James Lawton: With Van Gaal in charge, it's easy to see why United desperately want Guardiola
Published 29/01/2016 | 02:30
Sometimes the burning question of the week can touch on the football ages and maybe we have one of those now. It asks how desperate are the hierarchy of Manchester United as they brace themselves against the possibility of another disaster, this time in FA Cup action against Derby County tonight?
Sufficiently, apparently, to nerve themselves into one last attempt to persuade Pep Guardiola to renege on his agreement with Manchester City and rally to their grievously tattered flag.
What they have, it seems, is not so much a contingency plan as an SOS message to the football coach who for some time has been in a league of his own in the matter of choosing his next employers.
A majority of the Old Trafford top brass reluctantly decided that the lure of City gold, and a superb infrastructure, had taken out of their reach the man who won two Champions League titles with Barcelona, reshaped the career of Lionel Messi and then, after a sabbatical in New York, cherry-picked the job at Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich.
However, some optimists at United, including chief executive Ed Woodward, are persisting in the hope that the challenge of remaking the club, and an aura he has always admired, might yet tempt Guardiola away from what has been so widely deemed to be a fait accompli.
United's resolve, however desperate and even humiliating, is a reflection of the growing fear that the stultifying reign of Louis van Gaal has pushed Old Trafford into a crisis so deep that without the superior touch and vision of someone like Guardiola it might take years to dissolve.
And that by which time they could be separated from City, not to mention the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, and maybe Paris Saint-Germain, by a whole ocean of clear blue water.
The crucial consideration for United, after weeks of contemplating an accelerating decline that reached another nadir with the home defeat by Southampton last weekend, is stark enough: if not Guardiola, who?
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Apparently, despite the rush of the most recent speculation, not Jose Mourinho.
The case for the tainted Special One is that he has the nerve and self-belief to tackle any football situation, whatever the pressure.
However, despite his well-known yearning to take on the challenge, he was ruled out as the successor to Alex Ferguson after his often dismaying behaviour in the last months of his time at Real Madrid.
The conclusion was that the price for his undoubted, if increasingly erratic, ability was simply too high in terms of how the club likes to think of itself.
Despite the forlorn drift of Van Gaal's presence at Old Trafford, any chance of a re-think on Mourinho was - United sources say - blown away by the manner of his departure from Stamford Bridge. He railed against the betrayals of his players, their failure to keep pace with his genius.
So where does that leave the Van Gaal succession? Not in the likely hands of United legend Ryan Giggs, apparently.
Though Giggs carries much respect at Old Trafford - and the admiration of Ferguson - his experience is still not deemed sufficient for him to take command. He also has made it clear that he would reject the offer of a short-term commission he accepted in the wake of the fall of Van Gaal's predecessor David Moyes.
Unhelpfully for the Old Trafford icon Giggs, his former mentor Ferguson is on the record suggesting that he may have made a crucial error in his pursuit of the United job by delaying his retirement as a player.
"If Ryan had retired at say 35 it was quite likely that I would have made him my assistant," Ferguson said.
"And it was also quite likely that he could have moved straight into the job with the experience of being my assistant, the job he is doing with Van Gaal at the moment."
The difference is that as Ferguson went out with a title-winning season, Giggs might well have been seen as the inheritor of a dressing room filled with much of its old swagger and confidence.
Now Woodward's claims on behalf of Giggs are perhaps irreparably weakened by the fact his role under Van Gaal has been that of a glum, and frequently wordless, observer of one disastrous performance heaped upon another.
When Giggs was asked to repair some of the ruins of the Moyes misadventure in 2014, Woodward said: "It's very important that as a club we have continuity and Ryan is the perfect person to contribute that.
"He did a good job in the set-up last year and it helps so much that he has been here such a long time."
Now, though, mere continuity could hardly be lower down United's list of urgent requirements.
Continuity is the bedrock of a football dynasty rather than a driving force of resurrection, a point implicit in one assessment this week from a former United player of superb motivation who asked that his name be off the record.
He said, witheringly, that he had never seen a group of United players so apparently overwhelmed and depressed by the scale of the challenge facing them.
Citing the drastic under-performance of such notable signings as the Dutch international winger Memphis Depay and the highly respected former Southampton French international Morgan Schneiderlin, he said: "It seems that the whole dressing room from Wayne Rooney down just cannot see a way out of this situation. They show no belief in their play, it is as though everything has turned against them.
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"As for players like Depay and Schneiderlin, who came with such good reputations, their confidence just seems to go from bad to worse."
Such is the pressure on United to create something representing a new start, one which above all else acknowledges the need to play football reflecting the tradition that seemed to have been carved in rock during the regimes of Matt Busby, the founder of the United tradition, and Ferguson.
From such a perspective Guardiola remains a perfect fit - and the reasons why some at United are still nourished by some off-the-cuff remarks made by Guardiola after a game at Old Trafford. He said: "I like the atmosphere here very much. I could see myself coaching here one day."
At the time the comment might have been listed as a pleasant courtesy. Now, and for some time to come, it cannot be seen by United as anything other than the proffering of a slender strand of hope.
The reality laid bare this week is that United have never been in greater need of something more substantial than a kind word.