The job of Manchester United is perhaps the most challenging in world football.
Since legendary boss Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down in 2013 the Red Devils have gone through four permanent head coaches before appointing Erik ten Hag ahead of the 2022/23 season.
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Between them, David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, José Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjær and incumbent Ten Hag won two League Cups, a Europa League title and an FA Cup trophy.
However, as Roy Keane once said, a one-game losing streak at the Old Trafford-based club is seen as a crisis. A recent humbling 3-0 loss to rivals and defending champions Manchester City was a milestone moment.
It was the 34th time United lost in England’s top division since Ferguson’s retirement. During his illustrious reign, Man Utd lost that same amount of games.
This has also been a season of unwanted records. For example, Man Utd hadn’t lost eight of the opening 15 games in a season since 1962, and five of their opening 10 games at Old Trafford since 1931, as well as conceding three or more goals in three consecutive games since 1978.
Ten Hag inadvertently has seen his position come under jeopardy though chief executive officer Richard Arnold has backed him and EtH is 5 to 1 to stay with BetVictor.
However, if the Dutchman does get the boot, who are the names in contention to be his successor?
*Odds correct as of 14:30 on November 2
The bookmaker’s favourite is former Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane, who has been a managerial free agent since June 2021 when he wrapped up his second period in charge of the Spanish powerhouse.
He’s since been heavily linked with several posts including Paris Saint-Germain, the French national team and Juventus with Man Utd in the past seemingly interested.
Ten Hag, though, can breathe a small sigh of relief if former comments from the Frenchman still hold.
“When I was a player, I could choose almost every club. As a coach, there aren’t 50 clubs I can go to. There are two or three possibilities. If I go back to a club, it’s to win. I say this in all modesty,” he told L’Equipe in 2022.
“That’s why I can’t go anywhere. For other reasons, too, I might not be able to go everywhere. Which ones? The language, for example. Certain conditions make things more difficult.
“When people say to me: ‘Do you want to go to Manchester?’ I understand English but I don’t fully master it. I know that there are coaches who go to clubs without speaking the language, but I work differently.
“To win, many elements come into play. It’s a global context. Me, I know what I need to win.”
How they could line up
More than anything, Zidane’s man-management skills were lauded, with very few dubbing him a tactician par excellence. That being said, he was able to field a system capable of unleashing his feared attackers while protecting Real’s backline. The most common was a 4-3-1-2 shape which could be utilised with those presently at Man Utd.
In all of these hypothetical lineups Andre Onana, despite a difficult start, will be the first-choice goalkeeper. Rasmus Højlund and Marcus Rashford forge a striking partnership with Mason Mount in the deep-lying forward role. Bruno Fernandes and Christian Eriksen could then play either side of Casemiro who developed into Europe’s premium defensive midfielder under the Frenchman’s leadership.
Any in-season change will most likely be solved with an interim appointment, meaning someone like Julian Nagelsmann could be available in the build-up to next season. Nagelsmann recently agreed to lead Germany’s national team until Euro 2024, which they’ll be hosting, concludes.
Recently the German tactician was a Bundesliga winner as Bayern Munich coach as well as raising RB Leipzig’s profile showing he’s no stranger to managing a super club or utilising a club’s academy.
How they could line up
Nagelsmann is very much a flexible tactician and it was his work in Leipizg that burgeoned his reputation. The re-introduction of back-threes has been one of football’s most curious phenomenons in recent years. Nagelsmann has shown deploying such a system allows his side to defend as well as attack in unison.
Obviously, there needs to be lengthy training ground spells for it to all come together. But here Højlund leads United’s attack with Fernandes and Rashford as the deep-lying forwards. Diogo Dalot and Luke Shaw should perform as wing-backs and Casemiro and Sofyan Amrabat as the hard-working box-to-box central midfield duo.
Onana; Maguire, Varane, Martínez; Dalot, Casemiro, Amrabat, Shaw; Fernandes, Rashford; Højlund (3-4-2-1).
With the exception of Van Gaal and Ten Hag, those who have followed Ferguson had Premier League experience. Before taking on another unenviable task as Chelsea manager Graham Potter was making a name for himself. His work at Östersund was rewarded with positions at Swansea City and Brighton & Hove Albion, during which he showed his strength as a modern manager. It ended painfully at Stamford Bridge and Potter is still unemployed but perhaps that brief period shouldn’t count against him (even though in the eyes of many fans, it definitely will).
How they could line up
Potter is another modern coach who drifted towards a back three but unlike Nagelsmann he opts for a front three. Jadon Sancho, currently frozen, is back from the cold to line up alongside Højlund and Rashford.
Roberto De Zerbi
Potter’s exit from Brighton felt seismic given the progress they were making. However, appointing Roberto De Zerbi has proven to be a masterstroke, with the Italian building on his good work and carrying them forward to another level. It hasn’t gone unnoticed with Pep Guardiola among his many admirers. His name has also been linked with the soon-to-be vacant Real Madrid job. De Zerbi obviously comes with Premier League experience if he ever succeeds Ten Hag and unlike the Dutchman, for now at least, he’s shown the capability of getting the best out of what’s in front of him.
How they could line up
There wouldn’t be a tactical overhaul with a hypothetical De Zerbi reign as he’s another 4-2-3-1 disciple. That leaves him seeking the right personnel to carry out his various on-field tasks. His current Brighton spell might give us some clues.
Onana; Wan-Bissaka, Varane, Maguire, Martinez, Shaw; Casemiro, Eriksen; Fernandes, Mount, Rashford; Højlund (4-2-3-1).