The lack of an ideal candidate to replace Louis van Gaal as the Manchester United manager is the main reason his offer of resignation on Saturday was pushed away by Ed Woodward, the executive vice-chairman.
Put it this way: if Pep Guardiola was available, Van Gaal would not have been asked to go and discuss his future with friends and family before reconvening with Woodward on Tuesday following a two-day break in the Netherlands.
The reluctance to change managers in mid-season is because Woodward is assessing who could come in and has decided he would rather wait until summer if a change is required.
The X factor here is results. If Van Gaal remains and United are knocked out of the FA Cup by Derby County in Friday’s fourth-round tie at Pride Park, Woodward’s hand may be forced. The same outcome is true of next Tuesday’s visit of Stoke City to Old Trafford.
Woodward’s request to Van Gaal to reconsider is enlightening regarding how he views José Mourinho. He was rejected by United when Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down in May 2013 and ignored when Van Gaal might have been sacked at Christmas. If Mourinho is really the genius-manager-in-waiting, Woodward would surely have agreed on Saturday that enough is enough.
Instead, despite United falling five points behind Tottenham Hotspur in the tussle for the final Champions League berth and the side’s continuing turgid displays, Woodward persuaded the 64-year-old to think again.
Mourinho may yet become the next manager if Woodward can be convinced his penchant for rowing with the media and creating internal divisions are worth the silverware he guarantees. But it is this doubt over the Portuguese’s divisive nature that is preventing Woodward calling Jorge Mendes to ask the agent how much Mourinho wants to become United’s No1.
This is why reports that claimed Mourinho wrote a six-page letter to United to explain he is keen to change his style resonated. While it was vehemently denied by Mendes and branded bizarre by one senior United executive, Mourinho is smart enough to know what is preventing him being appointed and what is required to change it.
It is some show of strength from Woodward, who heard the boos directed at Van Gaal at the end of United’s 1-0 defeat by Southampton and is desperate to get it right, given the Dutchman’s predecessor, David Moyes, also failed.
Woodward deserves credit for not rushing into the Special One’s arms. Even if he were to be given the post, Woodward’s power-play means Mourinho would walk into Old Trafford knowing he cannot run United as his own fiefdom, as he has at other clubs.
Under Van Gaal Old Trafford has witnessed a staggering 11 consecutive goalless first halves this season. There have been only 11 victories in the last 29 Premier League games. The club was knocked out of the Champions League at the group stage. The number of shots on target at home is the lowest of all 92 clubs in the pyramid. And, the winless final month of 2015 made it the poorest December in the club’s 138-year history.
All of this points to stagnation and a moribund atmosphere is enveloping the club. Yet Woodward still examines the alternatives beyond Mourinho and deliberates over who can succeed Van Gaal.
If Woodward is unwilling to appoint an overseas manager untried in the Premier League, such as Marcelo Bielsa or his Argentinan compatriot Jorge Sampaoli, who took Chile to their first Copa América triumph last summer, he has two intriguing options closer to home. Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville would also constitute a gamble but would instantly lift the club and delight most United fans.
Giggs is the No2 and a club legend. Neville is Valencia’s coach, Roy Hodgson’s assistant coach with England, a respected former pundit and is also high on the list of the finest defenders to have worn a United shirt.
Yet a blend of Giggs’s inexperience, Neville’s slow start in Spain and Woodward’s coolness towards the Class of 92 forming a power base at the club, for the moment at least, puts question marks against both men.
Giggs is apparently being groomed for the No1 role and Van Gaal states he will be the next manager. But if so, why has he not been appointed? If Woodward is forced to appoint a manager mid-season, Giggs may be given the job on an interim basis as there is no sense that Woodward wants him on a permanent one.
Neville is yet to lead Valencia to victory in La Liga and his record of three wins, three defeats and six draws in all competitions hardly makes an irresistible case for Woodward to turn to him.
Of other targets for Woodward, across town Manuel Pellegrini will be available in the summer if Guardiola arrives at Manchester City as expected. The Chilean certainly adores the attacking football United demand but could the faithful stomach a man who would be characterised by some as a City reject?
When Van Gaal was appointed two years ago he was deemed the right man for United’s situation. Given the paucity of options, he may stumble on as the only man Woodward feels he can trust. It would seem an odd way for a club of United’s stature to move on