Had you asked 365 days ago who would be the next manager of Manchester United I wouldn’t have even hesitated to say Mauricio Pochettino. He’s that good. The work that he’d done at Southampton and then at Tottenham Hotspur was nothing short of fantastic. Most importantly, he seemingly had what Gary Neville called the three principles of the football club: the promotion of youth, entertaining football, and winning football matches.
I say seemingly because, well, we’ll get to that.
The point is: that was a year ago.
Even though Pochettino has long been a favorite of Ed Woodward, a lot has changed in a year. And in that time United happened to find another manager who embodies those same principals in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. They also committed to a long term plan with him.
Due to Woodward’s crush on Pochettino, it was only natural that some fans on Twitter (and possibly in this comment section — and dare I say Slack channel [Ed. - Hey, now.]) called for United to sack Solskjaer and move immediately for Pochettino. There’s just one problem.
Tearing up the long term plan after just a few months, simply because your old crush is now on the market doesn’t make sense for a whole bunch of reasons, which I will gladly go through for you.
The difference between what fans think they’d get with Pochettino and what they’re actually getting with Solskjaer can be summed up with one picture.
Mauricio Pochettino has a fantastic resume. He took Southampton from a yo-yo team to the Europa League. More impressive than that he took Tottenham, who for years had been mired in the “can be good but definitely not on the same level as the big boys” tier and legitimately turned them into one of the big boys. Back to back 2nd place finishes and the club’s first ever trip to the Champions League final. That’s unquestionable success.
You probably didn’t even flinch when you read back to back 2nd place finishes there. He’s really only done it once (Arsenal pipped them to second in 2016) but we all just assume he’s done it multiple times. That’s how successful he was.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s resume is a bit different. He had a failed spell at Cardiff, which is still held against him for... reasons. Now, I’m not saying that we should completely forget about his spell at Cardiff, but if you don’t think there’s a difference between managing relegation fodder and Manchester United then I don’t really know what to tell you. It’s possible he’s learned from his mistakes at Cardiff. It’s also possible his methods just work better when he’s with more talented players.
He’s starting to build something that is showing at United. A lot has been made about the team’s downturn in form after Solskjaer became the permanent manager, but that conveniently leaves out all the intangibles. By then, Solskjaer had run his team into the ground and the squad was decimated by injuries. Over the summer they stripped the squad down to the bones and barely added any replacements.
Solskjaer now has the youngest squad in the Premier League and what are they doing? They’re 7th in the league and their underlying numbers could be even better. They’re in the quarterfinals of the League Cup. He’s expertly rotated the squad in the Europa League and still qualified for the knockout rounds with two games to spare while not conceding a goal.
At the end of the day, we can definitely say Pochettino is a great manager. There’s no question there. But we can’t definitively say that Solskjaer is a bad manager, and we can’t say that he’s not the right manager for Manchester United right now.
How do Pochettino and Solskjaer compare on those “principles of the club” we mentioned before? Let’s break ‘em down, and add a few of our own.
Critics like to harp on Solskjaer’s away record. At the start of November, Solskjaer hadn’t won an away match in the Premier League since February. That’s bad! (Of course it’s never mentioned how he set a club record with nine straight away victories). But, when was the last time Pochettino’s Spurs won an away game in the Premier League? January 20th against Fulham.
And when was the last time Tottenham won an away Premier League match against a team that wasn’t relegated last year? December 23rd 2018, the same day Solskjaer managed his first game for United.
The difference? This was Pochettino’s developed team. Solskjaer has the youngest team in the league.
There’s no question Pochettino has a fantastic record with young players. But promoting youth, from the academy — that’s a bit overblown.
In Pochettino’s time at Spurs there are just two players who went from the academy into the first team. Harry Kane and... Harry Winks? Seriously. That’s the list, and I’m not even sure Kane counts.
Pochettino inherited a team where Danny Rose and Kyle Walker were already first team players (Walker won Young Player of the Year back in 2012). Kane wasn’t a starter yet, but he was a very known quantity. Going into the 2014 season, EVERYONE knew Harry Kane was the best striker Spurs had. Pochettino limited him to mostly Europa League starts to start the season, waiting until November to finally start him in the Premier League, where he then exploded for 21 goals.
The reality is Poch played a lot of young players (with great success!) because Tottenham bought young players. That’s what they could afford.
That’s great and all, but isn’t that what Solskjaer is doing? Two of the three players Solskjaer has signed are 21 years old (Daniel James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka) and how are they are easily two of the team’s best performers already.
Solskjaer entered this season making 17- (now 18-) year-old Mason Greenwood a full time member of the first team squad. He’s given starts and Premier League minutes to Angel Gomes and Tahith Chong. Nineteen-year-old Brandon Williams went from “promoted to training with the first team” to making his full Premier League debut in the blink of an eye.
For all the talk about Pochettino promoting youth, no one has really broken into Tottenham’s first team since Harry Winks did three years ago. Oliver Skipp has gotten a look here and there, but he’s made fewer first team appearances (both league and all comps) than Mason Greenwood. Troy Parrott has been on the bench a few times (one total appearance), but when push comes to shove, Pochettino would rather rush a half-fit Harry Kane back from injury than rotate Parrott into a cup game. That’s the same criticism Ole gets when he starts a possibly overworked Marcus Rashford over Mason Greenwood.
Solskjaer is playing the youth. Why didn’t United take all three points against Arsenal earlier this year? Why don’t you ask Axel Tuanzebe.
This is what happens when you play youth. Mistakes are made. That’s OK, they’re learning. But are we really going to suggest that if Pochettino was the manager Tuanzebe wouldn’t have made this mistake? Give me a break.
If we’re going to talk about promoting youth from the academy (not just playing young players that you signed), we should probably be talking about Solskjaer.
Style of Play
Pochettino is famous for his high intensity, high pressing, lots-of-running style of play. It requires a complete buy in from every player and over time it wears them down (look at how Tottenham finish every season).
That is... exactly how Solskjaer wants United to play.
United press high, and they press often. If you think they just sit back and look to hit teams on the counter, look at how they pressed Liverpool high up the field. Solskjaer’s style has been accused of causing a lot of muscle injuries, leading to long absences for a bunch of United players but guess what: the same thing happens at Tottenham! It also happened at Liverpool when Jurgen Klopp first took over! Newsflash: playing at a high intensity for 90 minutes straight twice a week wears you out.
Some would say that because the systems are so similar, Pochettino could step right in and start winning at United right away.
Well, maybe, but not very likely. Like Solskjaer, Pochettino’s system requires the creativity of a great number 10. He had that in Christian Eriksen. Solskjaer was at his best when Paul Pogba was filling that role, but if Pogba is still injured, Pochettino would be relying on Andreas Pereira or Jesse Lingard. Not exactly the recipe for success.
Pochettino would play Eriksen somewhat centrally, but also coming in from the left. He didn’t have a straightforward right winger (just like United!) so to alleviate the pressure on Eriksen he put a lot of creative burden on his full-backs. For long stretches of time Tottenham’s creativity fell on the shoulders of former right-back Kieran Trippier.
If Poch were to come to United that would mean giving a more offensive role to Luke Shaw (or Ashley Young) and Aaron Wan-Bissaka. We know how limited Shaw and Young are from the left, and Wan-Bissaka just doesn’t have the offensive game yet. He’s only 21 so he can still develop it, but right here right now it’s just not there.
Solskjaer is doing what he can with this bare bones team. He can’t sign anyone until at least January. Pochettino wouldn’t be able to either. He would be taking over the same players (who are already playing really well) and instituting more or less the same system. Do we really think that’s going to drastically improve results?
For managers it’s not just about who you sign, but how you develop the players you have. Harry Kane didn’t go from nothing to three time golden boot winner without the help of Pochettino. Dele Alli didn’t go from £5 million signing to 20 goal a season scorer by himself.
There’s no doubt that Pochettino shines in this area, and nothing sums it up better than this stat:
“Between August 2013 and October 2017, 30 different players made their debut for England at senior level. No fewer than 15 (Rickie Lambert, Andros Townsend, Jay Rodriguez, Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, Calum Chambers, Nathaniel Clyne, Harry Kane, Ryan Mason, Dele Alli, Eric Dier, Danny Rose, James Ward-Prowse, Kieran Trippier, Harry Winks) did so having played under Pochettino.”
Forget that this was during a pretty down period for England (I mean, Rickie Lambert got a cap!). Being the manager of fifty percent of the players to make their England debuts over a four year period is an unheard of achievement. I doubt anyone will ever touch that number again.
But what about Solskjaer?
Are we just going to ignore Martial’s progress at becoming a complete center forward, especially in regards to his ability to play with his back towards goal? What about Marcus Rashford’s current form? Yes there’s still a way to go with them, but there’s also tons of progress there.
How about Fred, finally getting a run in the team, and with a clearly defined role, starting to turn into the viable defensive midfielder United needed? Look at Scott McTominay now versus where he was 12 months ago. When Solskjaer took over the first thing he did was drop McTominay from the match day squad altogether, eventually sending him back the U23s. Now he’s indispensable to the team.
One of the biggest criticisms against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s in-game management has been his seeming reluctance to make changes.
If you weed out all the articles about his firing, a simple Google search of “Pochettino substitutions” yields far too many results. There are articles from 2017, 2018, and 2019, all saying the same thing: Pochettino waits too long to make substitutions.
Even on Twitter, Spurs fans are constantly lamenting about this tendency.
So I took a look at the numbers. This season, Pochettino has made his first substitution on average in the 56th minute (a number skewed by removing Hugo Lloris in the 8th minute vs Brighton).
His second change on average comes in the 75th minute, with the third coming in the 85th. Overall, the average minute of Pochettino’s substitutions is 71.94.
What about Solskjaer? His first substitution this season has come in the 68th minute, with subs two and three coming in the 79th and and 85th respectively. That averages out to 77.18.
That’s way higher than Pochettino and on the surface doesn’t reflect well on Solskjaer. But those numbers include games where United are winning, and Solskjaer doesn’t make any changes because... why bother?
So I went back and looked at games where United and Spurs were both losing by a goal, i.e., chasing a game.
For Pochettino it came in at 64/75/85.33 for an average of 75.44. Solskjaer was 66/74.25/82.50 for an average of 74.25. That’s a much better comparison.
But here’s the thing. Last season at this time Pochettino’s first sub came around the 68th minute and his average was the 77th. In 2017/18 he came in at 69/81/89 for an average of the 79.67th minute.
This is who Pochettino is. Whereas last season Solskjaer’s substitution minutes were 61.86/69.86/82.11 for an average of 82.11. In games where United were down or losing those numbers were 60.13/68.50/80.33 for an average of 68.68 (I’m leaving out the Liverpool match where United made three changes before half time due to injuries). The fact that Solskjaer’s overall time for his first substitution has increased by nearly seven minutes when United are trailing is more indicative of United’s thin squad leaving him with few options off the bench.
If you still think Solskjaer waits longer than Poch to make changes, well, you know what’s coming.
Culture of the Club
When David Moyes was struggling and fans were calling for his head, there was opposition to firing him simply on the grounds that “United aren’t a sacking club and we don’t want to become one.”
That was true then and it’s still true now. There’s a difference between sacking a manager because he’s not the right guy and sacking him because he wasn’t successful enough.
Moyes wasn’t the right guy, and sacking him was the right move. Louis van Gaal wasn’t unsuccessful, but the football was so dull that it’s understandable (but back to him in a second). Mourinho needed to be sacked.
Like I’ve said, Solskjaer hasn’t proved that he’s the guy yet but he hasn’t proved that he’s not the guy. He’s cleared out a ton of the squad when others couldn’t. He’s hit on three of his three signings, a better record than any of the previous managers. Since he took over United they have the fourth most points in England.
United’s cup form has been great. They’ve yet to concede in Europe. He’s addressed the massive defensive issues that the club had, which goes far beyond just signing Maguire and Wan-Bissaka — the team doesn’t give up many shots anymore, and the ones they do are the lowest quality shots in the league.
To sack him now, what does that say? Louis van Gaal was signed on a three year contract with the plan to give the job to Ryan Giggs afterwards. It was a six year plan. He had just won the FA Cup and at most there was one more year of dull football before it changed. But then José Mourinho became available and Ed Woodward couldn’t help himself.
If Woodward bailed on Solskjaer to sign Pochettino now it would show that he most certainly hasn’t learned from his past mistakes. What will happen to Pochettino when the next sexy manager becomes available?
We know Pochettino is enamored with Old Trafford. He wants this job. But for Solskjaer, Manchester United is the be all end all. It doesn’t matter what club comes calling, he will never willingly leave United. Other clubs may not even exist as far as he’s concerned.
Solskjaer doesn’t want to win so that he wins, he wants to win so that Manchester United win. That’s what he cares about. Why turn your back on someone who will be with you for 30 years if given the chance? Especially when that person has been guiding you in the right direction?
Again, no one said this would be an overnight fix. United could have patched their holes with duct tape and finished in the top four. They chose to rebuild the whole ship. That’s going to take more than a few months and one transfer window.
Despite stripping the squad down, United are 7th in the league and trending upwards. They’ve played most of this season without their two best players. One is back, the other is coming back.
Things are on the up. The mood around Carrington is good and the players are very happy. Why shake things up completely unnecessarily?
For United, the best thing that can now happen would be for Pochettino to take the Bayern Munich job. He’ll have success there, he’ll win some trophies and get experience managing at a big club.
And if he doesn’t win there? Well then, good thing you didn’t hire him!
But even if he does win, managers at Bayern have a shelf life. No matter how good they are, they still don’t last more than one and a half to two years. Therefore in the summer of 2021 it’s safe to assume Pochettino will be available again. His desire to coach at Old Trafford won’t have gone away.
That’ll give Ole two years. If Solskjaer continues to bring in the right players, he’ll have two years to prove that he’s the right guy to coach them. Two years will be enough time to evaluate him. By then he may have won everyone over, or it might be obvious that he’s taken United as far as he can.
Pochettino will likely be available, or some other new sexy name. United can make the move and hand him a much better squad then than they’d be handing him today.
United have made a plan. They should stick to it. The immediate future may be bumpy, but the long term gains will be worth it.