Thursday 13 December 2018

Paul Hayward: Zidane reluctance shows how far United have fallen

Life-size cut-outs of Paul Pogba, Zinedine Zidane and Jose Mourinho at Old Trafford prior to the victory over Newcastle. Photo: PA
Life-size cut-outs of Paul Pogba, Zinedine Zidane and Jose Mourinho at Old Trafford prior to the victory over Newcastle. Photo: PA

Paul Hayward

The game was much ado about nothing-nothing, but the spectacle of Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola going about their work diligently, intelligently, at Anfield last Sunday offered a startling contrast to the mayhem 35 miles east at Old Trafford.

In Liverpool's 0-0 draw with Manchester City, there were no Brexit references, no 'pinky' gestures to the cameras, no manhunts and no propaganda war. Nobody needed a vote of confidence, there was no social-media apocalypse and the fans were not expected to consult their consciences every five minutes to decide which side they were on.

To sit in the Stretford End now requires you to be a kind of Kremlinologist, with an acute sense of where this or that rumour might have come from and whose interests it might serve.

All we saw at Anfield 24 hours later was a high-grade game of football between two sides intent on winning the Premier League; two managers who have imbued their teams with energy, hunger, attacking intent.

Each treated last Sunday's coming together of the best two teams in England as a tactical and motivational challenge. You could see the brains of the managers whirring.

Entertainment-wise, it was one of the biggest let-downs of recent seasons, but there was still plenty to look at.

City's bravery in taking risks to keep possession by spreading the game wide to nullify Liverpool's gegenpress was not intended as a rebuke to Manchester United, with their invisible pattern of play. But it was.

If you were Zinedine Zidane watching the cabaret of Man United 3, Newcastle United 2, would you be itching for a call from Old Trafford's overlords to clean up Jose Mourinho's mess and take on City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham and a resurgent Arsenal, at a club where David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and now Mourinho have all been custard-pied?

Mourinho's facial foam is largely self-applied, but the next man in could hardly be confident of escaping the clown's send-off.

Suspicion

Naturally the suspicion arose that Zidane, when apparently ruling himself out of a move to United, was merely playing some game, like everybody else in this dismal power play. Yet even before Zidane's agent spoke, there was a strong word in France that their greatest footballer was recoiling from a job in the Premier League, especially if it involved piecing Mourinho's smashed chandelier back together.

Alain Migliaccio, Zidane's man, told 'Le Journal du Dimanche' in France: "I don't think he'll work in England, as it is not compatible with his style or approach to football. I discussed it with him and the idea does not attract him at all. He has chosen to take a sabbatical year and won't change his mind."

That sabbatical could yet end if Bayern Munich cut Niko Kovac adrift; and there is no club that would provide a more fitting home for Zidane than Paris Saint-Germain, should Thomas Tuchel fail where all PSG managers have - in the Champions League.

So contorted have politics at United become that when the 'Daily Mirror' led with a story suggesting Mourinho would be sacked, win or lose against Newcastle, suspicion fell on some possible unnamed source in Mourinho's camp who might have floated the idea to force the United board's hand and garner support for him from the crowd.

Tick, and tick. Mourinho claims to have received a supportive text from boardroom level and many United fans rallied to him when his team came alive at 2-0 down against Newcastle.

The fixation with the now of Mourinho's fate is a decent sideshow, if you like that kind of thing, but clear heads will be turning to what happens next, assuming Mourinho has passed the point of no return with his bizarre treatment of his players.

If Zidane does not consider it his next great mission to revive the early promise of Phil Jones, or send a search party out for the player Alexis Sanchez used to be, it would take a clever chief executive to work out who United need in that dugout.

Guardiola: yes please. Klopp: not half. Maurizio Sarri: too late. Damn, no chance, on all counts. United are doomed to play catch-up.

There is one candidate who fits every requirement of a United manager, though he has yet to win anything.

Mauricio Pochettino is still the obvious man to pick up the thread dropped by Alex Ferguson, but there is no guarantee they would get him.

Until the debacle around Mourinho, United could offer the manager's job as a kind of holy calling, an offer that nobody could refuse.

That advantage has been thrown away. Moyes, Van Gaal and Mourinho were all punts, in different ways.

In each case, evidence it might not work was ignored in the belief United's power as a club would carry the new man along on a tide of money and tradition.

Mourinho, hired as a winner, has turned out to be more of a whiner, even if his first-season catch of League Cup and Europa League deserves respect, as does his second-place finish last season.

The real work, though, is being done by Guardiola, Klopp, Sarri, Unai Emery and Pochettino, who, if he took the job, could at least do so knowing he was doing United a favour, rather than as the luckiest man alive.

If there is one thing the United board need now, it is less power. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Who is your sportstar of the year?

Vote in the Irish Independent Sport Star Awards and you could win the ultimate sports prize.

Prizes include, a trip to Old Trafford to watch Man United take on Liverpool in the Premier League, tickets to Ireland's home games in the Six Nations, All Ireland football and hurling final tickets and much more.

Simply click here to register your vote

Telegraph.co.uk

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport