It was one of those lines that seemed threatening at the time, and now it seems that it will be another sound bite that goes down in the history of a great manager.
Liverpool is a few months away for Jurgen Klopp, Sir Alex Ferguson was discussing the impact of the German and how impressive it had been. “It revived Liverpool’s enthusiasm,” the great Scotsman told Kicker. “He’s a strong personality. He’s absolutely vital in a big club. I’m worried about him because the only thing United doesn’t want is for Liverpool to get past us.”
Ferguson, in other words, had an instinct for where he was going. What was going on in Liverpool seemed right. Fits.
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Nothing seems to be going well at Old Trafford right now. The sense of a “something special” building – as a key figure in the aftermath of the victory over Paris Saint-Germain said – has long since evaporated, showing little more than a fleeting emotion in the euphoria of victory. Manchester United hasn’t really looked good since that game, the club’s many problems instead come together to start over each other.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer tries to say all the right things, but that’s all: lip service. Recent comments on Manchester City that “respect” United by playing a strong team in the League Cup have shown that there is now little clarity of language, not to mention clarity of thought.
The Norwegian seems to increasingly show that he is the wrong man for the job, rather than the other way around in the hoped for way. It’s even worse when someone available seems like the right man and represents the specter looming over every setback.
It is worth remembering, after all, that Ferguson had a feeling similar to that of Klopp with another manager. It was a few months later, the following spring, in 2016, when he met Mauricio Pochettino for lunch. Ferguson was willing to tell everyone who would listen at the time that the Argentine was the best manager in the country. Pochettino has certainly proven to be one of the best in the coming years, with drastically excessive performances with Tottenham Hotspur and transforming the whole vision of the club.
It now seems by far the best option for Manchester United. It really seems to adapt, to feel so natural. There are still some figures at United who hope that an agreement with Pochettino can be concluded for the summer. Although there are debates about the Argentine’s lack of silverware and ability to adapt to a club of United stature, this is a large institution that is currently trying to reshape the way they do things and rebuild through young people.
No modern manager has a better track record than Pochettino. This is how he built Spurs, reinvigorating them with a sense of mission. It was a similar sense of mission that Ferguson married in his early years working for United. “This isn’t just a job for me,” he said in 1988. “It’s a mission. I’m deadly serious about it. Some people would consider it too serious. We’ll get there, believe me. And when it does, life will change for Liverpool and all others – dramatically. “
It is also clearly what Ferguson recognized in Klopp – and Pochettino. Seems like a natural choice. It seems that the time is right. It also puts executive vice president Ed Woodward and the board of directors of the United States in a curious position, where a decisive decision of the type that defined Ferguson’s career is actually justified.
It could be a decision that echoes in the history of football. This is how big it could be. It is also a situation in which United had already been before, in 2013, and that spring in 2016. Four years ago it almost seemed to come down to a direct choice between Pochettino and Jose Mourinho.
There is at least one significant difference, mind. While everyone knew that Louis van Gaal would be released that summer – apparently, the man himself – is far from Solskjaer’s case. Woodward instead spoke with his zeal about why the Norwegian is the right man for the job. He is convinced.
It should also be acknowledged that there is admiration for the fact that the chief of the United States attaches himself to his man and perseveres in a plan. The hope, however, is that this persistence itself is not another reactive decision of the type of club for which it has been criticized.
These decisions in 2013 and 2016 also illustrate timing is extremely important here, and also from a historical perspective.
There is a strong argument that Mourinho was never the right man for United, but it would have been a better date in 2013, when he was closer to his peak and his huge personality would have been more suitable than David Moyes to the daunting task of succeeding Ferguson. Mourinho would have done something else: himself.
In 2016, it looked like it was something else, and not the same strength. The 2015-16 crash at Chelsea, and what it reflected, should have been a much bigger concern for United. Little seemed the future, Mourinho the past.
In the choice of the Portuguese at the time – and in one move many suspects were in themselves a reaction to Manchester City which Pep Guardiola obtained – United actually lost three years. By persisting with Solskjaer, there is not only the danger of wasting more time. There is a danger of losing a manager that even Woodward himself has seen as the right man, as clubs like Manchester City, Bayern Munich and Juventus look to the Pochettino for the future.
A fair answer to this is that the nature of the big clubs means that every manager has less influence and that United has many bigger problems beyond the manager of the first team.
All of this may be true, but it should not yet preclude the importance of the right appointment.
You just have to look at another manager who would have been a good choice for United, to Antonio Conte. Internazionale has remained a basket for so long, but has made them a force again thanks to the sheer strength of its own personality. It can be so effective. It will cause opposition clubs to worry. It made Juventus worry.
It is the same with Klopp. In recent years there has inevitably been a great deal of praise for Liverpool’s intelligence, and in particular their analytical department, but some club sources claim that part of this has been adapted from the fact that Klopp simply makes everything work.
“You can see Klopp’s dedication on the sidelines,” added Ferguson. “I am convinced that his training work is similar. He is a strong personality. He is absolutely vital in a great club.” Does United really have this now?
It is quite possible that Solskjaer could prove to everyone that they are wrong and that Woodward’s patience will be seen as a visionary, which will testify to their perseverance in their sense of mission. They might even laugh at words like this in a few years as they sit next to the main trophies.
It’s just that that position has a lot of confidence in the evidence we’ve actually seen, and a lot of risks when a choice like Pochettino seems such a sure thing.
United should appreciate all this better than most. It took so many years to find the right man before landing in Ferguson. The right size at the right time in history. It seems almost a karmic punishment that Ferguson’s retirement was followed by another similar search.
“It can happen that the big clubs lose it,” he also said in that Kicker interview. “For two decades, Liverpool has changed managers without building its identity.”
So they got the right man. Now it seems that Pochettino is the right man. It will be extraordinary if they pass it. It wouldn’t just be giving up on a manager. It would be a moment in history.