More than a year since his arrival as caretaker manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has done little at Manchester United but perpetuate their descent into an abyss of mediocrity.
His nostalgic aura and iconic status have done little to spur improvement on the pitch, with the Red Devils making their worst ever start to a Premier League season and standing in a measly eighth place; behind newly-promoted Sheffield United, an injury-ravaged Tottenham Hotspur who changed their manager mid-season, and an inexperienced and inconsistent Chelsea side.
Solskjaer has been keen to remain positive, speaking of a long-term project whose fruits are yet to materialize. Yet Brendan Rodger’s tenure at Leicester City, which started in February of last year, underlines the fact that the imposition of a clear philosophy does not take long to become apparent when implemented effectively. Solskjaer can speak of youth and long-term planning, but without signs of progression, results in the short-term will take priority over such claims.
Given the lack of development in the squad and dearth of positive results, the annoyance among the Manchester United fan base regarding Solskjaer’s tenure is hardly surprising. Such vexation has been exacerbated by the availability of former Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino, who many United fans perceive as the ideal replacement for Solskjaer.
The Argentinian is the prototypical project manager, a man who has shown that he can build a successful team on the basis of his coaching and ideology. A deficiency of trophies cannot obscure the fact that his Spurs reign witnessed a radical transformation of the club, as the north London outfit became regular top four contenders and reached the Champions League final whilst under stringent financial constraints.
Pochettino made his side attractive and exciting. He maximized the potential of countless players and made some of them among the best in England. Crucially, he provided the guiding vision for the overall development of his club, a fact that has cemented his position among the managerial elite and should be of particular interest to Manchester United given their lack of identity and direction in the post-Ferguson era.
Beyond these characteristics, Pochettino possesses a clear tactical philosophy that would both fulfil Manchester United fan’s desire for attack-minded football and suit the current squad relatively well.
While he has used a variety of formations throughout his career, including a 3-4-1-2 and 4-3-1-2, Pochettino prefers a 4-2-3-1. The defensive midfielder drops in between the midfield and defensive lines in order to allow the fullbacks to push high and wide, where they provide the majority of attacking width and enable the frontline to play narrowly.
The second midfielder in the double pivot tends to be a press-breaking midfielder, capable of penetrative passing and ball-carrying in order to play through the opposition press and initiate attacks. The number 10 is the focal point of the attack, drifting into space to collect the ball and feeding the incisive runs of the attackers.
Pochettino often instructs the three attacking players ahead of the number 10 to move on and off the ball in different ways based on their particular strengths. At Spurs, striker Harry Kane would drop off, Dele Alli would make late runs into the box, and Heung Min Son would drift wide before cutting inside.
The aim of this dynamic movement was to provide creative fulcrum Christian Eriksen with a number of passing options and create confusion for opposition defences. It is this intelligent movement that allows for the mesmeric passing and exhilarating attacking football that has become synonymous with Pochettino’s teams. It is also precisely the sort of attacking structure that United lack and desperately need if they wish to be a more potent offensive force.
Defensively, Pochettino favors a high line to facilitate a high press. He encourages his players to press when encountered with pressing triggers, such as when an opposition player receives the ball facing their own goal or fails to controls a pass. Once engaged the press is intense, as the players look to harrow the opposition player while simultaneously blocking the closest passing lanes. The press is also zonal, meaning Pochettino’s players have to develop a degree of tactical intelligence to know when and where to press.
This pressing from the attacking players is supported by the fullbacks and the energy and physicality of the midfield. With players like Victor Wanyama, Eric Dier, Moussa Sissoko, and Moussa Dembele, Pochettino combined his possession-based, pressing style with a more traditional emphasis on physicality and power.
This prioritization of physicality also enables Pochettino to be tactically flexible. As he showed in the Champions League games against Manchester City and Ajax last season, his teams can play a more direct style predicated on counter-attacking and overpowering the opposition. This means that while he is wedded to a particular philosophy, Pochettino is capable of altering his tactics when required.
At United, Pochettino would be able to implement his 4-2-3-1 with success. He would not have to change his defence much, as United have sufficient depth and quality in each position. Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof are sufficiently capable on the ball, Luke Shaw is already familiar with Pochettino’s ideas from his time at Southampton, and Aaron-Wan Bissaka is young enough to develop the necessary attacking skills for Pochettino’s system.
In midfield, Fred is exactly the sort of ball-carrying, progressive passing midfielder Pochettino appreciates, and his energy and tenacity could compensate for his lack of physicality. Scott McTominay has emerged as a key player for the club in recent months, and while he has the necessary mobility and aerial ability to perform the role, his lack of discipline and positional awareness could make playing him in this role risky at first.
However, McTominay is young enough to develop other aspects of his game and Pochettino could mould him into the type of number six he requires. New signing Bruno Fernandes would be ideal for the number 10 birth given that it is relatively similar to the role he played for Sporting Lisbon, while Angel Gomes is an exciting young prospect who could also fulfil the role.
Apart from these players, however, there is a dearth of potential or quality in United’s midfield. The imminent exit of Paul Pogba and the deficiencies of Andreas Pereira, Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata, and Nemanja Matic mean that Pochettino would likely have to acquire players throughout the midfield area to ensure sufficient depth.
In attack, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial provide excellent options for the left-hand side. They could be used through the middle, but their lack of physicality and instinct to run beyond the defensive line rather than drop-off would mean that they would not be ideally suited to the number 9 role for Pochettino.
The Argentine could attempt to reshape Martial or Rashford into the type of centre forward he needs, but it would perhaps be easier and more sensible to purchase a striker or even two given the club’s lack of depth in this position. Neither Mason Greenwood nor Daniel James is the finished article for the right-wing position, but their youth and talent means that it may be wise for the club to allow them to develop rather than purchasing an immediate replacement. Pochettino would need to invest at centre-forward, but there is enough talent in the United squad to allow him to construct a young, dynamic frontline.
Pochettino’s absence in the Old Trafford dugout at present is a further indication of the lack of football knowledge amongst United’s hierarchy. When considering his ability to improve players, impose a clear identity on a team, be tactically flexible, develop an inclusive squad culture, and achieve high placed Premier League finishes, it is baffling to consider that United are persisting with a coach who aside from a three-month spell, has no record of embodying any of these qualities.
Even from a pragmatic economic standpoint, Pochettino has shown he can work with limited financial resources and keeping Solskjaer will potentially squander the available talent in the team and leave the club with an amalgamation of devalued assets.
Pochettino is not perfect. He will likely take time to develop a squad physically, technically, and tactically proficient enough to execute his style of play. He can be stubborn and emotionally erratic. The latter period of his Spurs tenure was messy and showed that his management can eventually take a toll on his players.
But United cannot search for perfection. They need stability, intelligence, and identity. In Pochettino, they have a candidate who personifies those qualities as well if not better than any coach in Europe. Whether the club will come to that realization before he moves elsewhere is yet to be seen.
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