I’m not a Manchester United fan. But I did truly enjoy watching the team from a nonpartisan perspective during the Alex Ferguson years. Under Sir Alex, the Red Devils played with unity and purpose. They kept a tight ship in back, while pushing forward and attacking on the offensive end. It may not have been quite as free-flowing and aesthetically beautiful as Arsenal, Barcelona, or the Brazilian national team, but it was still extremely fun to watch.
Now, of course, not so much. I don’t root against many managers. Mourinho, though, is an exception, with his misery, negativity, spitefulness, smugness, meanness, ridiculous excuses (that simply defy reality), outdated tactics, petty mind games in the press, unhappy players, and refusal to adopt a more positive approach both on and off the pitch. I’m overjoyed to see him go. Good riddance, and don’t let the door hit you in the heiney on the way out.
How did Manchester United get to this low point, and what needs to change for things to turn around?
What Set the Stage for Mourinho at Manchester United?
Jose Mourinho has not brought Manchester United to its current predicament in a vacuum. The stage was set before his arrival, with a long-running set of fulfilling dramatic blockbuster performances inspired under a brilliant impresario followed by a sharp turn toward a tragi-comic miniseries of errors.
David Moyes (2013-14)
Once Ferguson (and much of his aging staff) had retired, things went downhill fast, practically falling off the cliff. Following the title-winning send-off for the legendary skipper, Ferguson’s hand-picked replacement, David Moyes from Everton, instantly appeared to be in over his head. Things looked rocky from the start, when the brass infamously overpaid for Marouane Fellaini while failing to bring over fellow Toffee Leighton Baines alongside him.
In the winter transfer window, the Red Devils shelled out over £40m for Chelsea star playmaker Juan Mata who had languished under the Blues’ new manager Jose Mourinho (clearly an unheeded warning sign in retrospect), while the team still featured the likes of Wayne Rooney, Robin Van Persie, Michael Carrick, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra. But those stars couldn’t do enough to save Moyes’ job (or keep caretaker manager Ryan Giggs around), as the team plummeted to the unthinkable spot of 7th place.
Ironically, hindsight makes that post-title drop in form look like the new normal. Perhaps Moyes deserved more time to make the team truly his own, and maybe Sir Alex’s achievements were even more miraculous than described in the heaps of praise he already earns.
Louis Van Gaal (2014-16)
Louis Van Gaal followed, but despite being given an open pocketbook in the transfer market, he supercharged the team’s recent pattern of inability to develop and mold expensive talent into a cohesive, successful unit. (He also began the staple of dour condescension.) Patrice Evra, Shinji Kagawa and Danny Welbeck were among the departures in 2014-15, but the team spent far, far more bringing in the likes of winger Angel Di Maria (£67.5m), midfielder Ander Herrera (£32.4m), and defenders Luke Shaw (£33.8), Marcos Rojo (£18m) and Daley Blind (£15.8m). With Di Maria being the league’s most expensive transfer (actually ahead of Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez and Chelsea’s Diego Costa), Manchester United accounted for three of the EPL’s five costliest buys. While there was no title challenge, at least things seemed to be turning around with a 4th place finish, securing automatic Champions League qualification.
In the off-season, the dynamic but ill-fitting Di Maria was jettisoned quickly, leaving along with Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Jonny Evans, and Robin Van Persie. But again, Van Gaal attracted expensive reinforcements in the form of wingers Anthony Martial (£54m) and Memphis Depay (£30.6) along with midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin (£31.5) and defender Matteo Darmian (£16.2). However, things took a tumble in 2015-16, with banishment to Europa league from a 5th place finish, and Van Gaal was unceremoniously sacked.
To whom did Manchester United turn after Van Gaal? Did they go in another direction as Liverpool had in 2015 by hiring the young, energetic Jurgen Klopp from Borussia Dortmund after Brendan Rodgers was let go? Or perhaps try to lure someone like Pep Guardiola as Manchester City had been able to mid-season? Did the Red Devils go after Mauricio Pochettino when his contract at Tottenham ran out? No, instead they chose someone featuring a similar air as Van Gaal: the confident, worldly, haughty Jose Mourinho who had worn out his welcome at Chelsea following a dreadful performance to start the 2015-16 season, a seemingly shocking aberration since he had just won the 2014-15 title in adding to a truly impressive trophy case.
What Might Explain or Excuse Mourinho’s Failures at United?
Mourinho did not inherit a title-winning team as Moyes had. Things were not handed to him on a silver platter in that respect. An argument can be made that he was set up for failure. Of course, there is the counterpoint that while much was expected, Mourinho was given plenty of resources and support, so he should have been able to deliver much, much more. Let’s take a look at some possible explanations or excuses, and whether they hold water or not.
Has Jose Mourinho Been Given Enough Time?
It famously took Ferguson seven seasons to win his first domestic title. Klopp has not yet finished higher than 4th in any of his three seasons, and Pochettino has done no better than 2nd in his four tries.
On the other end, Antonio Conte and Carlo Ancellotti each won the Premier League crown in their first years with Chelsea, as did Manuel Pellegrini with Manchester City and Claudio Ranieri with Leicester. Arsene Wenger took the title in his second season at Arsenal, and Pep Guardiola recently has done likewise for the Sky Blues. Roberto Mancini grabbed the crown in his third season with the Citizens.
As for Mourinho himself, he won in his first and second seasons at Chelsea, then later again in the second season of his second tenure. Given Mou’s own track record, he was not supposed to need too much time. This is Manchester United, a true global mega-club, winner of 13 Premier League titles, and boasting the infrastructure and ambition to match. Neither Liverpool nor Tottenham have ever won an EPL crown, so comparisons to Klopp or Pochettino are unfair from that perspective.
The verdict: Yes. Mourinho has had plenty of time.
Is it That Players Want to Go to London, Not a Less Cosmopolitan City?
When Neymar ventured to Ligue 1, he didn’t go to Monaco or Nice, he went to Paris-St. Germain. When Gareth Bale and Philippe Coutinho departed for Spain, they didn’t pick Sevilla or Villareal, they chose Real Madrid and Barcelona, respectively.
Is it the same in England? Is only “London Calling,” or are things more egalitarian? Well, look at some recent big transfers. Riyad Mahrez went from Leicester to Manchester. Alexis Sanchez went from London (Arsenal) to Manchester.
The one that really stands out to me is thinking back to when there were rumors of Zlatan Ibrahimovic leaving PSG. After all, he was one of the biggest global footballing superstars, a true character and personality. Didn’t he need a worldly, metropolitan city like London? Not at all, he was ecstatic going to Manchester United, where his massive brand and personal happiness didn’t seem to suffer in the slightest.
The verdict: No. World-class players clearly love the lure of Manchester.
Has Mourinho Been Given Enough Support Bringing in Top Players?
Jose Mourinho has complained about not being able to bring in top players this past summer, but before we get to that, let’s start at the beginning of his tenure. In 2016-17, Manchester United paid the most money ever for a transfer to that point (£94.5) to acquire midfielder Paul Pogba from Juventus. By comparison, the 2nd most expensive transfer in the Premiership that season was John Stones who went to Manchester City for £50m. Manchester United in total featured three players in the top 10 with respect to cost, also adding midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan (#5 at £37.8m) and defender Eric Bailly (#9 at £34.2m). On top of that, the aforementioned Ibrahimovic joined on a free transfer.
In 2017-18, Manchester United didn’t break the all-time transfer record, but again boasted the most expensive transfer in the league with forward Romelu Lukaku (£76.2m) from Everton. After that, the Red Devils also brought in defensive midfielder Nemanja Matic (#11 at £40.2m) from Chelsea and defender Eric Lindelof (#18 at £31.5m) from Benfica at prices that few if any would consider chopped liver. On top of that, Alexis Sanchez came in via a swap deal with Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the winter window, and it was universally agreed that the Red Devils got the better of that one with respect to talent. (Notably, Micki was frozen out under Mou, failing to develop, which brought back memories of Mata at Chelsea.)
Mourinho may have a bit of a point in that Manchester United failed to again bring in three or four top-dollar players in the summer of 2018 as they had done for him in each of the prior two seasons. But he really shouldn't neglect to mention midfielder Fred (£53m) who was the fifth-highest priced transfer in the league, and defender Diogo Dalot (£22m) from Porto was not exactly bought for peanuts. Comparatively, Arsenal’s highest-priced addition for new manager Unai Emery was Lucas Torreiro at only £27m, while Tottenham Hotspur actually literally did not bring in anybody for Mauricio Pocchetino.
Did Pochettino complain about not being given reinforcements? Did he whine about the transfer rumors linking Toby Alderweireld and Dany Rose to outside clubs? No, not at all, he stayed mum. Why? He knew that he needed the current players in the squad to step up and perform, along with Alderweireld and Rose following the close of the outgoing transfer window. If Pochettino complained, he would have made them look bad and risk them losing confidence. It’s basic, supportive man management.
Despite the additions of Fred and Dalot, Mourinho ranted and raved about the lack of support from the executive side in bringing in transfers, particularly in central defense. Is it any wonder that the central defenders have played poorly, looking tentative and unsure this season? Or that Fred has failed to become an integral part of the XI?
There’s something to be said for shelling out money in buying big-name players while also splashing the cash to invest in promising youngsters. But what’s the point if the manager can’t fit top stars into his scheme, instill confidence, mold unity, and develop fresh talent from within and outside of the organization?
The verdict: Yes. The brass has spent lavishly for Mou, but unwisely and/or ineffectively.
Are Modern Players Too Soft for Mourinho’s Old School Management Approach?
There was an absolutely amazing movie that came out to wide plaudits several years ago called Whiplash (written and directed by Damien Chazelle of La La Land and First Man fame). At the center of the core are a couple of a fundamental questions. How do you get the best out of a student? And as a teacher or student, is a successful result worth any cost?
Most of us wrestle with those questions — from both sides — before finding the answer. They even take different forms. What kind of co-worker or boss should I be? What type of husband or wife, boyfriend or girlfriend do I want to be? How should I act toward my friends? What cost comes with the success I want for myself and others close to me? And am I willing to pay that price, or can I find something close — or possibly even better — via a different avenue?
If you or your son/brother/cousin/friend were a young, top football talent who wanted to play in the Premier League, what kind of coach would you want? Would you want to play for Jose Mourinho, who surely is not an exact carbon copy of the Oscar-winning J. K. Simmons teacher character from Whiplash, but neither does he seem entirely unlike him? Prodding, needling, berating, dominating, shaming, condescending, constantly trying to toughen you up.
Or would you want to play for Guardiola, Klopp or Pochettino? Now surely those managers can be rough at times, it’s not going to be a cake walk, but fundamentally they all seem supportive. When they smile and hug a player, it looks to be with genuine joy, as if they are saying, “Wonderful, I’m proud of you, what a great performance!”. With Mourinho, it merely seems wry and condescending, more along the lines of “You finally listened to me! See what happens when you aren’t stupid?” When Guardiola, Klopp and Pochettino instruct, it appears that they truly want you to learn and grow; when Mou teaches, it looks as if he only wants to show who’s boss, to scold, to put you in the corner with a dunce cap and see how you react.
Who doesn’t want to be inspired? As fans, we spend countless hours watching adults play what is called a child’s game, because our favorite players and chosen teams inspire us. It’s impossible to imagine the constant pressures and stresses — physical and mental — put upon those stars. Why wouldn’t they want to play for a manager who likewise inspires them? A coach who delights in bringing out the players’ magic in order to craft a winning squad of individual talents that together make each other better? Not a boot-camp drill sergeant who demands winning first, subjugating their talents and creating a lifeless, single-minded, assembly line atmosphere?
It’s not the 1960s — or even the early 2010s — anymore. Social and professional attitudes have changed significantly, particularly recently with respect to how people expect to be treated in the workplace. It seems quite evident that you can get the best out of players when you teach them how to play together in an effective system, and how to improve individually and as a team, rather than by treating them disdainfully, even cruelly, in an attempt to toughen them up under a constant siege mentality. Yes, the best, most creative, most ambitious players want to be challenged, but they also want to play for a fundamentally supportive manager.
Name a Manchester United player, and chances are that he has been in the doghouse, subject of line-up benching as well as public scorn from Mourinho, at some time or other. Eric Bailly, Phil Jones, Anthony Martial, Alexis Sanchez and Luke Shaw come to mind easily, but the Paul Pogba situation has obviously stood out as the incredibly bizarre, monumentally mind-boggling freeze-out this season.
The Pogba and Mourinho feud has been great for selling fish wrap, but it makes no sense in terms of man management, team unity, or ultimately success for all parties involved. Pogba was brought in under Mourinho, and the expensive midfielder was supposed to become the best player and team leader for the Red Devils, the next David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, or Paul Scholes. Instead of nurturing that relationship and spurring the French star on to greater things to benefit Manchester United, Mou instead seems to have been more interested in showing who’s boss and asserting his dominance. After Pogba won the World Cup with France, Mourinho could have congratulated his star with joy and used that international success as a springboard for his domestic side. Instead, it was as if Mou took that as a threat to the pecking order, choosing to lash out in alpha male fashion. Maybe that would have worked years ago, but not now.
The verdict: Yes. The times have changed, leaving Mourinho behind.
Have Mourinho’s Tactics Fallen Behind the Modern Game?
Mourinho has been known as a defensive tactician, and his squads have certainly been sound on that end. But that defense-first reputation hasn’t always been completely fair. It’s not that Mourinho’s teams don’t score goals; they do. Or at least they used to. In 2013-14, Chelsea conceded the fewest goals in the Premiership while scoring 71, the third-most. In 2014-15, the Blues again allowed the fewest scores, while managing the second-most on the offensive end (73). Sure, it may have been a defense-first credo, but it was not defense-only. There was plenty of joy on the offensive end.
However, those disparities have widened considerably at Manchester, leaving a well-earned defense-only reputation. In 2016-17 the Red Devils conceded the second-fewest goals, but managed only 54 scores, 8th-most in the league (fewer than Everton and Bournemouth, among others). Last season that tally ticked up to 68 goals, but was only fifth-most (while again allowing the second-fewest). The other teams ahead: Manchster City (106), Liverpool (84), Tottenham (74) and Arsenal (74).
The Manchester United team does not lack for offensive starpower, featuring Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez, Jesse Lingard, Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial, Juan Mata, et al. These are highly respected stars, most of whom commanded extremely high transfer fees and earn astronomical salaries.
Guardiola has instituted his tiki-taka Blitzkrieg hybrid, Klopp has developed a heavy metal gegenpress, and Pochettino has molded a high line-based surgical strike force. They are sound at the back, but the effectiveness of their defenses is in no small part a result of the amount of time their offenses enjoy on the ball, combined with the constant pressure they exert on other teams in their end. In contrast, Mourinho has simply not been able to craft a truly dangerous, world class offensive unit, which has often (at least recently) left him grumbling about his defense.
This season has seen some truly bizarre defensive Red Devils line-ups as Mourinho’s confidence has turned to desperation. The one that stands out the most is periodically deviating from his standard back four line-up with two central defenders, despite having a wealth of options at the position (Eric Bailly, Phil Jones, Victor Lindelöf, Marcos Rojo, and Chris Smalling). The first two times, he quixotically used a midfielder in central defense (Ander Herrera against Tottenham in Week 3, and Scott McTominay at West Ham in Week 7). If it works, it’s brilliant, of course. But predictably, it turned disastrous (a 3-0 defeat to Spurs, and a 3-1 loss to the Hammers). Stubbornly, Mourinho failed to field two central defenders again in Week 14 at Southampton, bizarrely utilizing a back three instead as Phil Jones was largely isolated with some cover from midfielders McTominay and Nemanja Matic; the result was a let-down 2-2 draw. (Adding insult to injury, Southampton boss Mark Hughes was sacked the day after a home draw against Mourinho and “mighty” Manchester United!)
Even when not oddly using midfielders out of position, Mourinho has tried various combinations of defenders in the back, unable to find the right mix. Of course, the constant mad tinkering has surely only added to the problem, erasing the confidence and any sense of continuity of all parties involved.
While unexpectedly falling off the cliff on defense (from 0.7 goals per game conceded last season up to 1.7 gpg this season), things have only dipped slightly in terms of offensive production (from 1.8 gpg scored down to 1.7 gpg). But that still leaves them on a different planet than Manchester City (2.8 gpg scored), and behind Arsenal and Liverpool (2.2 each), Chelsea (2.1 gpg), and Spurs (1.8 gpg). (Those teams also all boast significantly better defenses, of course.)
For a while, Martial and Rashford struggled to get playing time. Then it was Alexis and Lukaku who fell out of favor. (Alexis, Lingard, Lukaku, and Martial have also missed chunks of time due to injury, but that has not been unusual for the top teams; Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, and Sergio Aguero at Manchester City, or Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Son Heung-min at Spurs, come to mind.) When watching, it can be maddenintly difficult to pick out a true identity, cohesion and purpose in attack.
It just seems that the Red Devils, under Mourinho, cannot boast both a solid defense and a strong offense simultaneously. Is the squad full of ill-fitting parts? Or has Mourinho simply been unable to implement a unified system designed to get the best out of them? I think we know the answer to that question.
Sometimes change seems slow, while at other times it comes suddenly. These past few years in the sporting world have seen intense technological development and innovation, practically bringing a revolution to the Premier League. Adapt or die, right?
The verdict: Yes. The game has advanced, and Mourinho has not adapted to it.
Is it a Manchester United Problem Rather Than a Mourinho Problem?
Moyes could not deliver. Van Gaal could not bring the end product. Now Mourinho has failed as well. What do all three experiences have in common? The Manchester United back-office brass. Plenty of spending, but much of it fruitless. Loads of ambition, but nowhere near the matching results. Three managers hired, three managers fired in relatively short order. So is it a fundamental problem with the Glazers, Ed Woodward and the rest of the check writers and decision makers who have been responsible for picking the manager and having final say on how much to spend on what players to buy?
It is difficult to say for certain just yet, but it could well be. It easily may be that these problems developed toward the end of Ferguson’s reign, but the institutional control he had, the staff he assembled, and his combination of managerial and tactical greatness were able to cope with whatever issues existed in the boardroom. If the next manager is an uninspired, more-of-the-same choice, that will certainly prove a systemic problem from the top, especially since United have announced that the next manager will work under a technical director — meaning less autonomy to fail or succeed. Instead, if the next coach is an exciting hire more along the lines of Guardiola / Klopp / Pochettino, then we will have our answer depending on how things turn out. Indeed, Pochettino’s star is rising — he seems to be linked to every new opening (or possible opening) at the big global clubs — and he already works under a director of sorts.
But the simple fact that Guardiola, Klopp and Pochettino have all gotten their teams pointed in the right direction in recent years, as have Maurizio Sarri for Chelsea and Unai Emery for Arsenal this season, shines a negative light on both the Manchester United brass for the managers it has hired, along with Mourinho for the poor job he has done.
The Verdict: Maybe/TBD.
What Should the Future Bring Under the New Manager?
I truly hope that Manchester United learns from its post-Ferguson mistakes starting with Moyes, but more importantly, the personality and style under Van Gaal and Mourinho. I would love to see the next manager embrace the modern player, the modern game, and simply a modern culture.
Furthering the Whiplash metaphor in terms of musical groups — after all, it is a story about a jazz drummer — the best bands are composed of great individual talents who craft wonderful songs. But when you watch your favorite band live, do you want to see them having fun together, playing off each other and creating the ultimate experience? Or do you want to watch a weary unit where there are moments of individual brilliance, but overall it feels like each is pulling in a separate direction, a “group” in name only that is performing its biggest hits seemingly on autopilot, a crew that looks like the life has been drawn out of them from constant artistic differences and interpersonal battles? Wouldn’t you rather watch a band, or a team, who you could happily see yourself part of?
Guardiola, Klopp and Pochettino have each been able to attract, develop and weave star players into a singular, unified team identity (often with less financial backing than Mourinho). The managers have utilized different styles, but all of them balance solid defense with attacking offense. They are fun to watch, whether you identify as a fan of their team or not. While they have had setbacks here and there, they always seem to be pointed in the direction of improving, striving individually and collectively, with a supportive spirit — building up, not tearing down. That, quite simply, is what Manchester United needs.
(Maurizio Sarri and Unai Emery have not had the same length of time to be appraised, but as mentioned, so far they certainly look like they have given a welcome charge to Chelsea and Arsenal, respectively. Both sides have thrived with a new managerial style and philosophy, improving both offensively and defensively from disappointing 2017-18 campaigns under Antonio Conte and Arsene Wenger.)
If the brass can avoid hiring a new manager who epitomizes the old-school approach, but instead goes in a modern direction, that manager can offer an immediate breath of fresh air. He should be able to get much more out of the players, and mold them into an attack-minded, unified unit. In the table, on the pitch aesthetically, and in fantasy, Manchester United should then enjoy improvement. They may not immediately soar back into the glorified upper echelons ghosted by Ferguson, not just yet, but things should point in the right direction... forward, not backward. They could also end up with a team that the local loyalists can embrace, and that non-Manchester United fans can respect and enjoy. If not, it’s only going to be Whiplash all over again.
[Note: EPL statistics used in this article came from the official Premier League website. Transfer information and prices used came via www.transfermarkt.com]
What’s your analysis of Man United’s post-Ferguson performance? What was his secret sauce that now seems to be lacking most? Do youth-squads, staff, development programs and/or facilities figure? Is it player selection? Game-day tactics? Or is it acquisition?
If it were your decision, what United players would you sell off, and what kinds of players would you buy? Who is set to benefit or lose out from a fantasy perspective? And whom should United appoint as caretaker for the rest of this season? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!