Saturday’s 1-0 defeat to Southampton intensified the pressure on Louis van Gaal but the Manchester United board must consider a number of key questions before making a decision on his future.
Charlie Austin’s late winner at Old Trafford condemned United to their sixth Premier League defeat of the season. Van Gaal was booed by supporters as he left the field after the final whistle, and his stock appears to be at an all-time low with the Red Devils sitting five points adrift of fourth-placed Tottenham.
Sources at the club have told Sky Sports News HQ the under-fire manager did not offer his resignation in the wake of the game, but it is understood chief executive Ed Woodward has consulted senior players and influential figures at the club as he ponders the Dutchman’s position.
Before making any decision on Van Gaal’s future, however, Manchester United’s board need to be clear on where they stand in relation to three key men: Ryan Giggs, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola…
What next for Giggs?
No one at Manchester United understands the club better than Giggs. The Welshman made 963 appearances before hanging up his boots in 2014, and he has been on the coaching staff since joining David Moyes’ backroom team in 2013. So is Van Gaal’s No 2 a genuine candidate to step up?
He certainly has support from within the club. A long line of former team-mates have trumpeted his coaching credentials, and he also has the backing of former chief executive David Gill and former manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who remain influential figures at Old Trafford.
Indeed, Ferguson revealed last year that he might have made Giggs his successor had he retired from playing sooner. “If Ryan Giggs had retired at, say, 35, it’s quite likely I would have made him my assistant,” he said. “And it’s quite likely he could have moved straight into the job with the experience of being an assistant manager to me as he is doing with Louis van Gaal at the moment.”
Then there’s Woodward, who, after naming Giggs as Van Gaal’s assistant back in July 2014, said: “It’s very important to us as a club that we have continuity and Ryan is the perfect person to continue that. He did a great job in the set-up last year and has obviously been at the club for a long time.”
But would popularity and continuity be enough to land Giggs the top job? “He’s got support throughout the club and he’s gathered great experience from working under Van Gaal and seeing the transition process from Ferguson to Moyes,” says Sky Sports News HQ reporter James Cooper. “But the problem is: Is it too big a job for someone who has never been a proper No 1? It’s a big ask but Ryan will believe he can do it.”
If United were to opt for an external appointment, Giggs’ future at Old Trafford would suddenly come into question. “Should someone new come in,” adds Cooper, “it will be an interesting challenge for the board at Manchester United to persuade Giggs to be understudy for a third manager.” The board will be aware of the danger of losing a club legend.
The Mourinho situation
If Giggs is overlooked, it could be good news for Mourinho, the bookmakers’ favourite to succeed Van Gaal having left Chelsea in December. Mourinho’s admiration for United is well-documented, and he is known to be seeking a swift return to top-level management.
If United were guided by trophies alone, he would surely be a shoo-in for the job. The 53-year-old’s glittering career includes three Premier League titles with Chelsea and famous Champions League successes with Porto and Inter Milan, but he also comes with considerable baggage.
“They know he brings success and they know he brings trophies,” says Cooper. “But they also know it’s a short-term thing. The key debate at United at the moment is probably about whether they want to become a European style team, like Real Madrid or maybe even Bayern Munich and Barcelona, in having this change of manager every three years or so.
Who holds Old Trafford power?
Who will decide Louis van Gaal’s fate? Who could influence the decision?
“Because that’s what you’re going to get with Mourinho. Yes, you’re going to get success, but you’re going to be looking for another manager in three years’ time.” Indeed, United will be wary of how Mourinho’s second spell at Chelsea unravelled despite his promise to create a dynasty when he returned to Stamford Bridge in 2013.
There are also question marks over Mourinho’s character and his approach to management both on and off the pitch. He became embroiled in a string of controversies in his final months at Chelsea, and confrontation has been a recurrent theme of his career. Sir Bobby Charlton suggested the Portuguese was not an appropriate fit for United back in 2012, and it remains an area of concern.
“Recent history has shown it can become a circus with Mourinho,” says Cooper. “Everyone at United – including Sir Alex – would say no one is bigger than the club. But the fear is that Mourinho comes in and from day one he thinks it is all about him.”
There is, however, a growing feeling that United can no longer afford to be quite so dismissive of Mourinho, who has prestige and experience as well as a trophy-laden CV. “The attraction of him of course is that players want to play for him,” says Cooper. “He could probably help to bring some stellar names in who could turn things around.”
Is Guardiola an option?
Guardiola sparked a frenzy of speculation in December when he confirmed he will leave Bayern Munich at the end of the season and move to the Premier League, but it appears the former Barcelona manager is most likely to end up at Manchester City.
“It is understood in the red corner of Manchester that he’s heading to City,” says Cooper. “Most people behind the scenes at Manchester United have resigned themselves to the fact that Guardiola probably won’t end up at Old Trafford.”
But Guardiola insists he has not yet signed a contract with any club, and in Pep Confidential: The Inside Story of Pep Guardiola’s First Season at Bayern Munich, he revealed he would like to manage the Red Devils at some point in his career. “I like this atmosphere,” he is quoted as saying during a match at Old Trafford in 2011. “I could see myself coaching here one day.”
‘LVG is no quitter’
A journalist close to Louis van Gaal has told Sky Sports the Dutchman will not quit his position.
Those comments provide a glimmer of hope for the Red Devils, who won’t rule themselves out of the running for Guardiola until his next step is made official. However, Cooper admits Guardiola may be more attracted by the City job given the sheer scale of the task at hand at United.
“He might look at it and think United is too big a job to turn around – even for me,” says Cooper. “But at City you’re working with people you know from Barcelona and getting a chance to put something on the map and get people to sit up and listen.”