Upon deciding the next Manchester United manager – working on the same presumption as the British media that Louis van Gaal will be sacked before next season – the ultimate litmus test should be their ability to beat Manchester City.
After all, if you can claim three points against the Citizens – one of the best and most expensively assembled squads in Europe – you’re either a managerial genius or you’ve put together a half-decent side. They haven’t lost to anybody below the top eight this term, with the exception of Stoke City, and swept away Borussia Monchengladbach, one of the best of the rest in the Bundesliga, and Sevilla, back-to-back Europa League winners, rather comfortably in the Champions League.
Therefore, one can assume that if you’re beating Man City twice every season, you’re at the right end of the Premier League table. And more often than not, you’re usually going to be above them in the table as well. Consequently, being above a club who have been title favourites every season since 2011/12 and will continue to be under Pep Guardiola gives you a pretty good chance of winning the English crown. Of course, Manchunian bragging rights are a welcome bonus too.
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That may seem a rather simplistic barometer for a club of Manchester United’s magnitude, involved in a title race as complex and unique as the English top flight’s. Nonetheless, as I have already alluded to, City are a top-rate team and beating them requires many aspects of a club moving in the right direction, ranging from recruitment to youth policy and training methods to tactics – much of which depends on the co-ordination, execution and vision of the man in the dugout.
Perhaps you don’t quite agree with that methodology. After all, City could become a completely different team under Pep Guardiola next season. Nonetheless, it does create an interesting perspective to consider some of the candidates for the Old Trafford hot seat from.
The leading contender, Jose Mourinho, has beaten City just twice from his last six attempts in all competitions – both of which came during the 2013/14 season. Stoke City boss Mark Hughes, the dark horse, has claimed six points off the Citizens from his last three encounters with them. And Tottenham Hotspur’s Mauricio Pochettino, rapidly emerging as the popular alternative to the Special One, has done the double over City this season – all the more impressively to an aggregate score line of 6-2.
Although the results remain the bottom line, it’s equally about what they represent and how they were achieved. Mourinho’s Chelsea were the archetype European-away-fixture team, cost around £225million to put together, contained just two guaranteed starters aged 25 or under (Cesar Azpilicueta and Eden Hazard), rarely took the game to City and from six encounters recorded two wins, two draws and two defeats – an absolute stalemate.
Pochettino, on the other hand, has reinvented Spurs at a cost of just £82million, replacing the club’s historical ‘soft underbelly’ and with a hardworking yet hugely entertaining style of football. The Argentine’s squad has the youngest average age throughout the Premier League, but he’s overcome deficiencies of experience by creating an identity, a system that further amplifies their youthful energy, and capturing the imaginations of some of the brightest sparks in the division – such as Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen.
Immediately, the latter approach fits into United’s traditional philosophy – the Sir Alex Ferguson pillars of industrious attacking football and a coherent link between the first team and the academy – far better than the former. That’s not to suggest Pochettino is the next Fergie in waiting, but appointing Mourinho would take the club down a rather different path; one that, based on his career thus far, will contain countless displays of pragmatism before coming to an abrupt end via spectacular meltdown two or three years down the line.
Of course, working in the Portuguese’s favour is the fact he’s one of the few managers in world football to boast more trophies – over a wider variety of leagues – than Guardiola and to have got the better of him in a title race before. In fact, he’s the only manager to have achieved the latter, with the two rivals claiming one La Liga trophy apiece during their two years on either side of the El Clasico divide.
Resultantly, Mourinho is seen as the Spaniard’s ultimate nemesis and United’s only chance of curtailing City’s influence on the rest of the league. It’s certainly hard to argue with that point of view and if we’re not basing United’s next appointment on their ability to beat City, it should be at least on their ability to beat Guardiola.
But Pochettino’s record against Guardiola is nothing to be sniffed at either, especially considering the disparity of quality between Mourinho’s Real Madrid and the Argentine’s Espanyol.
Indeed, the Catalan club are solid mid-tablers yet claimed one win and two draws against their considerably superior local rivals – who, at that time, possessed probably the most dominant club side the beautiful game has ever witnessed – from their seven encounters with the South American at the helm. Mourinho’s Real, meanwhile, claimed just two wins and one draw against Barca from the same amount of games.
Considering Barcelona failed to win just 32 of their 152 La Liga fixtures under Guardiola, only ten of which were defeats, Espanyol’s return is a monumental achievement in itself. Likewise, if Pochettino occasionally outwitted the Bayern boss with a rank-and-file La Liga side, logic suggests he’ll do it more regularly with a United team of higher quality against a City team who can only dream of replicating Barcelona’s historic escapades.
Inevitably, not everybody is convinced by Pochettino. He’s got better with every passing season in the Premier League since arriving at Southampton in January 2013, but he’s yet to lift any silverware as a manager and isn’t seen as a member of world football’s gaffer elite in the same way as Mourinho, Guardiola, Diego Simeone or Carlo Ancelotti, for example. He certainly lacks experience at Champions League level.
But Spurs are now second in the table with just twelve fixtures remaining and anything above a top four finish will be an enormous achievement almost entirely owed to Pochettino, whilst winning the title would represent arguably the greatest managerial triumph ever witnessed in the Premier League. Mourinho may seem the obvious candidate right now but if Tottenham’s title-contending form continues, Pochettino could prize that unofficial title from the Special One come the end of May.