Manchester United are in a situation they’ve never been in before with the manager

When a managerial change is in the offing at Manchester United the club tends to have their ducks lined up.

Chairman James Gibson met Matt Busby in February 1945 and Wilf McGuinness was the continuity choice in 1969. Busby, still occupying the manager’s office, billed Frank O’Farrell as “my last great signing” in 1971. Eighteen months later, Busby approached Tommy Docherty in the Selhurst Park boardroom with O’Farrell the dead man walking in the dugout.

Dave Sexton was the antithesis of the daring Docherty in 1977, Ron Atkinson was fourth on a four-man shortlist behind Bobby Robson, Lawrie McMenemy and Ron Saunders in 1981, Alex Ferguson was the unanimous choice in 1986 and Ferguson anointed Moyes in 2013.

Moyes was so out of his depth that elite options lurked in every corner of the continent: Jurgen Klopp was the fans’ favourite, Carlo Ancelotti appealed to Ferguson, Diego Simeone’s star shone brightly and Antonio Conte was about to become available. Ed Woodward sounded out Louis van Gaal. Jose Mourinho, the self-appointed ‘Special One’, was the only one to succeed Van Gaal.

After Mourinho’s residency at The Lowry ended in 2018, Mauricio Pochettino was the obvious replacement. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s extended honeymoon period kiboshed that and when United were caught short amid Solskjaer’s spiral in 2021, Pochettino was the favourite again until Erik ten Hag pulled ahead in the two-horse race.

This time, it is different. Ten Hag might be on borrowed time but there is not a clear and obvious option to replace him as United manager.

Graham Potter tops the bookmakers’ chalkboards. He is unattached and has an established relationship with United’s sporting director-elect Dan Ashworth. Yet Sir Jim Ratcliffe and Sir Dave Brailsford’s cards would be marked if they parachuted Potter in after he replaced Thomas Tuchel five months into the Clearlake Capital era at Chelsea. Potter was no wizard and was sacked after 31 games.

Three men have managed United to the English championship. Potter would not be the fourth. He is an excellent coach and Chelsea are no better under the uninspiring Pochettino. Potter would be worthy of assuming Gareth Southgate’s directors’ box seat reservations to go around the grounds as England coach.

Potter did not have the personality to handle the Chelsea players or their frothing followers. United is far more unforgiving and, as Ratcliffe said, “There is no comparison between Chelsea and Manchester United.” Potter would not instil belief among the United fanbase that he is the manager to transform them into a credible force.

Sexton said during his four-year tenure, “I’m so tense and conscious of having to prove myself that I wonder whether I might be conveying that to the players. I feel the pressure. There is something awesome about Old Trafford.” He later admitted “the image of Manchester United overawed me”. The United manager has to have gravitas.

Potter is a fine coach but lacks the personality to manage United
Roberto de Zerbi elevated Brighton to new heights and is of interest to United. Brighton’s erratic form is forgivable in their first campaign of European football but De Zerbi is combustible and United need stability. De Zerbi railed at Brighton’s dormant January transfer window when they have become the model club in English football.

Hansi Flick and Zinedine Zidane guided Bayern Munich and Real Madrid to Champions League triumphs but the former is more wedded to international management and there is a reason why Zidane has been out of work for nearly three years. He babysat Real Madrid’s gálácticos and past speculation with United was fuelled by his link to Paul Pogba. Cristiano Ronaldo lobbied for Zidane when the game was up for Solskjaer and even Woodward was not fooled.

Tuchel may not be damaged goods if Bayern Munich, emphatic in their recovery against Lazio to progress to the last eight of the Champions League, lift a seventh European Cup. Tuchel spoke glowingly about United at Old Trafford in December and they are the only Premier League club that could realistically appoint him.

Sporting Lisbon coach Ruben Amorim is not a compelling candidate, Jorge Mendes’s representation holds little sway for Julen Lopetegui and Southgate is not as fine a fit for United as his waistcoat. Simone Inzaghi, of Inter Milan, makes up the numbers.

This is why Ten Hag is poised to see out the season. It is still salvageable, particularly if finishing fifth avoids soulless Thursday nights next season. Triumphing in a historic first FA Cup quarter-final with Liverpool would make it a particularly merry St Patrick’s Day for United followers.

Yet this is a coach who presided over United’s 16th defeat of the campaign on Sunday. There is no distinguishable playing style and European football is absent until September. Then there is the £400million+ that has largely been squandered.

Ten Hag reiterated last month he wants “control” over recruitment. Ashworth has been head-hunted to revoke that from a manager who is a stickler for players with Dutch stamps on their passports.

Antony and Sofyan Amrabat’s catastrophic cameos at the Etihad were a pressing reminder of the need to get Ashworth, on gardening leave, away from feeding ducks in the pond to lining them up.

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