The race to be the next Manchester United manager is headed by two candidates. Mauricio Pochettino has long been admired by Old Trafford bosses and his union with Paris Saint-Germain doesn’t look like a match made in heaven, while Erik ten Hag’s sterling work at Ajax is impossible to avoid and the time could be right this summer to move to a bigger club.
Pochettino has the backing of United’s players and Premier League experience on his CV. Ten Hag is popular with interim manager and soon-to-be consultant Ralf Rangnick and his style of football with Ajax has made him desirable to large parts of the fanbase.
Those two have headed the shortlist for a while because of their potential availability this summer, even if both have contracts running until 2023. Pochettino could be under pressure in Paris if he loses the Champions League last-16 tie to Real Madrid and Ten Hag must have aspirations of stepping up from life at Holland’s dominant club.
Those aren’t the only names on the shortlist at Old Trafford, however. Brendan Rodgers’ chances of landing an upgrade on Leicester City have disappeared this season, but Spain boss Luis Enrique has always been popular, if seemingly unattainable.
Enrique joked last year that reports linking him with the United job must have emerged on April Fool’s Day – which is one way to shut down a story – and the presence of a World Cup in the winter of this year has always made an appointment almost impossible thissummer. Spain’s World Cup preparations were wrecked in 2018 when one manager left for an attractive club job on the eve of the tournament, it’s hard to envisage a scenario where that happens again.
Enrique has done an excellent job in charge of the national team, introducing a cohort of young, exciting players and playing good football. Nobody gave eventual winners Italy a tougher game in last summer’s European Championship and they’ve since won in Milan in the Nations League.
So Enrique’s lack of availability this summer is a problem for United, but it’s not without a potential solution. The 51-year-old’s contract with the Spanish federation expires at the end of the World Cup in December. That is a point when he might be ready for a return to the club game after taking Spain to two successive tournaments. An appointment for United should be relatively simple then and they remain an attractive proposition to the world’s best managers.
Rangnick’s deal as interim manager ends this season, but he’s got a two-year consultancy role lined up at Old Trafford and floated the idea of staying on as manager in his first press conference. On that occasion, the 63-year-old said he could recommend himself to continue for another year. But if United can land Enrique in December, Rangnick could stay on as manager until then before beginning his consultancy role.
That would see Rangnick take charge of the first 16 Premier League games of next season as well as navigating the European group stage – the Champions League, United hope.
It’s not an ideal scenario, but the German has begun to elicit improved performances out of United and if that continues he should be a capable pair of hands for that length of time. And the reality for United is they need to make sure this appointment is the right one long-term. Going through 16 games with an interim manager to appoint someone to the club see as a perfect fit is a far more attractive scenario than making a summer decision just because a manager is available.
United want to confirm the appointment of their next manager before the end of this season, but there’s no reason they can’t line up a deal with Enrique for after the World Cup. If that is confirmed by the summer then the former Roma and Barcelona manager could offer some input on transfer activity and who he would want in his squad.
Enrique certainly has a CV that appears to fit what United desire from their next manager. They need someone who has a clearly defined, attacking philosophy, a boss who won’t be afraid of managing big players and making big decisions and someone who can keep a clear head in what has become a pressure cooker environment.
United remain one of the most scrutinized, talked about clubs in the world. If anything, the noise outside Old Trafford has increased as success has become harder to come by. It will need a big personality to navigate that, but Enrique has the experience to do it.
Enrique’s playing career suggests someone who doesn’t succumb to pressure. He swapped Real Madrid for Barcelona in 1996 and played more than 200 games for both of Spain’s big two, winning La Liga with both. Enrique was strong-willed enough to let his Bernabeu contract run down so he could join Barcelona on a free transfer.
His managerial career has taken in a year at Roma in Serie A, managing in a city that is consumed by football, as well as three years at Barcelona. He won the treble in his first campaign and managed to devise a system that got the best out of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez. A requirement to manage big personalities is essential for success at the Nou Camp.
But perhaps it’s as Spain’s coach that Enrique has really bared his teeth. After taking a sabbatical in tragic circumstances after the death of his nine-year-old daughter, he returned and accused his friend and colleague Robert Moreno of being unloyal and wanting to keep the job he’d held in Enrique’s absence from him.
Then the former Barcelona player and manager, who left Real Madrid in acrimonious circumstances, picked a 24-man Euro 2020 squad that not only saw the axing of Sergio Ramos, but didn’t include a single player from Real Madrid, a decision for which Enrique was strongly criticized by a partisan Madrid press. In the end, his decision was vindicated by Spain’s run to the semi-finals.
So it’s easy to see why Enrique could be attractive to the United hierarchy. He ticks a lot of boxes in what it feels like they need from what will be the fifth permanent manager to try and step into Sir Alex Ferguson’s shoes. Enrique could be ideal, but United might need to be patient to appoint him.