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Sam Wallace: 'Smart planning the missing factor in Manchester United's manager woes'

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Alex Ferguson is almost six years retired as boss. Photo: Getty Images

Alex Ferguson is almost six years retired as boss. Photo: Getty Images

Getty Images

Alex Ferguson is almost six years retired as boss. Photo: Getty Images

The clock is ticking again for Manchester United, about to appoint their fourth permanent manager since the end of the Alex Ferguson era and while there is no certainty they will get their first preference, there is also no clear indication as to who is their second choice.

It is why the club have considered Gareth Southgate as a potential long-term successor to Jose Mourinho, one of a number of bases they are covering while they wait for a clear sign of intent from Mauricio Pochettino. The England manager is by no means a certainty either, having committed his future to the national team with a new contract in October. As United travel to Wembley to face Tottenham Hotspur today, 26 days after Mourinho's sacking, there is still so much left to ponder.

On each managerial chance, beginning with the appointment of David Moyes as Ferguson's successor, the club have been obliged to go with who was available, and persuadable in a short time frame, rather than a long-term target. Across town, Manchester City worked for years at preparing the club for Pep Guardiola, right down to the appointment of Spanish and Catalan executives, and the partnership with the Spanish Liga club Girona, part-owned by Guardiola's brother Pere.

It was a long pursuit, one intended to say to Guardiola that there was nowhere better suited to him, nowhere else more closely tailored to his requirements. Along the way, City had to adapt and ideally they would have preferred not to have announced Manuel Pellegrini's departure mid-season, but those decisions are easier to make when one is pursuing a long-held plan. The question for United is what exactly their plan is, especially if they are not to appoint Pochettino after all.

In an ideal world for the Old Trafford hierarchy, they would have secured a new manager's assurance months ago that he was prepared to join, and the club would have started to look at the players he wanted. But there are no guarantees, and for a club who once believed they could appoint anyone, there are more months of uncertainty ahead and the possibility that whoever is finally appointed is known forever as the Not Pochettino Candidate.

It was the same when they missed out on Guardiola, whom Ferguson approached during the Catalan's sabbatical in New York between the summers of 2012 and 2013. Ferguson later revealed in his management book, Leading, that he had asked Guardiola to contact him if the younger man was minded to take a job elsewhere. Guardiola politely claimed he had misunderstood the conversation. By the time Ferguson called it a day, Bayern Munich had already appointed their man.

When they came to give the job to Louis van Gaal, the Dutchman was notable for not having been anywhere near the original shortlist to replace Ferguson a year previously. But he was available and, at the time, at a club who had been through their worst season in 25 years, that was enough. When Van Gaal was sacked two years later, United stumbled into Mourinho - whose track record of winning trophies was enough for them at the time.

Perhaps Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will turn out to be the perfect accidental candidate, and if his team beat Pochettino's Spurs at Wembley then that will be taken by some as a further scrap of evidence that it should be the Norwegian. But that is not really how it should work at the biggest clubs. There should be a long-term plan that is a little more durable than reading the runes from a single result, good, bad or indifferent.

It hardly needs pointing out that Solskjaer was nowhere near being considered for the job when Mourinho was appointed two years ago. While he may well have developed in his second spell managing Molde, his greatest asset when United looked around last month for a stopgap candidate as they prepared to sack Mourinho was that, like so many of his recent United predecessors, Solskjaer was available.

The appointment of a new manager is the beginning of a process rather than the end, and the longer United wait for Pochettino, the longer it will take for that process to start. It hardly seems conceivable that six years since Ferguson retired, United go into another summer with uncertainty over who their manager will be. How long can Ed Woodward, the executive vice-chairman, afford to wait while others make up their minds?

It is in the next few months that the course of the club will be set for the next few years, in a league that keeps getting stronger. United are up against the best Liverpool team of the 21st century, managed by a coach whose availability in late 2015 prompted the sacking of his predecessor Brendan Rodgers. City are now the formidable winning machine they have long threatened to be, with Guardiola persuaded to sign a contract extension.

Chelsea and Arsenal have both made long-term decisions about the direction they plan to take.

Solskjaer may well salvage a campaign that United had given up for lost after their worst start to a season in 28 years. A Champions League place would be considered an exceptional return. But what matters is the vision for the next 10 years: what do United want to be and which manager do they see getting them there? If they do not appoint Pochettino this summer is that his name struck from the list forever, or a project to which they return?

The last four appointments have been the best man they could get at the time, while other more suitable candidates have passed them by or accepted jobs elsewhere. There are no guarantees that it will not be the same again.

Telegraph

Telegraph.co.uk