IT’S not fashionable to defend José Mourinho, especially after his poor impression of Ted Rogers on the TV Show, 3-2-1, but is it really so big a crisis at Old Trafford?
Mourinho has the best win rate of any Manchester United manager – 61.48%, a figure that beats even the records of Sir Matt and Sir Alex. But there’s two things that are really agitating Britain’s biggest club – firstly, the team does not play with the joie de vivre that’s expected of United (when did they last display those tendancies?) and secondly, City are the reigning champions. They are still not used to seeing the boot on the other foot and for Mourinho, it irks even more that the man in charge at the Etihad is Pep Guardiola, the patron saint of modern football management. José has lost the battle, no doubt about it, and currently, United are well behind in the PR stakes.
Would United be better off severing their ties now and cutting their losses, or will they see how things develop and let the malady run its course until 2020 when Mourinho’s contract ends? The way the heads were shaking in the luxury seats suggested the Old Trafford grandees are not happy, but they’ve given him a vote of confidence. Out by the end of September, then?
Will a new manager change the club’s fortunes, which all said and done are hardly dire after three games? The sentiment can change quickly, and after all, who will United get in to transform their season? United, and the other big clubs, are running out of candidates, in fact, we are almost at something of a transition among players and managers. We’re arguably coming to the end of a golden spell.
People have been talking about the so-called “three-year syndrome” and Mourinho since the middle of year two. Mourinho watchers have noticed things like his hair cut, his press conferences, his demeanour on the touchline and his interaction with players. Then there’s the subtle and not so subtle comments in the media, presumably aimed at stirring-up the C-suite at the club. It has been seen before and the sceptics start to see Mourinho’s behaviour as the start of an exit plan, a pay-off and a spot of gardening leave before joining another blue riband club. Or maybe he’s just bored.
Some commentators believe Mourinho has lost it, that his “way” has been usurped by the likes of younger men like Guardiola and Klopp. Certainly, among Europe’s top 11 clubs, only Maurizio Sarri (59) is older than Mourinho (55). Guardiola has eight years on his rival across the city of Manchester. Age may not mean a thing, though – Sir Alex Ferguson was 71 when he won his last title in 2013 and Arsene Wenger bowed out at Arsenal at 68, although his last league title was in 2004 when he was 54.
Critics of Wenger’s stubborn longevity claim it stymied Arsenal’s success and the same criticism was aimed at Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest (mostly after the great man’s death). The fact is, every manager has his creative peak and with Wenger that was in his early decade at the club when Arsenal stole a march on the opposition with innovative new ways to run a football team. Brian Clough’s way, taking two provincial clubs to league titles and in Forest’s case, two European Cups, was based on a unique partnership – with Peter Taylor – and an ability to make the best use of the players he had at his disposal. It worked for a while, but no system is effective forever.
It’s worth considering how old some of football’s most successful managers were when they packed their bags. Ferguson and Wenger aside, most go before they’re 65. Busby and Shankly effectively went at 60 and Don Revie left Leeds when he was 47 to manage England. Bill Nicholson, at the age of 55, realised that his time was over and the generation gap had caught up with him. Clough retired at 58 as Forest went down from the Premier. In most cases, their best days were behind them and their “way” no longer functioned.
Mourinho’s “way” has been incredibly successful and in the period between 2003 and 2017, he won eight league titles, four domestic (FA) cups and four European prizes. His last league title was in 2015 with Chelsea and since then, he’s won the Europa League and Football League Cup with United. No matter how “cool” the smiling, ebullient Klopp is, he will have to go a long way to get near Mourinho’s haul as a manager.
Yet Klopp will be one of the managers that straddles the last crop of character actors and the next generation which is yet to fully emerge. Mauricio Pochettino (46) is on everyone’s watch list at the moment, but if he’s going to become a marquee manager, it’s got to happen soon. His high pressing attacking style is very au courant, but he’s still to win a major prize as a manager. Whether he’s able to do that with Tottenham remains to be seen, but increasingly, his name is mentioned whenever a big job comes along. His compatriot, Diego Simeone, is in the same bracket, and has shrugged aside many approaches, only to remain loyal to Atlético Madrid. The danger is, Simeone’s stock may fall and he will look upon the unfulfilled courtships as opportunities lost.
In the right age group and with the appropriate winning mentality is Leonardo Jardim, the Venezuelan currently in charge at Monaco. He was being carefully watched by Chelsea when they were seeking a replacement for Antonio Conte. At just 44, he’s one of the youngest among the group of wanabee galactico managers.
But the real baby in the bunch is Julian Nagelsmann, who is just 31 and still in charge at Hoffenheim. His team finished third in the Bundesliga last season, an improvement of one place on 2016-17, and they’re straight into the group stage of the UEFA Champions League this year. He’s the heir apparent to many big name managers – but not quite yet.
And Zinedine Zidane is out of work and will undoubtedly be among the favourites whenever a top position becomes available. Like the man who walked on the moon, Zidane’s big problem may be how to follow Real Madrid and serial Champions League wins.
When United hired Mourinho they knew what they were getting. They were warned, but they were a little desperate after a very clumsy and unsatisfactory post-Ferguson spell that echoed, to some extent, the period that followed Busby. They wanted success and to a certain degree, they’ve had it, but it should be remembered that United cannot just win, they have to have a certain panache. If there is one club that doesn’t subscribe to the mantra of “win at all costs”, it is United – they’ve had the financial advantage to ensure that didn’t need that to be part of their make-up for decades. And they had Sir Alex Ferguson, of course.
As it stands, if United and Mourinho part company (and they will eventually), they will not necessarily get an instant improvement, or the man they want – unless it is Zidane, Luis Enrique or Laurent Blanc they covet. What would a major corporate do in a comparable situation? The CEO would sit down with his star man (Mourinho) and tell him to change the way he interacts with his staff, alter his strategy and go on a charm offensive. He or she would tell him that his behaviour is not in line with the company’s values, ethos or philosophy. Given Mourinho has one of football’s top jobs, he will surely come round to his employer’s way of thinking. But his “way” will only be accepted if he is truly successful – in other words, he has to win big. In corporate terms, the arsehole bond trader will only be tolerated if he makes money, once the cash dries up, nobody will live with a malign influence.
What is wrong can easily be put right – if the relevant parties want to correct it. At close to 62%, Mourinho’s win-rate is very good – Guardiola’s, at City, is 68.4% which is not so far ahead. United have to avoid the temptation of change for change’s sake, for they may get a more harmonious backroom without Mourinho, but they might not necessarily acquire a more successful manager.
But the three-finger salute that Mourinho brandished as he stormed out of the press conference told us plenty about his current state of mind. He probably regrets it now, for he knows he should rise above it, smile and talk of working hard to overcome a sticky start. After all, isn’t this the job he always wanted?
Photo: Paulo Corceiro CC BY 2.0