For the third time since 2013, the proposition of a new manager at the helm of Manchester United can only be described with one word: inevitable.
The descent of José Mourinho’s position at the club has been swift. It was exactly one year ago that United sat second in the Premier League table -- behind the Death Star known as Manchester City -- with eight matches under its belt and a record of 6-0-2. The Red Devils were absolutely shelling teams, scoring 21 goals while only conceding two.
Those were the good ol’ days...
Now, as we stew away during the international break, success during the 2018-19 season seems fleeting, and the only topic of conversation surrounding this behemoth club is how much longer will Mourinho manage the club.
Before I continue with the original purpose of this series of pieces, it must be said that Mourinho can still right the ship and keep his job for the rest of the season. The “Special One” has a match away at Chelsea, a home and home against Juventus, and the Manchester Derby on the road all before the next international break. If the embattled manager can string together a couple of convincing results, he’ll more than likely survive the January transfer window.
If he survives the transfer window, makes a little noise in the Champions League, possibly wins the FA Cup and pushes for a top-4 spot in the second half of the season, he will more than likely see out the end of his tumultuous third (and final?) year in Northern England.
However, the betting sharks smell blood in the water, and they have released odds on who will become the next permanent Manchester United manager.
Leading the pack is Zinedine Zidane at 6-1 odds according to SkyBet. Zizou is the clear favorite to take over England’s winningest club because that’s exactly what he did at Real Madrid: win. One doesn’t just win three straight Champions League Finals, a La Liga title and FIFA’s 2017 Manager of the Year — in one’s first three years managing a first division side no less — and not be at the top of every shortlist for teams in need of a new manager.
Furthermore, Zidane’s list of professional references for United Executive Vice-Chairman Ed Woodward to contact might include Manchester legends like David Beckham who told sports daily Marca that Zidane was “the greatest player ever” or Zlatan Ibrahimović who told Bein Sport that, “(Zidane) was more than good, he came from another planet.”
An otherworldly talent that’s the best player in the eyes of some of the Red Devils’ most famous players and ambassadors requires strong consideration for a team desperate to return to its former glory — especially after that otherworldly talent has racked up the silverware so quickly like Zidane.
Before we go and get Zizou fever, we cannot proceed any further without addressing the major reservation that doubters will undoubtedly scream loudest about if Zidane is brought into the fold.
Yes, he managed one of the most stacked teams in the history of the sport and there will be an immediate discrepancy as we make comparisons between the collection of world-class, once-in-a-generation talents representing Real Madrid during his tenure and the current crop of underachieving United players currently donning red.
The system employed at Madrid was a 4-1-2-1-2 diamond formation, as outlined in this COPA90 video, and it relied on full backs patrolling the wings while a central defensive midfielder would drop back. Therefore the formation on a moment’s notice could switch between the diamond with a four man back line to a 3-5-2 with the central defensive midfielder playing that central defensive role during the attack.
If he reuses his system in Manchester, Zidane will be trading in Marcelo and Dani Carvajal for Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia as his fullbacks. In the center of his defense, he’ll swap the likes of Sergio Ramos and Raphaël Varane for whoever the holy hell collection of FUT gold common cards that currently fill the role as center backs for United (note: Chris Smalling and Eric Bailly are considered rare golden cards in FIFA 19 but they’re only 81 and 82, respectively. So does that even count?).
Maybe Madrid’s greatest strength under Zidane was its midifield that included Toni Kroos, Luka Modrić, Casemiro and Isco. When Zidane steps onto United’s training pitch for the first time, he will be greeted by Mourinho’s favorite player Scott McTominay, Marouane Fellaini, Fred, Nemanja Matić and, hopefully, a much happier Paul Pogba.
The big question stemming from the personnel side — and every jersey owner, myself included — is: what’s Zidane going to do with Paul Pogba? Current form aside, Zidane would enjoy an upgrade in his center box-to-box midfielder if Pogba takes the reigns of Casemiro’s role in the diamond. Or, a reinvigorated Pogba may take the role of an Isco and freelance his way to double digit goals and assists.
One would hope that Pogba, who just cemented his legend in the history of French football, would thrive under the tutelage of maybe the biggest legend in French football. If not, maybe Zidane can headbutt some sense into Pogboom.
Finally, Zidane had Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Marco Asensio and Gareth Bale to lean on at the top of the attack at Madrid. The one thing United has plenty of is competent attacking quality, albeit the attackers have played directionless for the better part of the calendar year. But Zidane will be able to utilize Romelu Lukaku (NFL linebacker in a past life) to muscle defenders better than Benzema ever could. Marcus Rashford can provide the speed for the attacking one-two punch while Anthony Martial can play the role of a poor man’s winger in the vein of Asensio or Bale.
Oh, and I’d be remiss to not mention those rumors from last week that the God of Manchester is eyeing a return for the second half of the season. The casual ESPN pundits’ favorite soccer player, Ibrahimović, could make a major impact as both a veteran leadership presence that out-divas the rest of the divas in the dressing room while also registering double digit goals as a super sub.
Perhaps the latest bust wearing the number seven shirt can find new life under Zizou and contribute on the attacking end like he did for FC Barcelona and Arsenal. However, a sizeable transfer fee for the mercurial Alexis Sánchez while he’s still in his prime may be put to better use for the team’s defensive overhaul.
Zidane’s formation and style of play at United is to be determined and will more than likely adjust to the personnel. The rumor mill already suggests that Zidane has his first wave of transfer targets determined the moment the ink dries on his contract.
The midfield and the attack will be immediately addressed as he wants to bring on Kroos, Bayern Munich’s Thiago as well as James Rodríguez who plays for Bayern on loan from Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain’s Edinson Cavani.
Players of that quality would be an instant upgrade for the team but will also cost the GDP of a small country. Many a United fan will probably feel more comfortable if Woodward brings on a Director of Football before the introduction of a new manager so that there is a checks and balances system and half a billion pounds is not, again, casually thrown at the problem like in past years.
Ultimately, Zidane ranks highest on the list of possible next managers because he won on the biggest stage with the enormous pressure associated with Real Madrid. He only managed the team for two and half seasons but his trophy case suggests that he is a skilled manager that will take another team to the top of domestic and international football.
Zidane will bring a winning mentality from his days as player and a manager that requires immediate respect from everyone in the dressing room. Moreover, his calming influence that managed the titanic egos and expectations of Real Madrid players, board members and fans will help rebuild a culture set ablaze by three years of sharply-worded, volcanic passive aggressiveness exhibited by Mourinho.
If Zinedine Zidane is named the next manager of Manchester United in conjunction with a new Director of Football that can help replenish the team’s quality, supporters at Old Trafford and around the world can be cautiously optimistic that the rebuild post-Mourinho will be a short one.