There was little surprising about Manchester United’s decision to sack Jose Mourinho. The Portuguese has overseen the club’s worst start to a Premier League season in 28 years and when he left Carrington on Tuesday morning he did so with the Red Devils closer to bottom-placed Fulham than league leaders Liverpool.
Sunday’s match against Liverpool felt like a defining moment. Not so much the result, but the performance. The 36 shots United conceded was the most in any Premier League since 2004.
It was Mourinho’s David Moyes moment, a statistic that summed up how porous and disorganised the side had become in the same way that United had lost any kind of attacking coherence when they lumped in 81 crosses against Fulham.
United had already lost all attacking venom by this point, but now even the usual dogged pragmatism Mourinho is so noted for had disappeared. Having fallen out with the players under him, and the board members above him, Mourinho simply had to go. But who can step into the Old Trafford dugout and repair the damage?…
Three-time Champions League winner Zinedine Zidane is the obvious candidate to replace Mourinho. Alongside the vast haul of trophies and accolades collected during his time in charge of Real Madrid, the Frenchman – who has been on a sabbatical since the summer – comes with the added bonus of being available to take over immediately.
There are some question marks over quite how suitable he is to managing a side that isn’t rammed full of Galacticos though. Zidane’s great strength at the Bernabeu was managing a dressing room loaded with egos – and which became utterly toxic while Mourinho was in charge – and finding a way of playing that got the best out of his superstars. He also had one of the greatest goalscorers in history, Cristiano Ronaldo, to rely upon.
United do not possess such quality or trophy-winning experience, while many of the concerns fans have about Mourinho’s lack of trust in youngsters like Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial could be echoed in Madrid over how little game time Zidane afforded Marco Asensio and others.
It is also hard to pinpoint a particular style to Zidane’s football other than that it got results, even if not always on merit. If Mourinho is The Special One, many in Spain – and Catalonia in particular – would say Zidane is The Lucky One. Still, he is a great man manager, a classy figurehead and his CV more than rivals any of his peers.
Mauricio Pochettino has haunted Mourinho for a long time and in many ways he kick-started The Fired One’s season of misery back in September, inflicting his heaviest home defeat when Tottenham won 3-0 at Old Trafford, while he also struck a huge and lasting blow to the Portuguese’s psyche when Spurs eviscerated Chelsea four years ago.
Mourinho’s title winners conceded five times at White Hart Lane back then, just the second time that has happened in his long career, and after starting to play a more expansive brand of football with the Blues he abruptly put the handbrake back on… for good. It eventually cost him his job at Chelsea, his penchant for pragmatism turning into outright negativity, and the shackles remained when he moved to Old Trafford.
Pochettino is almost the polar opposite. The Argentine sets his side up to dominate matches, regardless of the opposition, pressing relentlessly and attacking with ferocity – if he has a weakness, it is that he is often too adventurous in big matches. He asks his team to believe in the impossible, while Mourinho bemoans any tiny obstacle.
Off the pitch, he is more of a diplomat too; while Mourinho publicly bemoaned a lack of signings (despite bringing in three players for around £70m), Pochettino allayed fears as Spurs became the first Premier League side not to make a single summer signing.
Sir Alex Ferguson is a huge fan, even dining with Pochettino and his coaching staff, and his sleek, affable image feels like a much better fit for United than the sullen and irritable Mourinho. There is just one problem: Daniel Levy. After signing a new five-year contract in May, Pochettino won’t come cheap – and that’s assuming he would even be willing to leave at all.
If there was an ideal moment to part ways with Mourinho, United probably missed it. Although the side finished second in the Premier League last season – their best finish since Sir Alex left the club – the deeper-lying issues, both on and off the pitch, were already plain to see. Moreover, rarely have so many high-calibre managers been available at the same time.
Maurizio Sarri moved to Chelsea, Carlo Ancelotti joined Napoli as his replacement, Thomas Tuchel took charge of Paris Saint-Germain and highly rated Hoffenheim boss Julian Nagelsmann even signed an agreement to take over at RB Leipzig next year.
Were he still available, a manager in the Nagelsmann mould might have appealed to Ed Woodward – a bright, young coach to install an attacking philosophy and rebuild United. But that’s not what they need right now. For all his faults, Mourinho – however briefly – made United contenders again. Now they are in a slump, one that needs experience and gravitas to get out of.
Few managers are as ready-made to provide that impetus as Antonio Conte. The Italian is a fiery character himself: he routinely clashed with Chelsea’s board over transfer strategy before his departure this summer – though was never backed to the extent Mourinho has been – while successor Sarri has quickly done away with a number of draconian rules that inhibited the squad.
Conte also prefers a more cautious style of play, with his approach against City in March – in which Chelsea had just 29% possession and no shots on target – widely derided.
But he is a serial winner, taking the Premier League by storm just a year ago and racking up 85 goals to United’s 54, even changing the Premier League’s attitude towards tactics and formations in the process. He also knows how to get the best out of Paul Pogba, with the Frenchman utterly electrifying when they were together at Juventus. Conte is the best of Mourinho without many of his less desirable qualities.