Manchester United have the wrong owners, the wrong person in charge off the pitch, and some of the wrong players. But above all, for the past two and a half years, they had the wrong manager. Jose Mourinho had to go.
I belong to an email group of United fans (mostly Londoners, you won’t be surprised to hear) who let each other know when they have spare tickets going. “Merry Christmas everyone,” the organiser wrote ten days ago. “Will Santa bring us a new manager please?”
Last time this happened, we wondered if we were going to get Mourinho the Winner, who had collected league titles in four different countries, or Mourinho the Whinger, who had gone to pieces in his final months at Chelsea. As it turned out, we got both.
Mourinho the Winner conjured up a couple of trophies in his first season at United, riding his luck to lift the League Cup and Europa League. (The luck lay in the opposing finalists – Southampton and Ajax.) The Europa win opened a back door into the Champions League, where United were found out in a sobering double-header against Sevilla. At home, they rose to second in the Premier League, but they were still miles behind Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, and boring to boot.
Being boring is something United fans can tolerate for the odd game – Alex Ferguson wasn’t above packing his midfield with journeymen and playing for a canny draw – but it won’t do as a policy. Underneath all the glitz and the deals (“Swissquote, official Forex and online financial trading partner of Manchester United”), this famous old club is a simple organisation with only three brand values: success, flair and youth.
Mourinho could argue – and did, ad nauseam, at his dismal press conferences – that he had delivered success in his first two years. But, this season, that went out of the window too. Against the other members of the Premier League’s big six, United have won none, lost three and drew two, scraping two points out of a possible 15. They now stand 19 points behind the league leaders, Liverpool; at the same stage under David Moyes, the hapless heir to Ferguson, United were only eight points off the top. In the League Cup, a competition that Mourinho had once mastered, they lost at home to Derby, from the division below.
Being sacked by Chelsea should have left Mourinho with some humility. Instead, it brought out his arrogance, and his insecurity. Again and again, he made decisions like a man who had lost his nerve. In big games, he would set the team up with five or six at the back, doing the very thing he had once scathingly accused a rival manager of: parking the bus. It never seemed to occur to him that attack might be the best form of defence.
By the end, he was being defensive – ostracising Paul Pogba, who both scores goals and creates them, in favour of three central midfielders who notch one assist every 20 matches – without even managing to defend efficiently. United have conceded more goals in the league this season than Huddersfield Town, who are heading for relegation.
Somewhere along the way from Porto to Salford, Mourinho lost his sense of decency. A decent manager doesn’t react to defeat by naming and blaming the players. A decent manager doesn’t stick a midfielder at centre-back in a big game just to spite the board. A decent manager doesn’t have his team forever passing the ball sideways, advertising their anxiety.
A decent manager doesn’t sign a sulky 29-year-old superstar on £350,000 a week, to play in a position where he already has two bright young things. A decent manager doesn’t take two teenage starlets to Spain for a largely meaningless match and then give them not a minute on the pitch.
And a decent manager doesn’t live in a hotel. Mourinho racked up a £537,000 bill over an 895-night stay in the Lowry, having refused to move his family base away from London or buy a second home in Manchester.
Jose, the serial winner, has lost it. He has become sour and self-absorbed. Results, which used to be his saving grace, are mocking him now. United’s two deepest rivalries are with Man City and Liverpool. At City, the star player, when fit, is a midfield maestro, Kevin de Bruyne; at Liverpool, it’s an unstoppable goal machine, Mohammed Salah. Both played under Mourinho at Chelsea, and he got rid of them. Every goal they make or score now is a fabulous reproach to his dreary pragmatism.
In the email group, most of us are old enough to have seen all this before. After Matt Busby’s long reign ended in 1969, United went through three managers in three years (including Busby himself, recalled as a caretaker). Things got worse before they got better: in 1974, United were relegated to the second division, and their next league championship came a full 25 years after Busby’s first departure.
So my feelings today are mixed. Any delight that Mourinho has gone is tempered by dismay that this keeps happening. It’s like seeing an old friend give up on a bad marriage – you admire her courage, and hope that she’ll find Mr Right next time.
Mr Right is Mauricio Pochettino of Spurs. He’ll bring back the flair and the youth. If the success takes a while, I’ll settle for that.