Manchester United's pursuit of Thomas Tuchel suggests a club uncertain of the way forward (2024)

It would never have lasted of course. Thomas Tuchel at Manchester United? Not a chance. A year? Two at a stretch? It would have been doomed from the start. The only surprise is that talks progressed as far as they did.

Better for things to fall apart now, really. Better than 12 or even 18 months down the line, as usually happens in such cases.


But seriously, what a mess. Wasn’t this meant to be the start of a new era of enlightened thinking at United under Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s leadership?

Instead, they have found themselves oscillating in their thinking between candidates as varied as Roberto De Zerbi, Mauricio Pochettino, Gareth Southgate and Tuchel, while poor Erik ten Hag, an FA Cup winner two weeks ago, is left out to dry — and then, having stepped up talks with Tuchel over the past few days, they predictably failed to find common ground with him.

Tuchel’s position is that he wants to take a break after an exhausting spell at Bayern, while United are continuing to explore their options. But the mood music could hardly be more ominous for Ten Hag asthe club’s end-of-season review drags into a third week and a state of confusion grows.

When Ratcliffe completed his 25 per cent investment in February, he told reporters the only way to restore United to pre-eminence was to “find the best people in the world and make sure they have the right character and personality that they can work positively in a structure”.

There are no qualms about the first part where Tuchel is concerned; he is widely recognised as one of the game’s leading coaches. But “working positively in a structure” is something he has struggled with.

Sympathy comes easily enough amid the dysfunction that has persisted at both Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea and the internal politics that are a fact of life at Bayern Munich, but Tuchel’s experiences across a variety of clubs point to an abrasive edge at odds with the collegial approach that Ratcliffe has trumpeted as fundamental to the new regime at Old Trafford.

Tuchel lasted two years in charge of Borussia Dortmund, two-and-a-half years at PSG, 19 months at Chelsea, and 14 months at Bayern. At all four of those clubs, he left under a cloud, with strained relationships in either the boardroom or the dressing room — or both.

Ratcliffe has identified the biggest problem at United over the 11 years since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement as one of “environment” rather than the coaching ability of the various managers who have come and gone.

Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Ralf Rangnick and Ten Hag would all agree with that. With the exception of Rangnick, all reached a certain point where they felt able to declare they had gone a long way towards improving that environment and dressing-room mindset. But Ten Hag has been the latest to find that the uplift never lasts long.


That is precisely the boom-and-bust approach United have seemed determined to get away from, the type that left them convinced of the merits of Van Gaal, Mourinho and Ten Hag after 12 to 18 months but not for much longer. So how did they end up going so far down the line with a coach whose previous two jobs, at Chelsea and Bayern, unravelled quickly amid great distrust on both sides?

It looks like precisely the type of reactive appointment United’s former executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward might have made in December 2018 or November 2021, if only Tuchel had been on the market at the time.

And hypothesising further, Tuchel would have come in — whether then or now — and immediately brought new energy, ideas, intensity and tactical discipline. And results would have improved for a time, just as they did under Van Gaal, Mourinho, Solskjaer and Ten Hag.

And then, just as surely, the relationship would have become strained, the mood would have soured, results would have nosedived and he would have been sacked, just as Van Gaal was, as Mourinho was, as Solskjaer was, as Ten Hag now appears almost certain to be.

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It is as if Ratcliffe, Sir Dave Brailsford and the rest of the new regime have surveyed the market and decided that the progressive, unifying, galvanising, inspiring manager they want right now — a manager for all seasons, short-term and long-term — just isn’t out there. Or that if he is, they must have reservations about appointing him.

De Zerbi? An excellent coach again, but one Liverpool overlooked (along with Tuchel) in part because they feared he was too combustible to work within their structure. The rancour and discord that suggested he too would be an unlikely fit for the new regime at United. And still, he is one of the names under consideration.

Manchester United's pursuit of Thomas Tuchel suggests a club uncertain of the way forward (3)

(Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)

There are members of the United hierarchy who have given serious consideration to Southgate, who comes from the other end of the managerial spectrum to De Zerbi.

In nearly eight years in charge of England, he has excelled in the type of “environment” management Ratcliffe and Brailsford hold dear, but doubts persist about whether he is an elite-level coach with the steely single-mindedness that would be needed, week in and week out, to drag United back to the summit of English or European football.

Beyond all that, there are the obvious complications involved with trying to appoint the England manager, particularly with Euro 2024 about to begin. A move for Southgate looks a non-starter, but not out of a lack of regard for him.

Even to consider such contrasting figures as Southgate and De Zerbi, before ending up in deep negotiations with Tuchel, suggests a severe lack of clarity on the part of Ratcliffe and co — as if the only certainty in their minds is that they want rid of Ten Hag.

And even that has been thrown into a degree of doubt since the victory over Manchester City in the FA Cup final.

Manchester United's pursuit of Thomas Tuchel suggests a club uncertain of the way forward (4)

Tuchel was at Old Trafford in the Champions League last December (Michael Regan – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

Ratcliffe said in February that when it came to the football strategy: “We’ll decide that style — plus the CEO, sporting director, probably the recruitment guys — what the style of football is, and that will be the Manchester United style of football and the coach will have to play that style.”

It is very easy to imagine that Tuchel, after his experiences at PSG, Chelsea and Dortmund, might have been unimpressed by that idea. But so would De Zerbi. And the fact that those two have ended up on the same shortlist as each other, never mind the interest some in the hierarchy hold in Southgate, suggests the club’s long-term vision is still as blurred as it has been for the past decade and more.


The whole thing looks so confused, not helped by the fact that Dan Ashworth, having accepted an offer to become their new director of football, is now on his fourth month of gardening leave at Newcastle United, with the two clubs yet to agree a compensation package.

The more you look at the range of candidates under consideration to take over from Ten Hag, the more it seems they haven’t settled on a football strategy at all.

Another thing Ratcliffe said in February was that he was determined to “walk to the right solution” rather than run to the wrong one. Sensible words indeed, but four months later, there still seems a lack of clarity of what he is looking for in a new manager, never mind who.

The only thing they seem to have worked out by this stage is that they want a change.

Strange, really, because the longer this goes on, the more it feels as if continuity with Ten Hag might be their best bet until they have worked out their way forward. Whether he would be open to a stay of execution, as this unedifying process drags on, is another question entirely.

(Top photo: Mika Volkmann/Getty Images)

Manchester United's pursuit of Thomas Tuchel suggests a club uncertain of the way forward (5)Manchester United's pursuit of Thomas Tuchel suggests a club uncertain of the way forward (6)

Before joining The Athletic as a senior writer in 2019, Oliver Kay spent 19 years working for The Times, the last ten of them as chief football correspondent. He is the author of the award-winning book Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty, Football’s Lost Genius. Follow Oliver on Twitter @OliverKay

Manchester United's pursuit of Thomas Tuchel suggests a club uncertain of the way forward (2024)


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