In so much of the conversation and speculation about the current and future management of Manchester United, the debate tends to be framed in absolutes.
If you think Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is doing a respectable job and that Manchester United have had too high of a turnover of managers in the post-Ferguson era, it’s taken that you’re of the view he “deserves more time”.
And then if you’re of the view that United need to show some patience and continue to commit to a medium-term plan, it’s interpreted that you believe they should risk Maurico Pochettino managing someone else next season.
Finish in the top four and Ole has to be allowed stay at the wheel.
Finish outside the top five and such “failure” can’t be tolerated at a “club as big as Manchester United” — he has to be sacked.
Rarely is nuance or the middle ground allowed, even if it is the most commonly-held.
A few days ago, over 20,000 United fans responded to an online poll question: Would you rather Pochettino or Solskjaer be at the helm at Old Trafford come August? A total of 61% favoured the Argentine.
A number of those explained their rationale. While they were sympathetic to Solskjaer and felt he had done an admirable job, a proven operator like Pochettino was almost certain to do a better job and had to be snapped up while available.
Observing Pochettino’scontinuing availability and United’s hesitancy in recent months, it brings to mind the famed conversation between the old firebrand college basketball coach Bob Knight and the general manager of the Portland Trailblazers, a Stu Inman, in the early summer of 1984.
The Blazers had drawn the number two pick in that year’s NBA draft, one which featured an exciting young shooting guard called Michael Jordan who Knight was coaching as part of the US Olympic team for the LA Games. When Knight raved about Jordan’s exceptional talent, his old pal Inman countered that they already had a fine shooting guard in future Hall of Famer and Dream Team member Clyde Drexler; it was a post player, a centre, that they needed. “So play him [Jordan] at centre!” Knight yelled.
What transpired is one of the most infamous sliding-doors moments in basketball and indeed sporting history. Inman passed on Jordan, instead opting to go with a talented but injury-prone centre called Sam Bowie who would turn out to be even more injury-prone in the pros.
Over 35 years on and it is part of the shorthand and manual of any decision in that sport. Don’t do a Sam Bowie and pass on a Jordan.
Manchester United have already done something of a Sam Bowie before, commonly known as a David Moyes, by not securing a Jordan-likeexception in Pep Guardiola ahead of Man City at the time.
Then in 2015 they failed to pounce on Jurgen Klopp when he was a free agent.
Some franchises don’t learn. They repeat seismic mistakes. In 2007 Portland had number one in an NBA draft that included Kevin Durant, always destined to join Jordan and the late great Kobe Bryant as the greatest scorer in the game in half a century. But they chose to overlook Durant and go for another injury-prone big man, Greg Odom.
But at least there was 23 years between Bowie and Odom, and Jordan and Durant. It’s less than seven years since United went for Moyes and not Pep, just over four years ago since they let Klopp and the Kop hook up. Surely they can’t mess up for a third time in such a short space of time. Surely this time Ed Woodward doesn’t yet again do a Stu Inham. Never mind if you already have a Drexler or a Louis van Gaal or a loyal, respectable, even functional manager in Solskjaer. Pick Poch! Play him centre if you must!
THIS, of course, would mean dispensing of Solsjkaer’s services. This column wouldn’t be alone at squinting at some of the criticism, much of it unfair, that he has been subject to, this past season. While his appointment as permanent manager has been nowhere near as inspired as when he was hired as a temporary one, you can see why he was given the benefit of the doubt.
For one, a Pochettino wasn’t available at the time; although he and Spurs ended up staying together for that bit too long, leaving immediately after a Champions League final appearance would have felt just that bit too soon.
Over the summer, United finally accepted it was finally time not to go for another squeeze, that it was time to rebuild; that instead of loading up on veterans, it was time to invest in and blood younger players. It’s the kind of medium-term thinking that is common in many sports, particularly in the US where the front office management model that soccer now follows has been in place for decades.
To win it all, you sometimes have to a step back; instead of constantly making the play-offs only to be knocked out in the first or second round, instead of constantly making the Champions League only never to properly challenge for the title, you sometimes have to think more 2023, than 2020, to back and invest in a Jason Tatum and a Marcus Rashford being your eventual main man instead of a Tobias Harris or Lukaku.
The only thing is, for a project like that, especially its next few phases, Pochettino is ideally qualified.
Reports are that United’s powers-that-be are finally coming to a similar conclusion and are making overtures to the Argentine.
It might seem unfaithful and cruel on a Solskjaer, for United to courting someone else, but the harsh reality is he’s going to be dumped sometime.
Might as well be while a Poch is available.
To the United faithful, Solsjkaer will always be their sunshine, someone who made them happy when their sky was Mourinho grey.
But Poch is their future. Whether that future starts now or in the summer is his choice. Because he’s the only choice. Catch him when you can.