The Ferguson Conundrum: why United is proving Mourinho's greatest challenge
The problems at Manchester United do not necessarily live and die with José Mourinho.
Halfway into his second season at Manchester United, José Mourinho has led the team to two titles, and currently sit third in the Premier League and will face Sevilla in the Champions League's round of 16. Mourinho has spent around £300million trying to rebuild a side that has underperformed ever since Sir Alex Ferguson retired after the 2012/2013-season. So far, it has looked underwhelming considering what has happened elsewhere in the English Premier League.
About a year ago, Antonio Conte made it almost seem too easy to win the league, despite being in his first year in the English top flight. This season, Pep Guardiola has proved it perhaps is too easy to win in the English top flight. The fact is seemingly a little bit different; it is easier to build and create within an environment that allows one to express your plan and your (and whisper the word quietly so the Louis van Gaal won't hear you) philosophy. And in light of how well Manchester City is doing, Manchester United's “bad” season becomes even clearer. It is difficult to look good, when one of your rivals are, at times, looking close to perfect.
It seems rather obvious that both Conte and Guardiola walked into clubs in need of a cultural change and offered blank canvases. And there is perhaps where the biggest difference is; Manchester United is, to most football fans around the world, one of the world's most well-known canvases.
There are buzzwords like “The United Way” and “Fergie Time” to back this up. There is nothing that, in any regard, needs to be created. There is need for continuation. But how do you continue on the work from, perhaps, the greatest club manager of all time? You don't. And unlike David Moyes, he doesn't. Unlike Louis van Gaal, who perhaps tried to recreate his own image at United, Mourinho seems a (sometimes) happy medium. And this, alongside the players he signed, brought along a sense of a new era being created at United by winning the Europa League and the League Cup in his first season. Sufficient? For United fans who only expect the best? Clearly not.
Eggs and omelettes
The easiest way to pinpoint an error is to highlight the period in which that error, usually, would be corrected. The transfer window is usually that time. “Why was *** not bought?”, “Why was *** not sold?” and “How close were they do buying/selling ***?” Mourinho himself highlighted in one of his last press conferences before being sacked at Chelsea the first time that “you go to the super market and there are different classes of eggs. You buy the best eggs, you make the best omelette”. Now, the focus of many supporters would be “the eggs”, but perhaps it is time to look at the chef? The one who is tasked with making this omelette. What about José Mourinho?
Before you read on, there is a very important thing that needs to be pointed out there. One of the main arguments against Mourinho is that he plays boring football and parks the proverbial bus every time he gets the chance. Instead of trying to outline certain statistics and spreadsheets proving otherwise, the simple question is this: did you really expect otherwise from Mourinho? Did Manchester United expect otherwise from Mourinho? He is a league winner in four different countries, a two-time Champions League winner through this approach. Why would he change just because Manchester United came calling? “Because at Manchester United they do things a certain way”. No, they don't. Sir Alex Ferguson did things in a certain way. Sir Alex Ferguson is no longer the manager of Manchester United.
And herein lays one of the most important questions the club, and perhaps its fans who rightfully carry a sense of ownership over their, must ask themselves; is it time for a change? Is it time to change manager for fifth time in as many years? Sure, Manchester United demands a winning culture, and it breathes success, but what does it say about the club if it fires one of the absolute most successful managers in the today's game? If anyone is able to carry the weight of the club, its demands, its history, its success and its ambitions, it surely has to be José Mourinho. And of course, many look across the city and see what Pep Guardiola is doing at Manchester City. Perhaps that would have been a better choice. Perhaps. Perhaps not. Who's to say if it was Mourinho at City and Guardiola at United that things would not have been the same? The greatest conundrum is how to move on from Ferguson, and the fantastic era he created. That is, perhaps, Mourinho's greatest challenge.
Defining a special era
You cannot necessarily fix that problem throwing big sums around. If the likes of Ángel di María proves anything, it is just that. Ferguson performed magic with a squad without real world class talent at every position in his last run. That speaks to his ability, but also highlights the trouble the Manchester United managers after him have faced. And whenever one manager has left, another has come in and tried to chop and change. It speaks volumes that out of the 11 players Louis van Gaal bought, only Anthony Martial and Marcos Rojo seem to have a certain place in his squad. Ander Herrera, Luke Shaw, Daley Blind, Matteo Darmian are all still at the club, and are in and out of the team, while Morgan Schneiderlin, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Memphis Depay were all sold by Mourinho. That is a lot of talent to move around at a very short amount of times.
And say if Mourinho was to be removed, would this issue move be removed with him? The issue at Manchester United is probably not just the squad, just the manager or just the board. It's not just the owner or the amount given in terms of transfers. They all carry its significance, but the biggest issue is perhaps the thought that Manchester United is still what it was ten years ago. It simply is not. The club is unquestionably one of the greatest in the world, but the demand for glory does not match how it currently is set up. Things are simply not ran as one of the most dominant football clubs in the world. Nor is this dictated by hiring or firing the manager whenever the going gets rough.
There are reasons to point a finger towards ownership, The Glazers, and chief executive Ed Woodward. Because there is one thing to be wide-eyed and naive supporter, but being that as the ones in charge of running one of the grandest clubs in world football, is simply not good enough. Ferguson might have managed to paper over the cracks at the times with his all-inspiring genius, and power at the club. But as his presence evades, and his shadow looms, it becomes clear as day that those in charge never fueled in their belief that the glory days would automatically continue. There is no reason to underline how many millions or billions of pounds and dollars Manchester United have been, or are in debt. Nor how much money The Glazers have taken out of the club. This is well-documented, and it underlines concerns that have grown well into the heavens the past decade.
José Mourinho, or any other manager for that matter, would be tasked with the herculean task of replacing Ferguson, but also living within what seems an environment lacking in the understanding of how modern football has evolved. Not just on the pitch, but around the negotiating table, in creating the foundation to which a manager can build, and re-build, success. The scariest is perhaps not how United have spiraled away from the greatest clubs, and managed to maintain a sense of dominance. That was always likely to happen to some extent once Ferguson was gone. The scariest aspect is perhaps how little, seemingly, the club has learned following David Moyes and Louis van Gaal.
Manchester United is sold as the greatest football club in the world, built upon the “Theatre of Dreams” and other buzzwords that probably would great in a commercial. If the five years prove anything, those words have become hollow. If the past year and a half proves anything, it is that José Mourinho is the one closest to fulfilling those commercial wants and needs. That insatiable craving for success, glory and titles. Ironically, of the managers in the post-Ferguson era he has been labelled the one that is least likely to create as opposed to just win the short term and leave. However, it has seemed likely that perhaps he can create a mirage or a small glimpse of what United fans experienced during Ferguson. Chopping and changing means another reset. New names, new faces, new tactics, new start. And what if that doesn't work? Then what?
Sir Alex Ferguson's era at Manchester United will never be replicated. Not by Mourinho, not by Guardiola, not by anyone. Comparing everything being done at the club to that era is simply not fair. Thinking splashing £1billion on the best players in the world might not even be sufficient either. This is about creating a culture, a new way of going about things, a new Manchester United. It is difficult to let go of the old, and no one should. There is a symbiotic relationship between demands based on the old, and what is being able to be created today. And that demand is, quite simply, not able to be satisfied as of right now. It might not ever be, but believing there's a quick solution to this is not realistic.
When José Mourinho first arrived in England in 2004 he, as popularly known, labelled himself “The Special One”. 14 years on, fate will have it that he has the greatest chance ever to prove just that. Being a manager at Manchester United automatically does make you rather special. But being the one who actually takes Manchester United into a new era, meaning they can look back at the days of Sir Alex and offer it the respectful nod it deserves, all the while seeing their current team live up to their demands, will truly be what defines José Mourinho as “The Special One”.