Man United are taking a long-term view when it comes to their next manager
Monday night was without stress for Manchester United, but it was also without solace. Shrewsbury Town of English football's third tier were dispatched 3-0 and a place in the last eight of the FA Cup was secured, but little has really changed. Louis van Gaal had cause to smile and to congratulate his players, but this result has not shored up his position. Nor will a comeback victory in the Europa League against FC Midtjylland on Thursday.
A win against Arsenal on Sunday and another two against Watford and West Bromwich Albion would help, but United haven't won three straight league games since September and the chances of a complete recovery seem slim. It all rather begs the question: What are they waiting for? Why not sack Van Gaal now?
United have done nothing to quell the speculation that change is in the air. There have been no denials to reports of contact between the club and Jose Mourinho's representatives. In the background, key characters brief and counter-brief. We have reports of player unrest. As the existing power structure groans and creaks under pressure, new forces prepare to rush into the vacuum.
All the while, Manchester City draw up their holistic, joined-up plans for the short term (a Champions League challenge), the medium term (the arrival of Pep Guardiola) and the long term (youth investment that dwarfs United's paltry efforts). The soap opera is captivating but every day spent thinking about their next move causes United to fall further behind. And yet, if anything, they're not thinking about it hard enough.
The battle for succession (and with all apologies to Van Gaal, it seems certain there will be one) appears to be between the champion of the romantics, Ryan Giggs, and the champion of the pragmatists, Jose Mourinho. Both are candidates with great strengths but both have great flaws.
The notion of Giggs, the first star of the Class of '92, taking the helm is a beguiling one. Few other players so encapsulate the fearless, breakneck, never-say-die spirit of Sir Alex Ferguson's great teams, mainly because he was a key component in all of them. But we only need to look to AC Milan to see the pitfalls of appointing heroes. Neither Clarence Seedorf nor Filippo Inzaghi lasted more than 50 games. This isn't to say that their failure guarantees Giggs will experience a similar fall -- Guardiola seemed to do okay with Barcelona -- but there is no compelling logical argument why he should be handed the crown.
Mourinho, meanwhile, has buckets full of compelling, logical arguments. Two Champions League titles with two different clubs. Eight league titles in four countries. An ego that, until recently, could make a bullet stop and question its direction in life. There are other issues at hand, though some are not as important as they seem.
The idea that Mourinho's fractious personality would be damaging to a club of Manchester United's standing is hilarious. Ferguson has gone, yes, but is his time so easily forgotten? Mourinho can certainly be a PR nightmare and few neutrals will eagerly await a resumption of his tinfoil-hatted conspiracy theories, but he'd have to up his game to outdo his illustrious predecessor.
Ferguson had such little regard for public relations that he didn't even turn up to postmatch news conferences. Nor did he have any hesitation in plucking excuses out of thin air, from bad pitches to "unfair" scheduling to the wrong-coloured shirts. Far from being out of keeping with the club's history, Mourinho's combative style would fit like a pair of good slippers.
No, his flaws are far more significant. The first is the most critical in the short term: Can he still do it? His supporters are far too quick to wash away those catastrophic final few months at Stamford Bridge. Mourinho was sacked with Chelsea sinking toward the relegation zone, but since his departure they have only lost once in 14 games, and that was away at in-form, French super-club PSG. What went wrong at Cobham? Why were so few members of a title-winning team prepared to play at their potential for him?
Was it, as has been mooted, an inability to motivate young players? There would be no shame in that. Not many managers stay relevant for longer than 10 years. Mourinho began his managerial career in 2000 with Benfica. Of the 20 Premier League managers at that time, only two are Premier League managers now (Arsene Wenger and Claudio Ranieri), just one is in what we shall loosely call "top-level" employment (Gordon Strachan, Scotland) while the other 17 have either moved upstairs, are no longer managers, have retired or, in the case of dear Sir Bobby Robson, have died. The longevity of Ferguson and Wenger is misleading. Fifteen years is a very, very long time in football and so the question of whether or not Mourinho can still do it is a pertinent one.
But the second reason is more critical for the club in the long-term. It's no secret that Manchester United are very proud of their commercial dealings. They show off new international partnerships at the same rate that they used to show off trophies. But Manchester United aren't loved by millions around the world just because they win games. They've lifted only three European Cups, fewer than Real Madrid, Ajax, Barcelona, Liverpool, Bayern Munich and AC Milan, and only one more than Nottingham Forest. Manchester United are loved by millions because of the qualities with which they are associated.
It is the legend that ultimately lifts the soul. The post-war planning of Sir Matt Busby. The way he dismantled his title-winning team of 1952 to make way for an even better, and far younger, group of champions in 1956. The Munich disaster of 1958; that heartbreaking rebuilding process, a title in 1965, European glory in 1968. And then, after too long in the doldrums, the arrival of Ferguson in 1986 to do it all again, but for longer this time.
Manchester United stand for flair, youth and permanence. To put it in a way that might appeal to Ed Woodward; these are United's core brand values. Shed those core brand values and you imperil those commercial deals. This is a dynastic club but Mourinho is not a dynastic manager.
United need to think more about this most crucial of next steps. It doesn't have to be a choice between an inexperienced former player and a manager whose past record seems at odds with the real principles of the club. There are other managers in the world: Mauricio Pochettino, Antonio Conte, Mark Hughes, Joachim Loew and Thomas Tuchel to name five.
If United want to return to the glory days of Ferguson, perhaps they should start thinking like Ferguson. The turning points in his career were always the brave, bold decisions. Dropping Jim Leighton in the 1990 FA Cup Final replay and replacing him with Les Sealey. Fighting so hard to convince Eric Cantona to stay in 1995 when the media wanted him exiled for his attack on a Crystal Palace supporter. Defying common sense and tearing up his time honoured 4-4-2 for the Carlos Queiroz-inspired flexibility that would bring a new era of European success.
Leaders don't look to what worked yesterday, they look to what will work tomorrow. Leaders innovate.
If United's powerbrokers think that this next decision is an "either or" call between Mourinho and Giggs, they should think harder and longer. This season isn't yet so disastrous that action must be taken immediately. Better to wait and make the right move than rush into the wrong one.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.