James Lawton: Guardiola and Ancelotti the only men capable of restoring success to Old Trafford
Published 11/12/2015 | 02:30
When Frank O'Farrell knew his time was up as manager of Manchester United and was summoned to the boardroom he made the bravest of quips. "Well," he said, "it's a nice day for an execution."
Will Louis van Gaal be equally philosophical when he gets the call, as maybe he will in any circumstances but surely in the absence of a Premier League title triumph in the spring?
Probably not. Instead of asking the firing squad for a blindfold he is more likely to demand the statistics to show that his sentence is unjust.
This is the big problem with Van Gaal. Some of his achievements at major clubs like Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich could hardly have been more impressive - he was world manager of the year in 1995 - and he did brilliant work in steering a modestly gifted Holland to third place in the World Cup last year.
But sooner or later there appears a major disconnection, between him and the rest of the world.
At Old Trafford at the moment the breakdown could hardly be more profound.
It is about - apart from mostly dismal, over-priced recruitment -Van Gaal's utter failure to grasp the culture of Manchester United - and also the recurring inability of the club to understand, and begin to replace, the peculiar strengths of the two managers who brought the greatest success.
O'Farrell, an intelligent and decent football man, was the second of five failed attempts to find someone to fit into the shoes of Matt Busby. And when that man Alex Ferguson arrived, in many ways he was as far away from the image of the founder of the United tradition as any of his predecessors.
Wilf McGuinness, a passionate United loyalist, was overwhelmed by the scale of his task. O'Farrell was bedevilled by the rebellions of George Best and his sense that the old guard of Bobby Charlton and Denis Law and Pat Crerand were having a separate dialogue with their old mentor. He railed against what he considered the overbearing presence of the great man.
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In their different ways Tommy Docherty, Dave Sexton and Ron Atkinson also struggled to make the necessary adjustments.
If Busby was football's ultimate statesman, Ferguson was raw and pugnacious. But he did have one vital and overwhelming similarity to his great predecessor. Supremely, he understood what he was dealing with. It wasn't simply a dauntingly successful football club. It was an idea, a dream, a way of thinking that could not countenance the ordinary.
Van Gaal has brought building blocks to Old Trafford and is involved in the most laborious reconstruction.
What was needed after the implosion of David Moyes, a superbly professional operator at Everton but a man plainly out of his depth at United, was someone to re-create a mood, a natural-born belief that achieving success was not so much a challenge as a right.
It is an approach which requires a certain nerve and for United's American ownership there is not exactly a luxury of choice. Even while they compliment themselves on avoiding the dramas of an unravelling Jose Mourinho, they must recognise that they can no longer take a gamble on the Van Gaal succession.
While Gary Neville embarks on what looks certain to be a tumultuous apprenticeship at Valencia, and Ryan Giggs keeps his head down in the foxhole beside Van Gaal, the viable candidates might be able to squeeze into a telephone booth.
Surely, it is a field of two urbane and proven candidates - Carlo Ancelotti and Pep Guardiola, who is reportedly a lot more interested in possibilities at Old Trafford than he is those across town at Manchester City.
Both, as players and coaches, have proven time and again how well they handle themselves along the peaks of the game. Between them they have laid hands on the European title eight times, Ancelotti twice as a player and twice as coach of AC Milan and once with Real Madrid; Guardiola once as a player and twice as a coach at Barcelona.
These are not the credentials of men who might make fundamental mistakes in the reading of the challenge that beckons at Old Trafford.
According to Bayern president Franz Beckenbauer, there is concern at his club that after racing to 100 wins in record time in Munich, Guardiola may already be contemplating the chance to bring a huge flourish to his career by renovating and inspiring United.
"Pep is interesting for every top club in the world," Beckenbauer said this week. "He can pick the club, and in terms of popularity Manchester United might be the number one world wide."
Certainly, the architect of some of Barcelona's most luminous performances would appear to have only to pick up a phone and call Old Trafford if this is indeed his current instinct - and even if Van Gaal's team ride the jeers of such old players as Rio Ferdinand and Paul Scholes and stagger first home across the Premier League finishing line in the spring.
Who better, after all, to make overtures to such as Lionel Messi, the kind of player that United ultimately need if they are ever going to reconnect with the most exciting days of their past?
Ancelotti, too, has an empathy with the star players which seemed to reside on another planet this week when Van Gaal so mysteriously withdrew Juan Mata in favour of Nick Powell, a young player who hadn't seen first team action in 16 months.
This, amid fresh reports of dressing-room unrest, made something of a parody of Van Gaal's claims that his plans have always been based on the need for a working chemistry with his players.
Ancelotti can claim a notably successful relationship with the notoriously volatile and egotistical Cristiano Ronaldo at Real. He nursed him to the Champions League triumph in Lisbon last year which won the player the much craved Ballon d'Or title in his hand-to-hand battle with Messi.
At Chelsea, the Italian was also adroit in motivating the sometimes tempestuous Didier Drogba, about whom he reported after one particularly overwhelming performance, "It's no secret, I feed him on red meat." That, and also an understanding of the hopes - and the fears - of even the most powerful and gifted players.
Guardiola or Ancelotti? United, you have to suspect, may already have decided that nothing less than one or the other will do.