The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (or is Ryan Giggs really United’s next manager)

If burning bridges wasn’t a metaphor Louis van Gaal would be a troll’s worst nightmare. Well him or José Mourinho. Take your pick. The point is that the Dutchman never stays at any club very long and usually doesn’t leave on the best of terms. His overnight rebuild of the Dutch national team trainwreck—unexpectedly returning them to the last four at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil after they spectacularly derailed at the Euros—is a rare exception. More often than not he finds himself fighting a civil war on two fronts at whichever club had once been overjoyed to hire him.

At Barcelona he battled the Brazilian duo Giovanni and Rivaldo in the clubhouse while also crossing swords with Johan Cruyff in the boardroom. At Ajax there were no players with sufficient influence to take him on but that merely gave him more time to renew his clash with Cruyff. At Bayern he didn’t rate Luca Toni’s prolific scoring or Lucio’s tenacious defending, sending both packing to Serie A clubs. For his part, former protégé Mourinho sent flowers and a thank you note as Lucio was a key contributor to Inter’s treble season. Back in Munich things were never dull as LvG pushed Franck Ribery’s buttons, undid his own to provocatively drop trow in front of the entire squad, and famously brawled with club president Uli Hoeness on a holiday flight to [ahem] a friendly in the UAE.

Deposit that chequered history alongside his recent confrontation with United’s reigning player of the year, David de Gea, and no one is expecting Van Gaal to emulate Sir Alex Ferguson’s longevity with the club. His public promise to wife Truus to retire at the end of his contract has been made and broken previously but whether Louis proves true to his word this time or takes on a new project no bookie is giving anything close to even money that Van Gaal will extend with United.

United’s dual status as a publicly traded commodity and perhaps the biggest club in football means that they have shareholders as well as fans to please. With literally billions at stake the board cannot afford to just snatch up whoever is available when the door does hit Louis’ ass on the way out. They have to monitor potential candidates now.

The presumptive nominee is of course long-serving club man Ryan Giggs. Making him a prominent member of the coaching staff was a prerequisite for Louis van Gaal’s hiring, with an eye to the Welshman serving an apprenticeship that would prepare him to take over the managerial reins at the end of his mentor’s contract in 2017. Given old understudy Mourinho’s success, that seems a sound plan.

In the early days of his apprenticeship Giggs has done nothing but what he should: sit at the manager’s side, observe, perform whatever tasks have been assigned in training, and keep all his comments to the press in line with the current manager’s project. When asked Van Gaal has offered nothing but superlatives regarding his assistant. Nor has the board indicated there has been a change in thinking regarding the plan of succession. Three years is a long time however.

To date the club has watched Brendan Rogers, another young manager, struggle to handle the responsibilities at a big club. As well Mauricio Pochettino has yet to make a noticeable impact at Tottenham. Like the man Giggs replaced four matches from the end of the 2013-14 campaign the pair had enjoyed a measure of success at smaller clubs. Far less than David Moyes’ eleven years at Everton but still a significant amount. And while the young guns struggle to make their transition to bigger clubs, veteran managers such as Mark Hughes, Ronald Koeman, and Alan Pardew are pushing their sides into the top half of the table.

Under those conditions it wouldn’t be surprising for the United board to reconsider handing the most high-profile job in English club management to someone with just four games’ experience. Giggs has studied at the feet of masters but there’s no way to determine whether he’ll be the second coming of Alex Ferguson or just another Alan Shearer. Giggs’ future might be more secure if the Premier League clubs had B teams competing in the lower leagues. Then he could cut his managerial teeth in the same manner that Zinedine Zidane currently is with Real Madrid Castilla. That isn’t the reality though. With the vast revenues attached to winning trophies and not just qualifying, but progressing deep into the Champions League, you can forgive the decision-makers for thinking they may be better served by an experienced manager who has proven he can succeed at a big club.

Of course that’s a very short list. At the moment it realistically consists of just two names: Pep Guardiola and Carlo Ancelotti. Guardiola has stated a desire to work in England and Europe’s answer to Leonard Nimoy and the Rock already has. Both are excellent man-managers who have won the Champions League on multiple occasions and led clubs to titles in different leagues. Of the pair Ancelotti seems to better suit United, being more flexible in his tactical approach. United fans have long enjoyed watching their side exploit Arsene Wenger’s intractable philosophy and would likely be wary of being on the other end with Pep at the helm.  Moreover Guardiola is already experiencing something of a fan backlash at Bayern for transforming the German club into a Barcelona-North. That sentiment is likely to be more severe at Old Trafford, where supporters enjoy a very strong sense of self and an intense rivalry with both Spanish giants. Yet with Manuel Pellegrini’s place at Man City looking tenuous, it’s very likely that at least one of the two, if not both, will be unavailable in two years’ time.

Slightly less accomplished but still very attractive as candidates are Jürgen Klopp and Antonio Conte.

Klopp put the fear of God in Bayern Munich, winning two Bundesliga crowns in a row and staying level with the Munich side until the 89th minute in the 2013 Champions League Final. Of course Bayern decided that if you can’t beat them, sign them, conducting a wholesale raid of the Westphalen side’s best players to regain their customary place atop the Bundesliga table. Klopp’s competitive nature and ability to work with young players would fit in well with United but if Guardiola does move on from Bayern the German is likely to entertain a reunion with his former players at the Allianz Arena.

Conte was even more dominant with Juventus in Serie A but had little joy in Europe. His lack of English is also a barrier. On the other hand if you’ve read Andrea Pirlo’s autobiography, I Think Therefore I Play, you’ll know the Maestro could not say enough about the intensely competitive Azzurri manager’s ability to inspire players. If he can impress one of the best players in the world…

Beyond that group there are three potential managers with lesser credentials but ties to either United or its current manager.

Laurent Blanc has shown he can work with a limitless budget and handle monstrous egos (sit down Ibra, you too Cavani), consolidating PSG’s status as Ligue 1’s preeminent club under its new Qatari ownership. If he can take them to the next level in the Champions League this season or in the following, a return to Old Trafford may be in the cards.

Mark Hughes has gone Blanc one better, showing that he can work wonders with or without a mountain of cash. As well as transforming Tony Pulis’ stodgy Potters into a creative attacking side that has enjoyed its best two seasons in the top flight under him, it should be remembered that Sparky had nouveau-riche City in the hunt for a Champions League place before he was unceremoniously sacked in 2009, and that his replacement, Roberto Mancini, was unable to improve on that position before season’s end. If Hughes is available in 2017 he may be an interesting choice as new United boss. Yet just as he was willing to work for hated rival City he may be open to overtures from Anfield if Brendan Rodgers continues to flounder.

The unassuming Dutchman Ronald Koeman has worked with Louis van Gaal at both Barcelona and Ajax. While he admits that his former boss is an excellent coach he will be the first to tell you their methods are diametrically opposed.

“When you bring Van Gaal in the house, you bring in quality, but you also bring in someone who thinks he knows everything and that will cause clashes—It is a fact that there is fear in his team. The players have a fear for mister Van Gaal. That is not always good—I don’t put as much pressure on the shoulder of players.” 

When Van Gaal leaves Old Trafford the club may draw the same conclusion the KNVB did after the World Cup, at which time they hired the more personable Guus Hiddink as the next Netherlands coach. If United believe the club will benefit from an experienced bench boss who can relieve the tension in the clubhouse while keeping a measure of continuity, and if Koeman continues to perform miracles at Saint Mary’s, Red Devils supporters may be in for a double Dutch treat. Of course with the manner in which Liverpool has been snatching up So’ton players of late Koeman is just as likely a candidate to succeed Rodgers as Hughes.

Finally there is José Mourinho. The Special One openly lobbied for the job when Sir Alex Ferguson began to hint at retirement but was ultimately disappointed. He may do so again if and when his old mentor confirms his exit. If that turns out to be the case I think he will be disappointed again. True his credentials are impeccable even in the face of his failure to win the Champions League in Madrid. Not only that, his popularity with English fans probably means that a move from Chelsea to United won’t be met with the same outrage and threat of war as Rafa Benitez’s mercifully short incursion into Stamford Bridge. The problem is that he is too much like Van Gaal. Nerves in the clubhouse will have already been tested to their limit by the Dutchman. More of the same could very well lead to disaster. If patterns hold true Mou’s second stay at Chelsea will  be coming to an end at the same time LvG’s time in Manchester is called but the Portuguese will likely have to find a different project to keep him busy.

As well as Giggs lack of experience the board’s past history in hiring coaches should be considered. With United they understandably deferred to Sir Alex Ferguson at the first opportunity then made a sound choice when David Moyes proved to be—shall we say—shambolic.That’s not much to go on but the Glazers history with coaches for their NFL franchise is more extensive.

Of course the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are to the NFL what Blackburn Rovers are to the Premier League. That is not to say they are relegated as the notion of staying in the top flight based on merit rather than financial backing is anathema to American sport. It is to say that they are a one-hit wonder, a side occasionally remembered for having slipped unexpectedly into the penthouse with a mercenary coach and hired guns to steal some hardware before slipping back out the door without setting off the metal detectors, never to be heard from again. In other words, a very different beast than United.

Nonetheless the three coaches who succeeded Jon Gruden, the so-called mercenary who brought Tampa a Super Bowl in his first year before overseeing a steady decline into mediocrity, reveal a progressive shift in hiring priorities towards elite level experience. Raheem Morris, like Giggs, was a first-time head coach after years of service as an assistant and coordinator. Greg Schiano was also a first-time NFL head coach but had been recruited from the college ranks where he had steered long-time minnow Rutgers into the 2006 National Championship picture and to a 5-1 record in post-season bowl games from 2005-2011. In that regard, as well as in his tenacious nature, he was something of a Nigel Pearson. The third candidate, hired at the outset of the 2014 season, is Lovie Smith, who once led the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl only to lose to Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts. Although his career and personality don’t parallel Louis Van Gaal’s, like the Dutchman he has been charged with rebuilding his club from the ground up. Happily, in the face of a 2-14 record after his first season, the American isn’t under the same pressure to deliver as his United counterpart.

Smith represents the Buccaneers organization going back to square one in another fashion too. Before hiring Gruden the Glazers had sacked Tony Dungy, a poor man’s Arsene Wenger, who had transformed the team into a perennial winner. Under his guidance Tampa always contended yet couldn’t quite win a trophy. Upon leaving, however, Dungy soon claimed his elusive Super Bowl with Indianapolis and was far more consistent in winning than his replacement Gruden. The Glazers are hoping Smith will finally correct the mistake they made in showing their first coach the door. Smith’s success or failure isn’t all that relevant to the United board’s promise to Giggs though. The trend of the owners in approving coaches of progressively higher pedigree is.

Do I honestly think that the United board will turn their backs on Ryan Giggs? The romantic in me hopes not but the realist knows that it’s a distinct possibility. Ironically the one thing working in Giggsy’s favor in this debate is David Moyes’ disastrous stint in charge. The Scot was a vastly experienced manager who understood the English game and had an excellent eye for young talent. Still he failed abjectly. If that memory remains in the forefront of the board’s collective mind they may very well decide to stay the course with their manager-in-waiting. Every once in awhile, they may ultimately decide, it’s better to go with the apprentice you know than the sorcerer you don’t.

More Stories Antonio Conte Carlo Ancelotti Glazers José Mourinho Jurgen Klopp Laurent Blanc Louis van Gaal Manchester United Mark Hughes Pep Guardiola Ronald Koeman Ryan Giggs

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