Manchester United – A succession conundrum – 08/05/2012

Sir Alexander Chapman Ferguson (SAF) turned 70 last December and will have been managing Manchester United for 25 ½ years by the end of the current 2011-12 EPL season. The success he has achieved over that period is second to none and he’s now seen has a father figure for the English premier league – after becoming its most successful manager in history. It is no secret that SAF is closer to the end than the beginning of his stewardship at Old Trafford. The debate of who his successor will be has been raging and a plethora of names have been suggested over the years. As the end edges closer, I thought I should add my own opinion to the debate.

If one considers the astute way – if we ignore the humongous debt – the Glazers have managed Manchester United since their takeover of the club, it is safe to guess in all likelihood that there will be a new manager at Manchester United as early as the 2013-14 season but no later than 2014-15 football season.

From the names that have been dropped in the hat within the last few years, I think only three are realistic candidates by my estimation. I have selected who these realistic three are and will discuss why I think they have a better than average chance of being SAF’s successor. In selecting these three I considered the following yardstick, yardstick’s necessitated by SAF’s incredible success:

  1. Proven man-management skill
  2. Proven technical/tactical skill
  3. Proven ability to develop young talent
  4. Strong relative success
  5. Long-term commitment

In my order of preference, at number:

3.       Jose Mourinho – Jose is a complete maverick. His success in the last 8years can only be rivalled by Pep Guardiola. He is a true winner, winning titles and cup competitions at every club he’s managed. His work at Porto and Chelsea evidences his man-management skills. His players played for him and were willing to die on the pitch for him. He employs several tactics to get his players psychologically ready for matches, sometimes redirecting the limelight or media focus/backlash to himself to shield his players from criticism or scrutiny, especially when they perform below expected standard. Some argue that he hugs the limelight a little bit too much. This probably holds weight if one considers the different spats he had with media in Italy and the political tangles he got himself to at his current club Real Madrid. Currently he seems to be having his way at Real Madrid but at what expense? Whilst he successfully engaged the media in England – using it to his advantage most times, same cannot be said of his relationship with the media in Italy and Spain. Perhaps the favourable relationship he enjoys with British media will work in his favour were he to succeed SAF, this remains to be seen and can only be cautiously accepted as fact as he spent less than 3 years in England before departing Chelsea.

His coaching, technical and tactical skill is exemplary as displayed in every team he has managed. He’s not one to baulk at making substitutions or tough calls within the first 10mins of a match if he thinks it will improve his team’s chances of winning. Until he became manager of Real Madrid, his coaching skill was unquestionable but as losing to Barcelona became a norm, doubts began to creep in, with Madristas voicing their dissent severally after recent defeats. Until very recently, Real had never beaten Barcelona in the league since 2008 and their last win at Camp Nou in April 2012 was the first since 2007. Guardiola seemed to always have the better of him and his players. The several defeats to Barcelona remain the only dent to his perceived excellent technical and tactical skills. It remains to be seen how he’ll fare against them in the post Guardiola era. There is no doubt that Jose is technically and tactically equipped to succeed at Old Trafford. He will however need to not employ his effective football tactic too often if he is to get the backing of Stretford End.

As great a coach Jose has been, his inability to develop and nurture young talent has been a great splotch on his impressive CV. Besides the success he enjoyed at Benfica and Porto, he seems to always rely on ‘buying’ success by splashing out significant sums on big name/established players or on working for chief executives who wouldn’t baulk at splashing the cash. Jose is not known to be one that develops talent. In recent history, the only player he’s had the opportunity to develop into a huge talent is John Mikel Obi. Some argue that he ruined the career of the young Nigerian international and that Obi had the potential to become the “new Patrick Vieira” when he was wrestled by Chelsea away from Old Trafford but that Jose converted a potential never-before-seen box-to-box midfielder into a defensive sideways passer, others argue that au contraire, Mikel has become one of the finest defensive midfielders of his generation – and gave Jose the plaudit for that. The fact that this debate rumbles on suggests that Jose’s ability to nurture and develop young talent remains doubtful. The faithfuls at Old Trafford expect young talent to be nurtured and for great young players to come through the club’s excellent academy, something SAF excelled at during his tenure at Old Trafford. This is clearly a negative in Jose’s possibility of replacing SAF at Old Trafford.

Conclusion – as great a coach and manager Jose is, he comes with a baggage. Drama and sometimes silly antics seem to follow him everywhere he manages. He always wants to set an “us against the world” siege like mentality up at the club he manages. This I do not believe is suitable for a manager of Manchester United. There’s also question about his ability to commit long-term to any club. Jose as spent a maximum of 3years at every club he’s coached at. It is unlikely that the trend will change at Manchester United. Bu his antecedents, I can predict that Jose will probably spend a maximum of 4years at Old Trafford and will then offer himself to be the next England manager after the expiration of Roy Hodgson’s contract, following which he’ll accept to be his native Portugal’s national manager following the end of his contract with England and then call time on his career. Whilst it is unlikely that we will ever see the type of longevity set by SAF again, Manchester United need a manager that will commit at least the next 10years of his career to the club. Jose, in my opinion based on the above is not the man to succeed SAF.

2.      David Moyes – David celebrated 10years as manager of Everton FC in 2012. During that time, he enjoyed some success – qualifying Everton for the European Champions league in 2004-05, Uefa Cup in 2007-08 and leading them to the FA Cup final in 2009. Besides SAF and Arsene Wenger, Moyes is the longest serving club manager in the English Premier League. In modern day football, that is a rarity.   

What David achieved at Everton is worthy of praise and emulation considering the tight budget and financial constrain he had to work with. He couldn’t have achieved these successes without being a good coach and a good man-manager – getting the best out of his lean squad. With his team, you always know what to expect. His team work hard and are always well drilled. Sometimes they play great football too. It is unfortunate that Everton under Moyes never won anything has some football pundits believe they should have won something and that Moyes deserves a trophy for his efforts.

David appears to have a good eye for spotting talent. He has unearthed quite a few during his time at Everton, with the most famous being Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney. This ability to spot talent is directly responsible for the success Everton enjoyed under his continued stewardship as he was able to buy relatively better than average players at a real discount – some of whom (Joleon Lescott, Wayne Rooney, Mikel Arteta etc)he sold on for significant profit. This ability to spot talent and nurture them makes him a serious contender as Sir Alex’s replacement.

Conclusion – On paper, Moyes looks like a shoe-in to replace Sir Alex. He’s proven that he can commit long-term, he’s not fazed by challenges, has some technical skills, a good spotter of talent and that United’s academy will be in good hands were he to become SAF’s successor. However, despite all of his successes at Everton and the above impressive CV, doubts remain about whether he possesses the winning mentality required to win a league or one of the cup competitions. David should have won a cup competition during his time at Everton. He had more than enough opportunities to have done that. For reasons unknown, his team always come up short at the crucial period. His teams’ performances have also been volatile. Sometimes they start strong and finish with a wimper or start really bad and finish strong, they always seem to dip in form for no clear reason. SAF on the other hand had displaced the Old Firm’s stranglehold in Scotland with Aberdeen prior to joining Manchester United and even won European competitions with them – thereby proving he can see a winning run through to the end – the strength of his mental resolve was without doubt. This weak mentality at crucial points is what may deny Moyes this opportunity of succeeding SAF. In my opinion, he comes really close at being the only successor but just falls short.

1.     Josep Guardiola – Pep, as he is mostly referred to has been one of if not the most successful club manager within the last four years as manager of Barcelona FC. Besides being a successful manager, he also had a successful career as a footballer for Barcelona and Spain. Pep is regarded as one of the deep thinkers/philosophers of football. His commitment to the game is completely total. He lets the game consume him – perhaps a bit too much as this in some way contributed to his departure from Barcelona and perhaps the best job in football.

Pep’s man management skill is irrefutable. It can be clearly seen in the way his players love to play for him. Throughout his time as manager of Barcelona – only arguably once did a spat with one of his players (Zlatan Ibrahimovic) get into the public sphere. For a club of the magnitude of Barcelona, that takes some doing as the team is filled with stars at every position on the pitch. Of course some of these stars owe their stardom to Pep as he exposed them to the world and coached them to be world beaters. The real feather in Pep’s cap is his management of arguably one of the greatest if not the greatest ever footballer – Lionel Messi. Pep’s management of Messi also confirms his technical and tactical ability. This is besides his success at improving the total tiki-taka football played by Barcelona to a level never before seen in the world and perhaps beyond its progenitor, Johan Cryuff’s dream. By switching Messi in to the middle as a false nine, Pep unleashed the talent of Messi to the world with very devastating effect.

Prior to becoming the coach of FC Barcelona’s senior team in 2008, Pep was the coach of Barcelona B for one year. He won the B league that year using players such as Pedro, Thiago, Dos Santos, Cuenca, Tello, Adriano, Bojan and a plethora of others – he successfully introduced most of these young starts to the senior team. This supports the fact that Pep appreciates young talent, he knows how to work with young talent, and he knows how to nurture young talent. With Pep himself being a product of Barcelona’s world famous La Masia academy, the academy at Manchester United will be in very capable hands were he to become the successor to Sir Alex Ferguson.

Conclusion – with Pep’s recent announcement of resignation from the Barcelona coaching job effective this summer and then announcing that he was going on a year’s sabbatical from football, it seems the omens are aligned for Pep to take over the mantle as manager of Manchester United. Since I do not believe that a vacancy exists at Old Trafford for at least another two years, Pep can take a full year as sabbatical away from football and use the second year to study the set-up at Old Trafford as well as the likely relationship he can develop with the owners of the historic club. I believe this is a win-win situation for both Pep and Manchester United. Manchester United is already a well set-up club with amazing training facilities, excellent academy, great stadium, great fans and massive history. Pep would find it very easy to settle down at the club as long as he doesn’t mind the weather!!!

 This write-up will be incomplete without mentioning the fact that long-term commitment may be a negative factor in appointing Pep as SAF’s successor. By spending just four years as coach of Barcelona, some will rightfully suggest that Manchester United need someone that can stand the heat and for longer. Pep’s case isn’t helped by the fact that his predecessor would have spent 27years as boss of Old Trafford – longevity that helped cement Manchester United as one of the greatest if not the greatest football club in the world.

As I cannot predict how long Pep may stay at Old Trafford were he to accept the job, I think I may just have the solution. The Glazers can ask Pep to pick Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as his assistant. Ole is already proving himself to be a one-to-look-out-for manager in the future by winning the Norwegian league in his first season as manager of Molde FC. Ole always had technical ability. It was this ability that made him a game changer every time he came on as a sub for Manchester United. By appointing Ole has Pep’s assistant, the club can guarantee at least 10years of stable club management should Pep depart Old Trafford after spending similar number of years like he did at Barcelona. It will also make for a smooth transition of managers, something that will be almost unavoidable in appointing SAF’s successor.

So there you go, Josep Guardiola plus Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to be the new team at the head of Manchester United. I believe this to be the best outcome for Manchester United.

Manchester United – A succession conundrum – 08/05/2012

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