The 4-0 win over Norwich, Ryan Giggs’ first match as interim manager of Manchester United, added fuel to a growing debate surrounding the identity of the full-time successor to David Moyes. Whilst it appears increasingly likely that it will be the experienced and respected Dutchman Louis Van Gaal who fills the void, the last seven days have seen a groundswell of opinion in favour of Giggs being appointed to lead the club into the 2014/15 season.
The driver of the support for the Welshman is obvious; the pull and romanticism of the idea of the most decorated of the “Class of ’92” (and the most decorated player in United’s history) leading the club out of despair and on to glory, ably assisted by fellow members Scholes and Butt, is undeniable.
Over the last 26 years, United fans have become accustomed to their dreams coming true and Giggs picking up where Fergie left off ten months ago would perhaps be the fulfilment of the greatest dream of all. But those who have persuaded themselves that it can be a reality have reached their conclusions based on little but their imagined ideal future.
In truth, all logic points towards the club requiring an experienced heavyweight, a powerful figure able to dispassionately make the big decisions that are so desperately needed, an individual with the conviction that only many years of management can bring and the know-how to maximise the potential of a dramatically under-performing squad. Perhaps most of all United need a manager able to stand up to and guide Ed Woodward and the Glazer family, not beholden to them for the opportunity of a lifetime.
As much as we want it to be so, Giggs cannot possibly fulfil those requirements. He is the right man at the wrong time. Should he develop as a coach and manager of men then that day will surely present itself in the future, but not yet. For once the club have seen the light and appear unlikely to be swayed by sentiment.
Manchester United are at a crossroads. The disastrous tenure of David Moyes, a good, hardworking man but one without the talent and aura to succeed at one of the world’s biggest clubs, has left an institution listless and being dragged by the tides toward the rocks. He leaves a bloated, overpaid and under-skilled squad, partly the responsibility of Sir Alex and partly his own. £70 million of unwise investment and a failure to carry out the necessary housekeeping and injection of new blood has left a playing staff desperately in need to a major clear out and, in the words of Ed Woodward, dramatic “re-tooling”.
The job at hand is enormous and requires huge decisions to be made both in terms of personnel and footballing philosophy. Applying a logical thought process to this problem, all roads lead to the appointment of a successful, experienced and highly confident individual, with a long history of tactical nous and an ability to take dispassionate courses of action that on a human level will have negative consequences for squad members who themselves feel like cornerstones of the club.
Big names with long, distinguished histories at United need to go as do extremely well-rewarded and previously greatly appreciated members of the group. For Louis Van Gaal, a man notorious for his ego, detachment from emotion, strength of character and managerial success over several decades, these decisions will come relatively easy.
For Giggs, a genuine great as a player but a peer of many of his prospective charges and a man with no experience of a management position whatsoever, there can be no such guarantees. Quite simply, we have absolutely no idea if the Welshman will be a first-class coach or can make the necessary decisions at all. For a club the size of United, perched on the edge of a financial and footballing abyss, taking such a risk would be sheer madness at this moment in time.
First, in terms of tactics and coaching, we have few references from the past to tell us if Giggs is able to form his own footballing strategies, identify an opponent’s weaknesses and change games in the manner in which his old boss, Sir Alex, could. The romantics point to over twenty years as a player, observing the greatest manager of all time at work, the “United Way” and the best interests of “his” club imprinted on his soul.
His first press conference and subsequent interviews provided wonderful, fan-friendly sound bites about a return to attacking football involving genuine out-and-out wingers and midfielders who drive into the box. This was music to the ears of the fans and only served to increase the momentum behind the collective will for him to lead us long term, as did the swash-buckling second half against Norwich in which United ran riot. Seven days later an insipid, turgid defeat to Sunderland at Old Trafford, as bad as any of the many losses under Moyes, brought us all crashing back down to earth. Against Norwich, Giggs picked the wrong team but his changes during the match were bold and turned a grinding victory into a comprehensive, thoroughly enjoyable one.
Against Sunderland the initial team again raised eyebrows and on this occasion the manager was unable to outwit his opposite number, Gus Poyet. Indeed, his decision to withdraw Juan Mata, perhaps the one player on the pitch with the ability to change the game, and replace him with Robin van Persie brought quizzical looks and had no discernible impact at all. This was not Fergie’s United, not his vintage or even the more recent ‘lite’ version. The visitors won 1-0 and hit the bar and post, their success thoroughly deserved. The home side hardly mustered a serious chance of note.
Over the previous ten days, a number of the players had come out in support of Giggs and attempted to strengthen his case for getting the job on a permanent basis, in particular Wayne Rooney and Anders Lindegaard, the latter giving the impression that a Churchillian half-time address had roused the players against Norwich and that the 40-year-old is every bit the mini-Fergie. But if the squad was fully behind him it did little to show it on Saturday.
Giggs, it appears, is not the Messiah. Not even the new manager honeymoon period phenomena came to his aid. This should hardly come as a surprise. His career in a lead role is embryonic, only 180 minutes old. He is a bairn, and like babies and young children, learning occurs through doing, repetition and mistake. Giggs may have the natural talent to become a world-class manager, but he is not yet. How can he be? The problem for United is that at this moment in the club’s history, they simply cannot take a chance on potential or afford for the new permanent coach to make the errors necessary to develop his skills. This applies both to in-game management and player relations and acquisition.
For Giggs himself, learning in the world’s brightest spotlight, under phenomenal pressure from day one, would be an unforgiving and potentially damaging arena in which to take his first baby steps. As Moyes, an experienced manager, found to his cost, Old Trafford is not a place for the meek, under-prepared or under-evolved. The footballing and financial implications of failure are so great in the modern era that imperfections will only be tolerated for so long.
For United, Champions League football is everything and economically the club simply cannot afford to miss the target again. There is no suggestion that Giggs is meek. Indeed, those that know him paint a picture of a man who does not suffer fools and his early interviews and press conferences have portrayed an individual far more at ease with the cameras and penetrative questioning of the assembled hacks than his predecessor. But in terms of his preparation for such a job and the evolution of his skills, he cannot possibly be ready to meet the demands of his prospective bosses and the club’s huge worldwide fan base.
This is not a slight on the man or his professional abilities. Hardly anyone could be prepared at the very start of a new career. In standard business, an office PA will not be appointed Managing Director of a company simply because he or she has witnessed and worked for the previous incumbent for a long period of time. They would have to retrain and work their way up as their new career developed. For United, at this time, in these circumstances, experience is everything. As is gravitas and a strength of character that can only be gained with age and success. Giggs will be grateful to the men who have given him his big chance and, like Moyes before him, will not be in a position to stand up to his bosses and make a stand if necessary. The club needs a man to lead it from top to bottom and wrestle back the ground lost to the executives and directors over the last 12 months. He is not yet that man.
And it is not just Giggs’ lack of experience and standing which casts doubt on his suitability for the role. It should be of serious concern that he is good friends with most of the squad that he would inherit, a squad which needs decimating with a shotgun. It is clear that many of the players with whom he has won countless trophies are no longer up to the task at hand, either due to injury, illness, age, ability or loss of hunger.
Could Giggs make rational decisions about who should go, look them in the eye and tell them that they are no longer good enough footballers and will have to leave the workplace of their dreams? How could he? His early team selections and sound bites have given the game away.
For his first match, he packed the team with those to whom he is closest, with whom he shares a language and/or he has won the most: Evra, Ferdinand, Vidic, Carrick, Cleverley, Rooney, Welbeck, and Jones. On the bench were Young, Fletcher, Smalling and Hernandez. Perhaps the only wildcard in the starting line-up was Kagawa, on the bench Nani. Most notably there were no places for those who could be considered to be Moyes’ players: Mata, a player who Giggs appears not to rate, Januzaj or Fellaini. The latter two did not even make the squad. The interim manager has, quite understandably, fallen back on the players that he knows, is closest to and trusts. Against Sunderland, Mata and Nani were included from the start, but the former was surprisingly withdrawn for Van Persie, the latter for a brief and typically lively Januzaj.
How can a man who has fought, won, lost, celebrated and commiserated, trained, joked and socialised with these men for years make objective decisions about their futures? He can’t. None of us could. His words in the lead up to the Sunderland game gave him away. Of Patrice Evra and Rio Ferdinand he said:
“They’ve both given great service to the club and are both fit so I don’t see why not [that they couldn’t carry on here next season]. It’s a group discussion between Pat, Rio, Ed Woodward and whoever the manager is next season, but I still think they have a lot to offer and they would remain assets to Manchester United. What I do see is plenty of quality at the club.”
Giggs clearly sees the quality that these players and many of his teammates and friends once had, not what they have now. It is almost impossible to make a case for Ferdinand to remain at United past the summer, possibly Evra too. Could he identify and tell the likes of Cleverley, Fletcher, Young, possibly Carrick, Valencia and others that they are no longer wanted at Old Trafford? Prior to the Norwich game he admitted to having not slept for worrying about having to tell players that they hadn’t made the team. He is simply too close to see the woods for the trees. As much as those involved would say otherwise, such decisions will taint friendships and no one wants to hurt those about whom they care.
The pertinent question is, therefore, if now is not his time what should Giggs do to prepare himself for a shot at the top job in future?
The widespread assumption appears to be that he should take a job on Van Gaal’s staff and be groomed to succeed the Dutchman in two to four years’ time, more learning by observation. But this will not hone his leadership skills nor break the relationships which would compromise his thinking. It is extremely rare for a player to take the manager’s job at one of the elite clubs in world football for whom he has played, as their first job, managing players with whom he has played, and be successful. It is incredibly unusual for such a player to be given that opportunity in the first place for the reasons I have outlined.
Since Kenny Dalglish led his friends and teammates to the double in 1986, there are precious few examples of such achievement. The most obvious is, of course, Pep Guardiola, but then he had at least had a year in charge of Barcelona B in the Segunda Liga, fine-tuning his tactical philosophy, learning in-game and man management in a competitive environment.
A study of the world’s leading managerial talents who have been former players at whatever level shows a familiar pattern of failure and moderate success before succeeding in the big time at their second, third, fourth, fifth club or beyond.
Antonio Conte learnt his trade at Arezzo, Bari, Atalanta and Siena, before returning to the love of his life and winning titles with Juventus. Diego Simeone, a legend at Atletico, spent time in charge of Racing (twice), Estudiantes, River Plate, San Lorenzo and Catania, with varying degrees of success, before revitalising his former club and leading them to the top of the Primera Liga and the Champions League final. Milan favourite Carlo Ancelotti led Reggiana, Parma and Juventus before conquering Europe with the Rossoneri.
Even if we look at more modest footballers who have become great managers today, away from the small pond in which they played, we see a familiar pattern. Jose Mourinho, an average Portuguese second-division footballer at best, was fired as Benfica coach before rebuilding his reputation and honing his skills at Uniao de Leiria and conquering Europe with Porto and Inter, England with Chelsea and Spain with Real Madrid. In Germany, Jürgen Klopp enjoyed a modest playing career at Mainz, then a roller-coaster spell as the club’s coach before rebuilding Borussia Dortmund and coming to the attention of the world.
The moral of this story is that managers, like anyone in any job, acquire skills over time and learn by experience, trial and error and mistake. This is why Ole Gunnar Solskjaer should not be written off after the ignominy of relegation with Cardiff, a fate which also befell Klopp at Mainz. Simeone left River Plate bottom of the Argentine league. Where there is talent there will be other opportunities and recovery.
For Ryan Giggs, a far better path from here would be to strike out on his own away from Old Trafford. Practice, acquire vital knowledge and skills out of the intense spotlight in Manchester and, should he prove adept at the job, return as successor to Van Gaal. This is the best path for both the man and the club. He must know that his bond with United is strong enough to endure a period of separation.
It would be a brave move but one which would give him the best chance of success at the club he loves in the long run. Absence does often make the heart grow fonder. United know that they cannot take a chance on a novice, no matter how well regarded. The current state of the club requires an old hand, with a strong footballing philosophy, respect and a giant set of balls, to stand up to the players and executives at United and to make the big decisions with a clear mind. The players at Bayern Munich will testify that Van Gaal has the cojones. He can be a divisive character and there is no such thing as a sure thing in football.
All a club can do is give themselves the best chance possible to achieve their aims. Of the available options, the Dutchman offers that. Those who crave Giggs as manager must be patient, as must he, and if he is brave and strikes out away from the club that he loves, he could return in the relatively near future, take control of a squad from whom he is personally removed and fulfil all of our dreams.