Why Jose Mourinho is a Bad Fit for Man Utd
Football management is a thankless task; just ask Louis van Gaal.
No sooner had the Dutchman lifted the F.A. Cup — a feat last achieved by Manchester United in 2004, not to mention the club’s first silverware of the post-Ferguson era — than he was out of a job, replaced by his former protégé, Jose Mourinho.
Let’s be clear: this is no Greek tragedy, however tempting it might be to present it as such. As historians are fond of pointing out, context is often the enemy of narrative, and in this case, the context is two seasons of sluggish, unattractive football, £258,000,000 in transfer fees, and an underwhelming fifth place finish.
So perhaps Ed Woodward and the Glazers were justified in pulling the plug on Van Gaal’s reign at Old Trafford. But is Mourinho the right man to take his place?
I’m not so sure. Here are three reasons why.
The United Way
Let’s face it; English footballing culture doesn’t exactly lend itself to in-depth discussions about ‘philosophy’ and ‘theory’. It’s all very well for urbane continental coaches to tease the media with talk of false-nines, inverted wing-backs, and transitional phases, but most of us are naturally suspicious of any attempt to turn football into an extended seminar.
Thankfully, you don’t need a degree in sports science to understand the famous United way. It essentially involves natural width, provided by two overlapping full-backs, and a commitment to take the game to the opponent and always be on the front foot. If you want to get a bit more abstract, it’s about entertainment. As Sir Matt Matt Busby told a young apprentice by the name of Bobby Charlton back in the 1950s, “All those lads you see going to the factory in Trafford Park, they come to watch you on a Saturday.” “They have boring jobs”, Busby explained, “so you have to give them something they will enjoy.”
By those criteria, Louis van Gaal failed to respect the United way, and that, more than anything, contributed to his unpopularity amongst fans and supporters. But would Jose Mourinho be any different?
The evidence suggests the answer to that question is ‘doubtful’.
It’s no secret that the Special One is defensively minded — that’s why van Gaal sought his advice at Barcelona, to counter balance the attacking instincts of the rest of his staff. To be fair to Mourinho, though, his reputation as a defensive coach — an Italian with a Portuguese passport — is a slight caricature. During his first stint at Chelsea, his team played some scintillating stuff, and although his Real Madrid side weren’t as exciting as Pep Guardiola’s Barca, they did break a whole host of La Liga records during the 2011–2012 season, notching up 100 points and scoring 121 goals to boot.
That said, you can always count on him to revert to type. At Madrid, Mourinho insisted on playing with a trivote, a trio of ball-winning central midfielders who could press high up the pitch or drop back to form a shield in front of the back-four, even when there was no apparent benefit in doing so. According to Diego Torres, this wanton negativity was driven by an almost pathological fear of losing, and it contributed to a palpable sense of frustration and discord in the Bernabéu dressing room. Mourinho-ball might not be as dull as the fare served up under van Gaal, but it can be just as rigid, meaning that players are deployed out of position and forced to stifle their individual creativity. Juan Mata is a pertinent case in point.
Ultimately, Mourinho’s teams are built to be effective, not entertaining. For most fans, that’s an acceptable trade-off, but Manchester United fans aren’t like most fans.
Tyler Blackett, Paddy McNair, Reece James, Tom Thorpe, Regan Poole, James Weir, Saidy Janko, James Wilson, Jesse Lingard, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Donald Love, Joe Riley, Andreas Pereira, Marcus Rashford.
That’s a list of youngsters from Man Utd’s academy who have played competitive football under van Gaal. Granted, some of those names will only be familiar to hard core statos, whilst others have appeared on the team sheet only sporadically, but the likes of Rashford and Lingard have made a real impact, developing relatively quickly into reliable members of the starting eleven.
If radio phone-ins and internet forums are anything to go by, even the most ardent adherents of the van Gaal-out brigade begrudgingly admit that the Dutchman’s youth policy deserves praise. And that should come as no surprise, since the romance of the Busby Babes and the Class of 92 is a key part of the mythology surrounding the United way.
So will Mourinho live up to United fans’ expectations in this department?
Again, the answer lies somewhere between ‘doubtful’ and ‘not a chance’.
During his fifteen years as a professional football manager, Mourinho has only given first team opportunities to twenty-three youth players, none of whom were able to nail down a regular starting berth. At Chelsea, where he spent a cumulative total of five years, he handed first team starts to a mere five academy products — Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Nathan Ake, Sam Hutchinson, Andreas Christensen, and Lenny Pidgeley.
What’s more, Mourinho has form when it comes to misjudging or ignoring the potential of young players. Romelu Lukaku, Kevin de Bruyne, and Ryan Bertrand were all deemed surplus to requirements at Chelsea, and yet, it’s arguable that all three would improve the current set-up at the club. The same can be said of a number of other youngsters he’s let go over the years.
Mourinho’s reluctance to use the resources at his disposal — Roman Abramovich has invested considerable amount of money in the Chelsea academy — can largely be put down to his innate caution, but it would be remiss of me not to raise the spectre of super-agent Jorge Mendes. Having access to such a large network of talented players has obviously been a boon for Mourinho, but it’s worth pointing out that his close relationship with Mendes has probably contributed to his poor record when it comes to utilising and promoting youth players.
Manchester United Plc
Did you know that Manchester United have an “official global noodle partner”? Well, you do now! They’re called Nissin Food Group, and according to their dedicated page on www.manutd.com, they can lay claim to inventing the “first iteration of instant noodles…in 1958.” United also have an “official feature film partner” (20th Century Fox), an “official timekeeping partner” (Bulova), and an “official tyre partner for Europe (excluding Russia), India, the Middle East, and Thailand (Apollo Tyres)” In fact, they have so many commercial partners that they have to divide them into four categories on their website; global partners, regional partners, media and telecommunication partners, and financial partners, just in case you were wondering. With all that money rolling in, it’s no wonder that the club is listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
What I’m getting at here is that Manchester United is more than just a football club — it’s a global brand. In his book, A Season in the Red, Jamie Jackson goes as far as to suggest that the United hierarchy are more focussed on generating income in far-flung markets than they are on results, but for our purposes let’s just say that keeping up the corporate end is very important to Woodward and the Glazers.
For his part, van Gaal did a decent turn as brand spokesman, though his criticism of the club’s pre-season tour of the United States in 2014 and his tendency to throw in phrases such as ‘sex masochism’ during interviews and press conferences probably left a few executives scratching their heads. The ‘Iron Tulip’ was brash and outspoken during his time at Carrington and Old Trafford, but he rarely did or said anything that would bring the Man Utd brand into disrepute.
Mourinho, on other hand, might not be so tame. His last season at Chelsea was eventful to say the least, with stadium bans, complaints about partial officials, petty comments about opposition managers, bizarre ramblings to the press, and reports of dressing room acrimony all hogging the headlines. Then there was the controversy over Mourinho’s treatment of Chelsea first-team doctor Eva Caneiro, a controversy which is still rumbling along in the courts, and one which might now be Manchester United’s problem as well.
There may be some method in Mourinho’s madness, of course. He seems to think that players thrive under a siege mentality, so all the barbs about referees, other coaches, the media, and even his own players, may well be designed to invite constructive encirclement. But, as we’ve seen before, this can only work for so long before it poisons the atmosphere at a club.
There’s also doubts over whether he himself knows when and where to draw the line. After his Madrid side lost to Barcelona in the second-leg of the 2011 Supercopa de España, Mourinho was caught on camera gouging the eye of Barca assistant-coach Tito Vilanova. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, he told the press afterwards that he didn’t know who ‘Pito’ (Spanish slang for penis) Vilanova was.
I don’t know about you, but if I was a corporate executive, I wouldn’t be too keen on such a person fronting my brand. Even Sir Bobby Charlton agrees, commenting in 2012 that “a United manager wouldn’t do that.” “Mourinho is a really good coach”, Charlton continued, “but that’s as far as I would go really.”
So what’s changed?
You can follow me on Twitter: @jachiz89
Note: an amended version of this article was published on The Boot Room in May 2016.