It’s time for the bad news but let’s turn our eyes first to that night in May when it was all shiny and pleasing for Manchester United and Jose Mourinho. Fresh from their Europa League triumph, the players and coach were quick to lay down a marker. In Mourinhospeak, that means potshots.
Even in a happy moment, the manager predictably denounced those who had failed to land silverware. The United head coach won two trophies that season while his prime challengers — namely Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and, to an extent, Mauricio Pochettino — were left empty-handed. Mourinho was quick to remind the world, “there are lots of poets in football, the poets don’t win many titles, we knew where they were better than us, and us better than them.”
Of course, managers say many things and it would be tiresome if we were to pick apart every word that comes out from their gob. But the above utterance by Mourinho was a matter of conviction. The now ex-United manager has built a career on reneging the vows he took as a coach at Barcelona in the 1990s. A proactive style is his favoured enemy, and his considerable success is supposed to be an argument against that kind of football.
It is ironic too that Mourinho now finds himself without a job that he once coveted much, after a match in which his tactics found slight vindication. United’s equaliser against Liverpool was provoked by an error on the goalkeeper’s part – a crude example of that famous maxim by Mourinho, ‘Whoever has the ball is more likely to make a mistake.’ But as the match went on to prove, and indeed this season has shown in starker terms than before, it is the football of Klopp, Guardiola, Pochettino, and Sarri that is a more persuasive force for victory.
The problem for Mourinho is not that he failed, rather that he increasingly seems to be a yesterday’s man. His pragmatism has locked him up. Mourinho today is a coach who offers rehearsed answers to questions that are new. It is not that his ideas are obsolete; the history of tactics is cyclical, and not linear. But Mourinho’s crisis is that his ability to do the things he always did well are on the wane.
The Portuguese coach’s successful clubs were known to build from an unforgiving defence that had players assimilating his ideas and putting them into practice as if they were their own. When he first arrived in England, Mourinho’s Chelsea side was made up of defenders who went on to become pillars of the squad. He liked working with relatively smaller squads and rotating only when necessary. As Mourinho made 53 changes in 17 league games this season, that much-prized stability was difficult to find anywhere on the pitch.
Perhaps, it could have turned out differently if the manager had been given the defenders of his choice in the summer. United extended Mourinho’s contract to 2020 this January but only six months later, the club had lost confidence in him. Chief Executive Ed Woodward preferred to sign younger defenders with high resale value, not proven players who could offer only two-three seasons at most. That would have been a reasonable move if the club was looking to build a team for the long-term with the manager in place; not when the head coach Mourinho, who has a history of temporary success, was asked to produce immediate rewards.
As it so often happens with him, the bus crashed in the manager’s third season at the club. He could no longer park it and the defence leaked goals without any solution in sight. United could have allowed Mourinho to have his way in the January transfer window but the tension at the club became too much to bear. So five months before David Moyes’ initial contract at United was supposed to end, a stiff severance package for Mourinho was deemed necessary.
Importantly, the manager becomes another expensive casualty in a long line of damaging moves for United. Since 2005, when the Glazer family took ownership of the club, heavy debts have lined the finances. The success in Alex Ferguson’s later years kept the difficult questions at bay but his departure broke the bulwark. Poor administrative practices finally had their say. There can be questions over the work of David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, and even Mourinho, but nobody should blame them severely for the ruinous position that United finds itself in.
It’s clear now that Ed Woodward is a byword for inept leadership. After ensuring that the club was poorer by a billion pounds as part of the takeover by Glazers, Woodward has gone on to show why bankers today are considered to be of dubious standing. His lack of depth is stunning, revealed by the absence of direction in his transfer dealings and recruitment of the coaching staff. Moyes, van Gaal, and Mourinho are three very different managers and yet they were hired in a sequence that has left United with a squad ill-equipped to achieve its objectives.
A new manager is not going to clear the mess anytime soon. The likely prospect now is that he will be someone who is willing to cooperate with a Director of Football, whenever the belated appointment is made. In theory, the arrival of the latter should help United in directing its focus. But the track record at the club does not inspire confidence.
And what of the current squad? Mourinho botched the job but it is difficult to believe that this team would do better than fight in a race for the Champions League spots. That challenge was obviously beyond Mourinho this season. But a miraculous return to form is not in the offing. The likes of Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku may find it difficult to recover their A-game and confidence swiftly.
For Mourinho, though, it is a moment of truth. Despite the questionable running of the club by the owners and their henchmen, he failed to deflect the attention from himself. It is unlikely that he will take note but it should serve as a lesson to Mourinho that it helps to keep the players on your side. Just look at Rafael Benitez at Newcastle United whose team has punched above its weight yet again; the fans reserve their harsh words only for the owner Mike Ashley. Even Mauricio Pochettino has put the negativity of the summer behind to lead Spurs admirably. A positive relationship with the players can alleviate short-term concerns.
Perhaps, Mourinho will learn that there is middle ground between utmost loyalty and total disdain. But sadly, he tends to like poison a bit too much. His venomous tirades now only chafe, having lost their strain of humour. Tactically, he finds himself at odds with the world that he would dearly love to inhabit. Mourinho’s place among the elite football managers is no longer secure. His pragmatism, coupled with the club’s risk-averse bungling, is the story of the latest crisis at United.
In the long run, this tenure will be a blot on Mourinho’s CV. For United, though, the whole ink bottle has spilt now. The club, after all, already had more than its share of red marks thanks to the Glazers and Woodward. In this moment, both United and Mourinho seem irredeemable but the club hierarchy’s reputation cannot be salvaged even by a few trophies.
The road towards redemption for United should begin with Woodward’s immediate departure. But it is difficult to foresee even that happening. United’s refusal to change tack despite repeated failures is a familiar failing. Another manager will come in but the results are unlikely to improve dramatically if clueless administrators continue to steer this ship. The rosy summer of 2017 will remain a distant feeling for United for some time to come. Now, it is the poets who hum the sweet tunes while the Philistines live a prosaic drama.
Priyansh is an independent writer in New Delhi. He tweets @GarrulousBoy.
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Updated Date: Dec 18, 2018 21:18 PM