Manchester United – Is Gareth Southgate the right choice?


Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s acquisition of 25% of Manchester United and control of the football operations, could lead to a reunion at Old Trafford. His right hand man, Sir Dave Brailsford, is currently being tasked with building the team to take the club forward.

The protracted negotiations to bring Dan Ashworth to the club from Newcastle United as director of football are ongoing. Once they are complete, it may give an insight into what could be next in the dugout. Brailsford and Ashworth have an existing relationship having worked together at the FA, helping oversee the development of English football that we all hope will bring European Championship success this summer. With current boss Erik Ten Hag under pressure and somewhat on trial for the remainder of the season, it stands to reason that the coach in charge of the national team, Gareth Southgate, would be linked as his replacement.

The connection Southgate has with Ashworth in particular would make this a logical move, but despite deserving massive amounts of credit for his work with England, there has to be doubt over his suitability to a club role generally, and specifically one as big as Manchester United.

These days Southgate splits opinion among fans for his perceived conservative tactics and team selections. But there can be no doubts that he has done a remarkable job, replacing Sam Allardyce after he was sacked, just one came into his reign due to a scandal. The national team was at its lowest ebb in recent years after being knocked out of Euro 2016 by Iceland, ending Roy Hodgson’s time in charge. Everything felt so disconnected and there weren’t too many young players emerging.

Fast forward eight years, one World Cup semi-final and one Euros final later, Southgate has helped build a harmonious squad to rival any in recent history, in terms of sheer depth of quality. Although his decisions may not always prove universally popular, it cannot be said that Southgate hasn’t taken responsibility at key moments, and a huge part of the recent success is down to him.

Yet, the harsh reality is that the skillset required for the Red Devils is completely different. Southgate has immersed himself in the FA and grown into the position of manager having been under-21s boss for four years prior. The way he has reconnected fans and players and created a positive culture would be welcomed by Ratcliffe, but the number of managers who have failed since the retirement of Sir, Alex, Ferguson in 2013 means it requires somebody with a much stronger, more forceful personality, let alone more experience.

Club and international management are very different. Southgate was not an obvious choice for the England job, but impressed of the temporary basis and went from strength to strength. His only club experience was at Middlesbrough between 2006 and 2009. At that time, he retired from playing and stepped straight into the job, having not accrued all of his coaching badges. While time has perhaps looked a little bit kinder on his performance, the facts are he oversaw their relegation from the Premier League.

Culture, legacy and identity of things that are important at Manchester United, they are what made Ferguson so successful. But it would be a tall order for Southgate to re-establish the club to former heights, 15 years after he last held a similar position, where pressure on every day working was so intense. And even then it was nowhere near as intense as it will be at Manchester United in the coming years.

It’s easy to forget that Ten Hag, coming from Ajax where he had created such an impressive team, was seen as the necessary step forward in terms of coaching for the future at the club. He was current, successful at the very top and played football in the right way, unlike many of his predecessors.

But he has struggled to impose himself in the same way Jose Mourinho, David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer did. He can still turn it round, but you’ll have to be quick. Whoever is manager of the club next season will need charisma, deep self belief and detailed attacking football identity. It is hard to make a case that Southgate really fits that mould.

Many other top managers are international level, have struggled to succeed in club jobs. Luiz Felipe Scolari, who won the World Cup with Brazil in 2002 and guided Portugal to the final of Euro 2004, most famously struggled at Chelsea, when given the opportunity, because his style did not translate well to every day working. Joachim Löw, Germany’s World Cup winning manager, has not had another job since, either.

It looks increasingly likely that Southgate will leave the England job after Euro 2024 this summer. He will have to reinvent himself with what he does next; perhaps club management is for him, but he has not shown himself yet capable of succeeding a club by Manchester United. Their next move could be the most important.

Author: Mark Hayes