THE OLD TRAFFORD politburo has unveiled a monster…and it’s coming over the hill right now. It’s Jose Mourinho, late of West London, Madrid, Milan and Porto, and he’s been tasked with winning something very significant with Manchester United.
Before we go into any wild predictions, this will end in tears, but in the process, United will claw their way back to a respectable position and maybe win a bauble or two. Unless Mourinho has changed – and no amount of smiling, grinning, new hair-cuts and posturing will convince anyone that the leopard has new spots – nobody should look too far beyond a three-year stint.
But let’s be frank, a manager’s lifespan doesn’t often go past that sort of period, so what’s the problem? Clubs talk about “building dynasties”, but we know it is complete hogwash. Mourinho often talks about longevity when he arrives at a club, but he’s too dynamic, too volatile, too impatient to hang around long enough to focus on more than the immediate. He’s not Arsene Wenger and his employers are generally not satisfied with placing corporate stability ahead of football success. For all the noise made about Wenger’s apparent lack of silverware, very little – if any – has come from the boardroom.
Mourinho doesn’t particularly respect Wenger, judging by his comments and body language, but he has always held United in high esteem. He was smart enough to make the right noises with Sir Alex Ferguson when he first came to London, but he never won over the grandees up in the stand. Bobby Charlton, for one, was never a Mourinho fan – perhaps remembering the way he celebrated putting his beloved United out of the Champions League.
United would never have entertained the thought of Mourinho in the past. As when Sir Matt Busby retired, the club went for men that would not out-character the legacy. For Wilf McGuinness and Frank O’Farrell, read David Moyes and Louis van Gaal. And as in the 1970s, when it was realised that two appointments had failed to reignite the club, they have taken a chance. Tommy Docherty was every bit as explosive as Mourinho is today. The “Doc” was a gamble and so is the hiring of Mourinho.
It does demonstrate that United have made a mess of succession and that they are now desperate. Firstly, they missed out on Pep Guardiola, who decided to throw his hat into the Etihad ring. In some ways, Guardiola would have been an ideal fit for United and, arguably, City would have been more suitable for Mourinho. That both managers find themselves in Manchester is going to be tedious, but at the same time, exciting. The next couple of years, should the bout last that long, are going to be about Pep v Mou and not United v City. The local press will be overworked as both managers go head-to-head.
Mourinho was snubbed before by United, but now, he may be seen as the radical, short-term treatment needed to get the club back into a market-leading position. Once they are there, and Mourinho’s tolerance starts to waver, they can select a manager who is more in keeping with their conservative style. Appointing Mourinho, despite the inherent risks, does show a lack of imagination in that it is the same old names circulating the big jobs. At some point, both Emery of Sevilla and Simeone of Atletico are going to be heading to a marque job – but not yet, it would appear.
Arugably, Emery and Simeone have a better future than Mourinho, whose best days may be behind him. Even though he won the Premier title with Chelsea in 2015, when he returned to Stamford Bridge there was some slight oxidisation of the Mourinho legend. The manner of his decline and departure was shabby and disappointing and also the end of his relationship with fans that have always considered him “one of us”. Never go back, they say.
Where the Mourinho creed will be tested is how United shape-up under him and whether the young players that have helped the club through the last year or so will get a fair deal. United, with no small amount of myth, claim they have always been committed to attacking football. True, any club that has had the likes of Best, Law and Charlton, has little choice but to place emphasis on the offensive. Louis van Gaal was criticised for his style and the goals-for column underlines his shortcomings, but will Mourinho be any different?
Mourinho is Helenio Herrera’s illegitimate son when it comes to tactics. It is catenaccio-lite, a system that has been successful for him and his teams. He uses fast wingers that can track back and earn their corn in a defensive role. He demands that his midfielders can defend. And his preference up front is for forwards that put defenders under pressure, such as Didier Drogba and Diego Costa. His teams win ugly when they have to to. Ugly wins don’t often go down well at Old Trafford.
The emergence of a couple of good youngsters was almost Louis van Gaal’s saving grace and Mourinho will find it hard not to bring on the latest great hope for English football, Marcus Rashford. Mourinho is not against including youngsters, but he never appears too convinced. He’s no doubt been promised a purse to rebuild United – although LVG spent a small fortune – and it is not unreasonable to expect the arrival of some big names in the summer. There may be some juice left in the current squad, though, for some LVG hires definitely under-performed in 2015-16.
The fans never seemed to take to LVG and it is difficult to see United’s faithful warm to Mourinho, unless he sets Old Trafford on fire with an exciting brand of football. There’s not many clubs where a manager gets the sack for not playing the right way, but United are probably one of the few that place “how you do it” alongside “what you do”. Let’s not forget that the simmering relationship between Mourinho and his old boss was partly down to style.
It is conceivable that Mourinho may flop miserably. More than ever before, his methods, psyche and personality are all under scrutiny. The parting shot from Stamford Bridge was that there had been “discord” which suggested that he may demand too much of the modern footballer. It worked a decade ago, but in football terms, that was another generation. Connectivity between a 53 year-old and a bunch of 23 year-olds, drawn from different countries and cultures, is not necessarily easy these days. What Mourinho might have expected as acceptable practice in the 2004-07 Chelsea period may not be compatible with the cosmopolitan “workplace” of today. That’s not a criticism of Mourinho, but a reflection of how the world has changed in the past decade. In short, he may have to change.
And that could be where it all unravels. Can Mourinho reinvent himself? Is this a different manager from the one that opposition supporters – including Manchester United fans – despise? There will be a honeymoon, and he’s an intelligent man who will know how to win them over, but no manager has license for too long. If United bore the pants of everyone and Pep’s team pass the opposition to death and rise to the top of the table, Mourinho will have to produce something special. The big question is, will this be the second coming or the final conflict?