Manchester United are back in the market for a new manager for the fifth time since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013 after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s 35-month reign came to an end on Sunday.
The absence of a proven — and available — candidate to replace Solskjaer has prompted United to announce that former midfielder Michael Carrick will take temporary charge until an interim manager is appointed until the end of the season. But although United’s owners, the Glazer family, are starting out with a blank sheet of paper in the search for a new manager, there are a number of top-quality candidates.
So who are the leading contenders to take on what has become one of the toughest jobs in football?
The Paris Saint-Germain coach is United’s first choice to replace Solskjaer. Mauricio Pochettino was also the top target to replace Jose Mourinho in 2018-19, but Solskjaer’s initial success as interim manager prompted United to abandon their Pochettino chase in favour of handing Solskjaer a permanent contract.
Sources have told ESPN that Pochettino is open to leaving PSG for United, which means the Old Trafford club have a real opportunity to finally get their man, though it’s not that simple. Pochettino signed a two-year contract at PSG this summer. The Ligue 1 club, one of the richest in the world, is expected to demand a huge compensation package if they even entertain an approach from United. Regardless, Pochettino’s record of developing an exciting young team at Tottenham has made him the favoured choice of United’s top brass, so they must now decide whether they are ready to take on PSG.
Although Leicester City have struggled this season to replicate the performances of the past two years under Rodgers, the former Liverpool and Celtic manager is regarded by senior figures at United as the best domestic option to succeed Solskjaer.
Injuries to key players such as Wesley Fofana, James Justin and Youri Tielemans have hurt Leicester this season, but delivering a spot on the European stage and a first-ever FA Cup win at the King Power Stadium is tangible success, and that’s down to Rodgers. He’s also hailed as a coach who delivers the attractive, attacking football demanded by United supporters.
The downside is his Liverpool past. United would not want to be seen as hiring a man who was sacked by their biggest rivals, but Rodgers improved Liverpool, Celtic and Leicester, confirming he has the track record United need.
An out-of-work manager with three Champions League titles and a proven ability to get the best out of some of football’s biggest names at Real Madrid seems like an obvious contender. But the fact that United haven’t hired Zidane already points to doubts on both sides as to his suitability for the Old Trafford job.
Sources have told ESPN that Zidane, whose grasp of English is limited, has no strong desire to work in England and that his preference would be coach France or Paris Saint-Germain. And despite his winning record at Real, sources at United have said there are concerns over his ability to make good players better, rather than merely manage the egos of great ones.
Zidane is unlikely to be United’s next manager, but while he is still available, both parties could be tempted to overcome their reservations if their preferred options respectively prove to be out of reach.
ERIK TEN HAG
Ten Hag, 51, is regarded as a rising star, having guided Ajax to successive league and cup doubles in the Netherlands. A former centre-half whose playing career was limited to spells with Twente, Utrecht and RKC Waalwijk, Ten Hag has worked his way through the coaching ranks, including two years with Bayern Munich‘s reserve team, before ending up at Ajax.
But while he has developed a young, vibrant team in the traditions of Ajax, Ten Hag’s lack of top-level experience in a major league marks him out as a risky appointment for United. The transition from the Eredivisie to the Premier League is a tough one, as highlighted recently by players like Donny van de Beek and Hakim Ziyech, and Ten Hag is likely to need to take another step up the ladder before taking on a challenge as big as the one at Old Trafford.
The former United midfielder, who won every major honour available to him during a 12-year playing career at Old Trafford, has stepped up from his coaching position into the caretaker manager role following Solskjaer’s exit. At this stage, the 40-year-old is regarded as nothing more than a stop-gap until an interim manager can be appointed, but if he can inspire an upturn in results, don’t rule out the possibility of an extension until the end of the season.
Sources have said that United are determined to stick to the process of hiring a proven manager next summer, but having ripped up that same plan to give Solskjaer the job on a full-time basis, Carrick could become a serious contender if results give him and the team momentum.
Carrick as permanent manager is a very long shot, but given the club’s previous approach in hiring a manager, it would be foolish to completely discount him as a contender.
If United stick to their plan of hiring an interim manager, former France and PSG coach Blanc would be a good fit if only for his previous association with United as a player under Sir Alex Ferguson between 2001 and 2003.
Blanc, 56, is now in charge of Al-Rayyan in the Qatar Stars League, but things aren’t going great there, with the team eighth in the 12-team league. Blanc enjoyed consistent domestic success in Ligue 1 with Bordeaux and PSG earlier in his coaching career, winning the league title and cups with both teams, but his star has been on the wane since leaving PSG in 2016.
In terms of a proven, safe pair of hands, Blanc would bring experience and knowledge as an interim manager, but don’t expect him to be on United’s list for a permanent manager right now.
The X factor in United’s managerial search is Atletico Madrid coach Simeone. United have twice tried and failed to tempt the Argentine to Old Trafford: in 2013 before hiring David Moyes as Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor, and then a year later when Simeone and Jurgen Klopp both turned down United prior to the appointment of Louis van Gaal.
Simeone has never shown a great desire to work in the Premier League, but sources have said he continues to be admired by the United hierarchy after turning Atletico into a consistent challenger to the duopoly of Real Madrid and Barcelona in LaLiga.
After 10 years in charge of Atletico, the prospect of a new challenge at United might now appeal and if the 51-year-old shows any glimpses that he would be interested, the Glazers would have to move him alongside Pochettino as a top target.
Sources told ESPN last month that United were prepared to hire a British manager if top targets proved to be elusive, and in that case, the main candidate is Rodgers. But Potter is regarded by insiders as a talented coach capable of succeeding in a big Premier League job after his stint with Brighton.
The failure of David Moyes, who was sacked after less than a year in charge of United, would be a shadow hanging over a domestic appointment such as Potter, and it remains a fact that no English manager has ever won the Premier League title. But if United miss out on Pochettino and Simeone, and also fail to tempt Rodgers, Potter could be the best option within the Premier League. That said, the 46-year-old will need to win a trophy with Brighton this season, or guide them into Europe, to have any realistic hope of being considered by United.
By signing a new contract as England manager on Monday, just 24 hours after Solskjaer’s exit was confirmed, Gareth Southgate would appear to have ended any prospect of taking over at Manchester United. With the 2022 World Cup in 12 months’ time, it would be difficult to imagine Southgate passing up the chance of making England the world champions.
That said, in terms of trusting young players, managing with understated discipline and demonstrating a readiness to work within a football structure, Southgate could be a potential United target, especially after transforming England from perennial underachievers into a team that now challenges for honours. He is a clear outsider in any list of candidates, but even with a World Cup on the horizon, it would be a big call for an Englishman to reject the opportunity of managing Manchester United.