Manchester United would be better off with Pochettino than Mourinho
It was back in early January when the debate among Manchester United officials about manager Louis van Gaal's future was at its most intense. That was the same time Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino started to be mentioned with more frequency as a potential replacement -- albeit with a caveat.
Although there had already been contact between Jose Mourinho's camp and the Old Trafford hierarchy, with talks reaching the point that the Portuguese is confident he has the job, some United officials were resistant to the idea. Other influential factions wanted Ryan Giggs, but sources said executive vice chairman Ed Woodward is completely unwilling to appoint the playing legend. As a result, Pochettino's name was put forward as a "compromise option."
There is a strong argument, however, that Pochettino should be viewed as much more than that. He might well be the best option -- and better for United's ideals than Mourinho, Giggs or other managers the club's constrained governance has not considered.
Sources have told ESPN FC that one of the Glazer family owners is already thinking along those lines. One of the brothers is said to be a huge admirer of Pochettino, not least for the way he has overperformed in such a cost-effective way for a young Tottenham Hotspur team.
That might be a tunnel-minded financial outlook, but the Argentine apparently got the ultimate football endorsement from Old Trafford too. British Labour MP David Lammy revealed this week that at a dinner in support of grassroots football, Sir Alex Ferguson told him Spurs currently have "the best manager in the Premier League."
That view is all the more notable because the former United boss is said to be one of those figures who would like to see Giggs in the job. That view is likely to be tested once Pep Guardiola arrives at Manchester City next season. The appointment of the Catalan is said by Old Trafford sources to be one big reason an increasing number of United officials feel Mourinho might be the "only option" to replace Van Gaal.
Even allowing for United's tendency to avoid risk, Mourinho makes an awful lot of sense. He has the best CV in global football management after Guardiola. He is the manager who prevented Guardiola's best Barcelona team from retaining the Champions League, by beating them with Inter Milan in 2010, and the only manager to stop Guardiola's side from winning the Spanish league. He is the reigning Premier League title-winning manager, even if Chelsea's decline and Mourinho's sacking have reshaped many of these perceptions.
That sacking, however, could mean the Portuguese will be ultra-motivated to vindicate himself and prove everyone wrong. Given how much he has desired the United job, this could all mean we see a peak Mourinho at his most focused. It is that type of ultra-focus that United badly needs right now, both to compete with Guardiola and to prevent the club's administrative problems from impacting performances.
But it's difficult to get away from the idea that Mourinho would be another short-term solution for United, that the Portuguese could bring other problems and, perhaps most relevantly of all, that he is no longer the nearly guaranteed success he used to be. United's reservations about Mourinho's football style and youth promotion are well-known, but the feeling that they might have to suspend such fears because of both the club's situation in contrast to City and the lack of similarly accomplished managers who meet these expectations has been growing.
This season could further prove that Pochettino can be the one to bridge all this. His promotion of youth team players is almost unique in the game, and even more pointedly, youth has arguably been a key to the success of his high-energy football this season.
Watford manager Quique Sanchez Flores was absolutely gushing in his praise of Spurs after his side's 1-0 defeat of Pochettino's side on Saturday, to the that extent he seemed in awe of how they played. The Spanish coach's description of how Tottenham imposed their game seems to fit perfectly with United's seize-the-day ideals.
"They have a plan. It's very easy, they can attack, they know what they are doing when they lose the ball," he said. "They have very good players in power and technical ways, so they can play interior play. They can play the sides and have very good players and skills also. They have everything one team needs to try to be champions.
"It was impossible because they are like animals there, trying to beat and recuperate the ball as quick as possible. You can feel they enjoy playing their football -- that is very important."
More than United's principles, the most important point is this: It has always been Mourinho's nature to go pragmatic and defensive, and though that will bring a certain amount of success, there is an argument that the game has come to a new point in its tactical evolution. Guardiola's 2008 appointment at Barcelona initiated an era in which the elite level of the game has been at its most open and highest scoring since the 1960s.
The way Mourinho's trophy return has diminished since 2010 suggests that, even though he is still a brilliant manager, he is no longer at his absolute peak. The history and nature of management also indicate that Mourinho is unlikely to get any better. Pochettino's underdeveloped CV does not carry anything like Mourinho's level of success, but there is a sense that he is a coming force, and he plays an imposing style more in keeping with the modern game.
This is crucial because the history of football indicates that for more resounding success, a club must be thinking ahead. That is what City did in ensuring they were ahead of United and everyone else in securing Guardiola. That is what United did in appointing Ferguson in 1986, when he had managed only in Scotland.
If you react only to what the opposition does, you're playing only catch-up. That is what the appointment of Mourinho would represent. It is what we already know. It is basing a decision on the past, on what has already been.
Appointing Pochettino, however, would be an investment in the future. It involves a certain risk, but it isn't such a problem if you base it on the right principles. The Argentine appears to possess those principles.
This is the crux for United now, but it is not necessarily a compromise.
Miguel Delaney is a London-based correspondent for ESPN FC and also writes for the Irish Examiner and others. Follow him on Twitter @MiguelDelaney.