At this point, the Manchester United managerial news has settled into a comfortable rhythm. When United win a game, then we get a couple of days of VAN GAAL TO STAY?! followed by a few more days of MOURINHO GETTING NERVOUS. This persists until United lose a game, at which point we swing back to VAN GAAL DOOMED and variations on HERE COMES JOSE or GIVE IT GIGGSEH. This persists until United win a game, at which point etc. and so on, all the way until the end of the season. Or the world. Whichever comes blessedly sooner.
None of the choices available are ideal. United can either stick with a manager who has underachieved and grossly underentertained or, as seems more likely, they can replace him with one of a few options, each of whom comes with their own problems. And the most likely replacement, Jose Mourinho, comes with plenty, big and small. He pokes people in the eye. He doesn't particularly care for entertainment. And, perhaps most importantly of all, he hates children. He despises them. He is football's equivalent of the Child Catcher, and were United ever to make the mistake of welcoming him into the dugout, he would immediately lock Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Marcus Rashford and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson away from the sunshine and the grass and the United first team, and leave them to rot.
Mourinho's antipathy towards young footballers can be overstated — see, we just did it in the previous paragraph — and it's worth remembering that he was perfectly happy to pick a 20-year-old Arjen Robben at Chelsea and a teenage Davide Santon at Inter. But there has been a definite trend towards experience in his sides, and given that Manchester United fans and brand managers alike are very keen on the idea of a club that develops and venerates youth, it's a worry.
Fortunately there is a very simple solution to all this. Mourinho may be a manager of uncommon talents, but even he can't pick footballers he doesn't have. If the club deliver him a squad that contains enough young players, he will essentially have to play them whether he wants to or not. And thus, the problem is solved. Hooray for Manchester United! Hooray for the soul of the club! Hooray for everybody!
This may not, of course, be a good idea. Telling a manager that he can't have all the players he wants, but must instead pick kids he may not necessarily rate, seems like an excellent way to sour a managerial relationship before it's really begun. And it's exceptionally risky: we've seen this season that while a thin squad can mean opportunities for youngsters, it also means chaos and vulnerability in the event of an injury crisis.
But something along those lines — a policy of not over-reinforcing in areas where promising youngsters are coming through, perhaps — is well within the grasp of the club. That United currently give their managers too much power with respect to recruitment is as obvious as it is stupid; David Moyes vacillated throughout his summer, while Van Gaal, by various accounts, was genuinely taken aback at how much power he was given. There's a contradiction buried in here. If United truly have a soul, and that soul is located at least in part in principles of squad selection and team composition, then why on earth is that handed in its entirety to the manager, one of the most fundamentally transient employee at the club?
It might help, perhaps, that if Mourinho comes, he does so as moderately damaged goods. Whether he's past his best as a manager is beyond the scope of this piece, but there's certainly never been a better time for a club to say: right, Jose, this is how it's going to be. This is who you are going to coach. And this is what we want from you.
It may require the hiring of a sporting director or something similar; certainly, the current brains trust of Ed Woodward, whoever the manager is, and Fred the Red doesn't seem fit for purpose. Presumably such a person, whatever their actual title, could be hired on the understanding that soul-preservation — in the form of a well-maintained path from the academy to the first team — is a central part of their brief. It will also, obviously, require the consistent production of young footballers of an acceptable standard. Nobody wants to see the kids if the kids are rubbish.
It might be a disaster, of course. Mourinho could chafe and bristle, injuries could expose the wrong kids to the wrong games, or perhaps this current generation of youth products might not be all that. It also runs contrary to one of Woodward's most precious beliefs: that United should be spending lots of money on really famous players. The two could be combined, perhaps, but Zidanes y Pavones didn't work out for Real Madrid, and United don't look capable of buying a Zidane.
But ultimately, there's a strange tone to some of the Mourinho-fretting. As though the club could not help but bow to his wishes, all of them. As though all he has to do click his fingers and Woodward will scurry off to Portugal, before returning with a busload of cynical 28-year-old journeymen who've never even heard of Matt Busby. Yes, he has overlooked youth in the past. And yes, he comes with Jorge Mendes and all the peculiar implications of that association. But ultimately, if he comes to work for the club, then he works for the club. If the club can't assert itself in that relationship, then United's problems are bigger than we thought, and let's just hope Hugo Almeida's still got whatever he once sort-of had.