Zinedine Zidane in pole position to take over from Jose Mourinho with Man United staff convinced manager will go
Ed Woodward is facing a huge dilemma over Jose Mourinho’s future, with the Manchester United executive vice-chairman reluctant to sack the manager but fearful his hand could be forced against his will if the club’s season continues to implode.
Mourinho is facing a huge week after Saturday’s shambolic 3-1 defeat at West Ham, which defender Luke Shaw described as “horrendous” and “awful”, piled on the pressure ahead of the Champions League game against Valencia on Tuesday and the visit of Newcastle four days later.
Staff at Old Trafford are increasingly convinced it is a case of when, not if, Mourinho is sacked and it is thought Zinedine Zidane, who is a free agent after leaving Real Madrid in May, believes he could be offered the job if the Portuguese goes.
But Woodward – who will determine Mourinho’s fate – has been desperate to avoid a change during the season, not least given the complications around the appointment of any potential successor.
He would prefer not to have to find a short-term replacement, even if that may be unavoidable if primary, longer-term targets are out of reach for now, while some readily available candidates may be less enamoured by the prospect of a stopgap role.
Senior figures at Old Trafford have dismissed claims they have contacted Zidane through intermediaries but the Frenchman, who is believed to have been having English lessons, remains the favourite to fill the post if Mourinho goes.
Given Mourinho’s confrontational style of management, there is recognition that Zidane’s softer approach might be well received by players, not least Paul Pogba and the other French-speaking players in United’s dressing room – Anthony Martial and Eric Bailly – with whom Mourinho has clashed.
Zidane proved that he can manage big personalities during his 2½ years at Real, during which time he delivered three successive Champions Leagues, although his qualities in terms of developing players are less known. Those close to Woodward note that he persevered with Mourinho’s predecessors, Louis van Gaal and David Moyes, at various points when their positions appeared untenable.
But there are growing fears that Mourinho has lost so much support in the dressing room that the situation is irretrievable and Woodward may have no choice but to act if results continue to spiral and the team are cut further adrift of the top four. United already trail Tottenham, in fourth, by five points and are nine points behind leaders Manchester City and second-placed Liverpool, after just seven matches.
Yet Gary Neville, the former United captain, said Woodward must shoulder the blame for the “mess” the club now finds itself in and accused the executive vice-chairman of operating without any plan. “This mess started when United sacked David Moyes after eight months and we lost all sense of the values that the club had been built on for 100 years,” Neville wrote on Twitter. “It’s not the manager, it’s the lack of football leadership above him. They are bouncing all over the place with no plan!”
Responding to a suggestion Moyes should not have been appointed in the first place, Neville wrote: “That’s another question but when they sacked him after eight months it went into pinball, reactive mode and chasing it! No plan...”
There were concerns that United looked like a team who had stopped playing for Mourinho against West Ham and questions are also being asked internally about his use of some players. The decision to employ a midfielder in a three-man defence for a second time this season – Scott McTominay’s appearance against West Ham followed the use of Ander Herrera in the 3-0 defeat against Tottenham – raised eyebrows and some wondered whether that was Mourinho making a point after being denied the signing of a new centre-half.
Similarly, there are figures within the club who are struggling to understand why Alexis Sanchez – who has endured a miserable first nine months at United – has not been given a run-out in a central attacking role after flourishing there for Arsenal.
The West Ham defeat was United’s third in the league this term and condemned the club to their joint worst start after seven league games since 1990 – with just 10 points and a negative goal difference. Shaw said they performed like they did not deserve to play for the club. The defender’s frank assessment came as Pogba – the last to leave the United dressing room after the game – declined to speak to reporters. When asked whether he wanted to stop and talk about the performance the midfielder smiled and said: “You want me dead?”
Pogba, who appears determined to leave United as soon as possible, was poor against West Ham and was deservedly substituted after 70 minutes.
Shaw was at fault for West Ham’s first goal, which Mourinho claimed should have been ruled out for offside. “If you want the truth I think it was honestly horrendous,” Shaw said. “We didn’t look like a team that was going to beat West Ham. I think individually and as a team we were awful. That’s not good enough. It’s hard to take and we’re sorry to the fans for what they saw. It was not good enough from a Man United team.”
Shaw admitted there was even a lack of desire from United, with Pogba having previously questioned the team’s attitude: “From the first minute you could see we weren’t winning the second balls and our duels. It’s hard to take.”