According to reports from The Telegraph, Manchester United will face a managerial crossroads next summer. On the one hand, they could keep Louis van Gaal in the dugout for a third season as planned; on the other, they could launch a swoop for Bayern Munich’s out-of-contract Pep Guardiola.
Let’s not get too carried away just yet. Bayern are desperate to agree extended terms and the Spaniard has a knack of announcing his decisions as late as humanly possible. The German giants want Guardiola’s future decided by the new year, one way or the other, and him deciding to stay on at the Allianz Arena is by no means an unlikely scenario.
Nonetheless, a move to Old Trafford is a possibility worth our consideration. So which path should the Red Devils take? Should they stick or twist in this hypothetical gaffer conundrum?
Van Gaal was hired on a three-term contract and most would argue he deserves to see out its expiration. Although a significant portion of the Old Trafford faithful have struggled to buy into the Dutchman’s possession-based philosophy, it’s got United to where they wanted upon hiring him in summer 2014 – instantaneous restoration of the club’s Champions League status and relevance in the Premier League title race.
The Red Devils seem someway behind the noisy neighbours in regards to this year’s crown, but the side is still very much a work in progress. The market just hasn’t provided the world-class striker and centre-back their manager wanted during his first summer at Old Trafford – the £36million cost of Anthony Martial and £28.5million fee of Manchester City’s Nicolas Otamendi show how sparse those sectors of the market have truly become over the last few years – whilst LVG has made no secret of his desperation to sign a winger who can inject lethal pace into United’s attack.
Some might query how van Gaal has managed to spend over £250million on new signings without adequately addressing these three key positions, but he has rebuilt a squad that lost a number of its mainstays at the end of the 2013/14 season – namely Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic, Ryan Giggs and Rio Ferdinand – by recruiting young, exciting players.
That was seen as an integral objective when he took the job and the 64-year-old has also dipped into the club’s academy, sparingly utilising the likes of Paddy McNair, Tyler Blackett and Jesse Lingard, for example – another important pillar of the United ideology.
Yet, you get the feeling this United side is almost being constructed for the next manager rather than the current one. A number of major signings and key players, such as Memphis Depay, Anthony Martial, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Luke Shaw, are still a couple of years away from their peak and the fact the squad is now so large and versatile, like the good old days under Sir Alex Ferguson, means that LVG’s replacement can take the club down any philosophical direction he desires with a few more additions of his own choosing.
Likewise, although van Gaal has certainly steadied the ship after United’s debasing season under David Moyes, how far he can actually take the club remains to be seen. The Red Devils could come incredibly close but probably won’t lift their first post-Ferguson title this year and they’re still a long way from re-emerging as one of European football’s most feared monoliths.
Pep Guardiola, meanwhile, seems more likely to take United back to that level of dominance once again. He forged Barcelona into one of the greatest club sides the beautiful game has ever witnessed, winning two Champions League titles in the space of three years, and although the European accolade has alluded him at Bayern Munich he’s unquestionably one of the most talented managers in the business. He sees the game in a unique way, tries to add a new tactical element to his side with every game and freely experiments with personnel, players and positions. There are few managers with that imagination, insight and audacity.
Furthermore, Guardiola is a child of the Total Football school of thought that LVG was once a champion of. Tiki-taka is an extension of the possession-based style Johan Cruyff brought to Barcelona in 1988 and van Gaal continued after taking over in 1997. It seems logical – almost natural – to appoint a manager who can install the modern interpretation of the same ideals that have proven arguably more effective, rather than keep a member of the old guard purely out of loyalty.
That being said, there are some question marks against Guardiola, most particularly Bayern Munich’s efforts in the Champions League. The year before he took over at the Allianz Arena and completely transformed their style of play from direct counter-attacking to Barca-based ball retention, the Bavarians lifted the European honour in scintillating style. In the two campaigns since, they’ve been eliminated in the semi-finals by hefty score lines; 5-0 to Real Madrid in 2014 and 5-2 to Barcelona in 2015.
It suggests the Guardiola philosophy doesn’t necessarily work at every club, at least, to the exact same level of success, and if United fans have grown disillusioned with the style of football under van Gaal, they may find themselves even more isolated by the Spaniard, who views sticking with his ideals almost as a test of his own morality.
He’d rather miss out on the title every season with what he views as the right way of playing than win trophies compromising his own beliefs. That may not cause too many problems at Barcelona and Bayern Munich, two clubs who are expected to dominate their respective leagues, but the Premier League is the most competitive and open top flight in world football. It is impossible to claim the title without being pragmatic in certain scenarios.
That being said, managers like Guardiola don’t come around too often. Their reputation precedes and the best players in world football are desperate to work with them. Ferguson approached the 44-year-old with the offer of becoming his successor back in 2012, which pays testament to how highly thought of Guardiola truly is.
He’s also a rather volatile man who seemingly makes long-term decisions in an instant. In other words, he’s very hard to catch – so another chance to hire the Spaniard may not come around for another five or six years. Who knows what kind of state United will be in at that point.
But van Gaal still has at least the rest of the season at the helm and if he gets United into the top two, it seems logical to allow him a third and final term. Even if he fails to claim the Premier League title in that ultimate campaign, United will feel they have no regrets. If Guardiola comes in and doesn’t work out as planned, however, there will always the question of why they tried to fix what wasn’t necessarily broken.
Fortunately, it’s not my choice to make.