By Karl Matchett.
The transfer and managerial merry-go-rounds in the Premier League don't usually involve quite as high-profile teams swapping individuals as frequently happens in, say, Italy or France, but there are still occasions when clubs would clearly benefit from knocking on their rivals' doors and attempting to prise away a big name or two.
Manchester United are facing one right now, with the availability of a top coach who is intrinsically linked with a major rival: Jose Mourinho.
United have a boss in place, of course, in Louis van Gaal. All month long, it seems, there have been rumours surrounding the Dutchman's future though and his recent results don't exactly scream improvement. It's now six games without a win in all competitions for the Red Devils, and just three wins in the last 13. In the Premier League alone, van Gaal's men haven't won in four and have dropped out of the Champions League places after back-to-back defeats to two newly promoted clubs, Bournemouth and Norwich City, while in Europe they were knocked out of the UEFA Champions League at the group stage too.
All in all, it makes for shambolic reading for a club who have spent so heavily over the last two seasons and, despite van Gaal's complaints to the media in his recent press conference, there can be no surprise or disappointment from the former Bayern Munich manager that negative headlines have come his way.
As for the club, it must be clear to them by now that the current squad, led by the current manager, is not going to challenge for the title this season. They are nine points off top spot despite holding the joint-best defensive record in the top flight this term; simply put, United do not attack with enough authority, belief or creativity to suggest they are particularly good.
Firing and replacing a manager mid-season is not usually something which outsiders from any club would see as a positive, but this is an unusual set of circumstances.
United should be cruising inside the top four, yet are on the fringes. Their main rivals-Chelsea and Manchester City-are performing below-par, the former by some distance, allowing Arsenal to emerge as a serious threat to the title almost by defaultÂ…and even they trail behind surprise package Leicester City. On top of that, there is the immediate and absolute availability of one of the top managers in world football in Mourinho.
Any under-performing coach will now be facing extra scrutiny with the former Chelsea manager's recent appearance on the free agent market, but with United an extra layer of history and intrigue is added. It was widely thought that Mourinho might make the move to Manchester last time he returned to England, before his former London club came calling. It's tough to imagine that he might ever return there a third time after they failed to hold faith in him, and the Portuguese tactician has already indicated he wants a quick return to management.
Mourinho commands huge respect in English football, from players and coaches alike, even after the awful run of this season at Chelsea. Were he to step into Old Trafford as the manager in the next few weeks, there would be an expectancy of an immediate turnaround in fortunes, and there is little to suggest that he wouldn't provide it.
Chelsea's players were almost in open revolt against him; United's have yielded more than one or two murmurings and rumours that they are unhappy with van Gaal's regime. Of course they would jump at the chance to play under Mourinho, and doubtless give everything for him to find favour in what would, within a year, no doubt be a successful team.
The sticking point of when to make such a change is a tough balancing act. Van Gaal's recent run of results is almost reason enough, but the Christmas run is a tough time to make changes, given there are so many matches. The end of the calendar year provides a natural break point-and a poignant fixture.
United face Stoke City away, then Chelsea-Mourinho's former club-before 2015 is out. Given those two games, van Gaal can claw back points both in the league table and among the supporters if he provides entertainment and victoriesÂ…but anything less against what are currently two more bottom-half teams will surely mean the end.
Three wins from 15 games-four from 17, dating back to the hammering taken against Arsenal in early October-would surely be too long a poor run to keep faith with, and each passing week without making a move opens up the possibility that Mourinho is snatched up by another, more proactive club.Â
United have missed their chance to take Mourinho to Old Trafford once before already, they surely can't pass up the opportunity a second time.
Nine points is a sizeable gap to the top, but teams have come from further back to lift trophies. If United make their move soon, they'll still be in with a chance of winning the title this year; under Van Gaal, it's hard to imagine they'll get anywhere close, and even the top four isn't a sure thing.