succeeding Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013. It was a decision that led, disastrously, to David Moyes’ appointment to one of the biggest jobs in world football. Van Gaal’s travails at United speak to the size of the task at hand – not only in rebuilding a broken team, but doing so in the uniquely commercially oriented environment that exists at Old Trafford. Yet, Mourinho ticks so many of the right boxes too: a stellar CV that includes eight league titles in four countries, two Champions League victories and countless other trophies. He is a serial winner, desperately wants the job and is available. What, in that case, is the drawback? The corrosive personality; the penchant for breaking relationships bordering on the nihilistic; and a style of football that has only intermittently set the hearts racing.
Ryan Giggs – 7/2
The romantics’ choice – and Giggs wants the job so desperately he played no small part in engineering Moyes’ downfall. Giggs has spent more than two decades at the club, joining as a will-o’-the-wisp teenage winger, before claiming 34 trophies as a player for the club. The word ‘legend’ doesn’t do Giggs’ role in United’s recent successes enough justice. Yet, there are plenty of barriers to the Welshman’s accession to the top job – not least his inexperience as a coach. Giggs’ appointment would be, as Giovanni Trappatoni once noted, akin to placing a learner driver at the wheel of a Ferrari. Giggs is known to have felt overwhelmed by his four-game stint as caretaker in the wake of Moyes’ dismissal. Less than two years on and Giggs has little positive in the way of additive experience from which to draw. Then there’s the political dimension with Woodward apparently suspicious of a ‘Class of 92’ cabal gaining significant traction at the club.
Pep Guardiola – 8/1
The world’s preeminent manager is, as Woodward is supposed to have briefed, a “collector of trophies.” Some insult that. Not only has the Spaniard produced two outstanding teams at Barcelona and Bayern Munich, but each has offered – for the most part – some of the best football of the past 20 years. Guardiola’s fortune in inheriting two sets of outstanding talents was truly golden, but there is no doubt about Pep’s ability to fashion top players into a winning team. Trophies, good football, and a man who has made all the right noises about taking over at Old Trafford – it is, surely, the right package? And yet there has been reticence, particularly from Woodward, about making a move for the 45-year-old. Manchester City beckons, but it didn’t have to be that way. The pushback: Guardiola’s unknown quantity in Premier League terms; that he is yet to be challenged by a group of players as, well, poorly equipped as those at Old Trafford; and that he offers only four years’ service. Woodward has probably made a critical error. Not his first.
Mauricio Pochettino – 18/1
The Argentine has fashioned an impressively young and attacking team at Tottenham Hotspur – one that may well beat United into fourth place. That he performed a similar feat at Southampton, taking the south coast club comfortably into the top echelon of the Premier League, speaks to Pochettino inherent qualities. He is a coach going places. There is, of course, nothing on the CV that makes the 43-year-old a shoe-in: no silverware, no job at one of Europe’s largest clubs, no ‘big time’ personality. He is a coach first; one not schooled in United’s rather old fashioned monolithic structure. Then there is the Spurs contract, which has more than three years to run – and an inevitable compensation discussion to be had with Daniel Levy.
Diego Simeone – 20/1
The Argentine’s Atletico Madrid team continues to defy the smartest pundits. La Liga winners in 2014, Atleti is currently tied with Barcelona at the top of this year’s table. Simeone’s team is a reflection of the man: brutally competitive, utterly committed and sometimes just a little on the edge. All qualities that would serve Simeone well at Old Trafford. Atleti has rarely produced the most thrilling football under Simeone’s stewardship, but then it is never dull either. There is, in a career not yet 10 seasons old, a clear Simeone style. Yet, the 45-year-old has some missing elements on his CV too: not least that he is yet to take charge of one of Europe’s truly élite clubs, with all the added pressure it brings. Nor does Simeone speak good English – undoubtably a drawback in the unforgiving Premier League environment.
Mark Hughes – 22/1
The former United striker has not always enjoyed success as a manager. Famously aloof, Hughes had a semi-successful spell as manager of the Welsh national team, before building a bruising Blackburn Rovers outfit. That earned Hughes a crack at the City job – and a dismissal 18 months later that was a known quantity to most of Fleet Street before the Welshman had been given the official word. Hughes spent a year at Fulham before quitting amid a desire to “move on to further my experiences” – widely interpreted as a frustrated manager, held back in the transfer market. Sacked by Queens Park Rangers after less than a year in the job, Hughes was perhaps fortunate to land a role at Stoke City – one that he is undertaking with some gusto. Hughes would be a left-field choice, but one that might become viable if all other options lead to a dead-end.
Gary Neville – 33/1
Smart and incisive, Neville has reinvented punditry – drawing not on clichés and the empty soliloquies so often used in broadcast coverage, but a sharp intellect and instinctive trust in the audience. The former right-back has not yet transferred that approach to the training field. His Valencia side is yet to win in the league, albeit with Neville having only taken charge of 12 games in all competitions this season. Neville, much like Giggs, has little managerial experience to draw on, although he has enjoyed a fruitful spell as assistant to Roy Hodgson with the England national team. Could a Giggs-Neville partnership work at Old Trafford? Just perhaps, although the smart money is on Woodward doing his level best to block that possibility. Fergie is working the other angle, so say the gossip-columnists.
Joachim Löw – 40/1
Once rumoured to be a shoe-in for the top job at Real Madrid, the German has built a career on a surprisingly low-key approach. After all, Löw is the incumbent World Cup winning manager after Germany romped to the trophy in Brazil during the summer of 2014. In truth Löw has enjoyed a low-profile coaching career too: spells in charge of VfB Stuttgart, Fenerbahçe, Karlsruher SC, Adanaspor, Tirol Innsbruck and Austria Wien are hardly out of the élite coach’s handbook. Yet, Löw’s work, first as assistant to Jürgen Klinsmann, and then as full-time manager of the German national team, has been transformational. After a 12 years out of club football, Löw might well be looking for a fresh start. The Madrid job has, of course, gone elsewhere. Could Woodward come calling?
* Odds: SkyBet