Wednesday 22 May 2019

Comment: Post-Alex Ferguson era summed up in 24 hours of madness

 

Strained relations: Paul Pogba reacts to something Jose Mourinho said at training yesterday
Strained relations: Paul Pogba reacts to something Jose Mourinho said at training yesterday

Sam Wallace

It's hard to ignore those pictures of Zinedine Zidane in London taking time out from his busy schedule attending awards ceremonies to pose outside a telephone box and in front of a red bus.

One could only speculate as to whether this new spirit of openness from one of football's most reticent characters helps put him in the mind of a certain Premier League club or whether it could just be a genuine fascination with the classic Routemaster.

Either way, no one quite knows how the three-times Champions League-winning coach might fare outside Real Madrid, or even just the Real Madrid of 2016-2018, but that would probably not stop Manchester United appointing him as their next manager.

United post-Alex Ferguson have become a bit like the English Football Association have been for years when it comes to England managers.

Since David Moyes, United have just wanted someone different to the last one, and as long as Zidane did not rent hotel suites by the month or demand respect, that would probably be fine.

It would be some way for Jose Mourinho to go - the loser in a popularity contest with Paul Pogba, a player who was introduced like a movie star when he was signed and has responded by behaving like one.

Pogba watches the defeat to Derby from the stands. Photo: REUTERS
Pogba watches the defeat to Derby from the stands. Photo: REUTERS

All of this, nonetheless, seems to have come as a complete surprise to United.

The new regime presented Pogba's return as if it was the greatest thing that had ever happened to the club and no one seems to have believed that more than Pogba himself, who, having been thoroughly mediocre at times over the past two years, now seems to have decided it is time to leave.

Mourinho does not come out of it well either, a man whose own insecurities are as numerous as all those Supercoppa and Community Shields he includes in his trophy-count.

Then there is Pogba's agent, Mino Raiola, whose fee when United signed his player was somehow not enough for him to decide that the club could do without his contribution henceforth.

The pair in happier times last season. Photo: PA
The pair in happier times last season. Photo: PA

Pogba himself, happy to bask in the glow of his multi-platform fame, has never got to grips with the much more difficult problem of the Raiola-Mourinho mutual contempt which has proved so poisonous to the club.

If ever a day epitomised the modern United then it was Tuesday. They announced the highest wage bill in the Premier League in the morning, there was a row between the club's highest-profile player and their manager in the afternoon and by the evening a Carabao Cup cock-up.

A club spending a fortune with so little return, in an era when the margins are that much finer than those Ferguson had to deal with.

If Mourinho does eventually go, then Zidane will be the obvious choice - big enough, famous enough, successful in the single job he has done, and available - even if the obvious choice has served United so poorly in the post-Ferguson era.

The obsession with finding a Ferguson proxy has been put ahead of a plan that encompasses the whole club.

They had a chance to appoint Mauricio Pochettino, a young manager who might have built more slowly, but whatever he represents was never worth as much to them as the sweet hit of what they like to think of as a proven winner.

It takes a long time for the legacy of those decisions to reveal itself but finally it is here, with a third post-Ferguson manager struggling and a fortune spent trying to solve a problem that only seems to get bigger.

The image that United have of themselves, as a club who win trophies, is the same that Liverpool were seduced by in the years that followed their last league championship.

When a club have that much success, it is easy to believe that all they need is managers who have been successful in the past.

Ed Woodward mentioned the notion again this week, citing the historical trophy-count of United and that of their manager as if it should just happen again because it did in the past.

The piece in between - the difficult decision about what might have to be sacrificed for the long-term good - is where the hard bit comes.

Five years on from Ferguson's departure and United have three more trophies than Liverpool in the same period, but no road map for where they are heading.

It barely needs saying that Manchester City had to change everything to go forward, much easier when they had nothing that could not be thrown away.

By contrast, United are still watched from the stands by the man who gave them their greatest days. They still believe that the success that once came so easily is just out of reach, theirs just for the right run of results, or the right signing.

Yet recent history suggests they need much more fundamental change, especially when not even the biggest wage bill in the Premier League or its most expensive player can mitigate against it.

Dysfunctional

As for the question of what could have been a more spectacularly dysfunctional day than Tuesday, when everything that could go wrong did go wrong, the answer might be: Wednesday.

A day when Mourinho and Pogba continued their row in front of the Sky Sports cameras filming training.

United are not the only club in Europe so rich that they behave like they do not need a plan, but they are certainly the richest English club without one.

All the signs are telling them that there are no easy answers to this one. Another sacking, another celebrity manager, another signing - a wage bill that grows precipitously. It is entertainment of a kind, and perhaps to some that is all that matters, but it is not what made them the club they once were. (©Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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