The fallout from Manchester United’s Champions League exit is laid bare for all to see and fingers are being pointed.
This is one to say right off the bat; we still have faith in Jose Mourinho. Back in 2013, this writer thought he was the right choice ahead of David Moyes. At the latter end of the Louis van Gaal era, though I wasn’t happy with the football, I was unhappier with the attitude of the players. In football, managers, and not dressing rooms, are sacked. In 2016 the deliberation of the board to sack Louis van Gaal and hire Mourinho in December cost the club a chance of winning the league, a very winnable league eventually captured by Leicester City. Perhaps that would have papered over the cracks which have most definitely been revealed since.
When Jose Mourinho was hired in 2016, I thought he was the right man for the job.
Some will read this and say United are still in transition and in a rebuilding period and to that I would say, absolutely, and fine, and I agree. However, having been with the squad for over a year and a half, even if the composition of the squad isn’t entirely to his liking, the composition of the first team should be pretty close to what he wants. Even the great Sir Alex Ferguson, even with the benefit of all his successes, faced periods of introspection on nights of embarrassing European exits.
In 1996, after the exit to Rotor Volgograd, Ferguson took advantage of the relaxed foreigner rule to add in a peppering of continental experience in the likes of Ronny Johnsen, Jordi Cruyff and Karel Poborsky, players who would complement the rising home-grown stars.
There was an improvement, but alongside this, Fergie tried to evolve the side into a continental style, occasionally playing them as an unfamiliar 4-3-3 in Europe. This had mixed results. One year after Eric Cantona retired, two big names were added — Dwight Yorke and Jaap Stam. Ferguson had seen enough from his own young stars to note their maturity and trusted them to play their natural 4-4-2. It reaped dividends.
United won the Champions League and the following year their profligacy (and goalkeeper issues) contributed to their exit. Ferguson responded by signing Fabien Barthez and Ruud van Nistelrooy, only for the former to fail his medical and have his signing delayed by a year. The message was clear. United needed to be more clinical in front of goal – despite having good strikers, great strikers, even, like Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke, Van Nistelrooy was the elite.
In 2005/6 Ferguson faced his biggest challenge in terms of transition. Not only did he have to cope with the naturally shifting plates evolution brings football teams, he had a new-money rival a couple of hundred miles south in Chelsea, who were enjoying success under Jose Mourinho.
2005 saw the arrival of the Glazer family, who, at the time, promised £25m in transfer funds every year. In 2003, Roman Abramovich sanctioned a spend of £153m on his Champions League quality squad; a further £60m given to Mourinho in 2004 tipped the league title in the Blues’ balance and, as United’s new owners got used to the club, they watched Chelsea spend a further £82m and win it again. In the two years at United after their arrival, the Glazers’ sanctioned a net spend of approximately £5m.
The point of this trip down memory lane, if you’ll forgive my indulgence, is to paint the picture of the challenge that faced Sir Alex. He concentrated on fixing the issues which were prominent in his own side; centre-half, left back, goalkeeper, midfield. He concentrated on creating the best Manchester United team he could in the image of its tradition; and so patience was afforded to the development of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo.
The benefit of this? It was a United team at least sure of its own qualities and capabilities. It was aware of its identity and responsibility. Talent counted a great deal, of course it did, but it was excellent management from Ferguson to correctly identify the issues within the squad and fix them.
In some respects this was history repeating itself. Tommy Docherty did something similar when the club were relegated. The temporary respite from the relenting pressure to challenge for honours allowed Docherty the opportunity to rebuild the team and it became renowned as arguably his finest. For Ferguson, the pressure was still on of course, though the level of expectation was surely on Chelsea to win all before them. It bought, pardon the pun, maybe an additional year at least of patience from the Old Trafford support who recognised what was slowly being put together in front of them.
Under Docherty, United rediscovered their confidence by winning every week and scoring goals in the second division. In 2005/6, Ferguson’s new team realised that they could at least be the best of the rest with a run of 9 straight wins. It was incentive for them to start the next season flying; knowing that Chelsea were just one team, and the majority of points were to be found against the other sides in the division, United grew in confidence and won their first league title in four years. More success, of course, followed.
So let’s fast forward to present day. Despite how disappointingly the league campaign fizzled out, Jose Mourinho had the most successful first season of any Manchester United manager. A big expenditure which included the world record signing of Paul Pogba raised expectations to a title challenge; not unreasonable considering the reigning title holders were Leicester.
Most fans, however, recognised the scale of the problems Mourinho had inherited and could deem his first season to be a success. A League Cup and a European trophy was a fine return and the win in Europe was seen as a glorious payoff on the big gamble he’d placed on sacrificing Champions League qualification via the league.
United had started the 16/17 season in pretty good form, impressing with a 4-1 win over Leicester, before stuttering in the autumn. Their end-of-season fare was pretty much standard Mourinho, with winning becoming more important than entertaining. This was fine; but Mourinho did nonetheless gamble with fourth place, resting players for trips to Arsenal and Spurs, and despite it coming off for him, it wouldn’t necessarily be forgotten.
There are some players he inherited who he has improved. Some of these (Chris Smalling, for example) were also improved under Louis van Gaal, as terrible as it seems to give him credit. It seems unthinkable now but United won the Europa League with Smalling and Darmian in their defence. They also had Daley Blind; Blind was in for the injured Rojo, who would have played otherwise. Elsewhere, Ander Herrera crowned his best season with a final appearance, Marouane Fellaini – the poster boy for David Moyes’ unsuccessful reign – started, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan also played, and scored.
There were suspensions and injuries respectively to Eric Bailly and Zlatan Ibrahimovic which cost each of them their place in Stockholm, while Mourinho was faithful to Sergio Romero to give him a starting place, but in De Gea, Bailly, Pogba and Zlatan, the manager had a strong and physical spine which somewhat resembled the structure that would be found in his best sides. Romelu Lukaku was added to this to effectively replace Ibrahimovic and Nemanja Matic was brought in to add the stability in midfield which would ostensibly free Paul Pogba up to create instead of having mixed responsibilities.
Manchester City’s unprecedented expenditure means that Mourinho has found himself in the sort of 2004-2006 buffer Ferguson had. City’s success and style of play is irrelevant. Mourinho had a point when he referenced their unlimited ability to spend back in December (indeed, this writer in particular feels that Guardiola’s reputation is largely enhanced and kindly inflated); however, this does not permanently excuse his ability to compete.
United supporters will by and large swallow the football put on display by Mourinho. At the start of the season it was fine, and pretty good to watch. Against Liverpool at the weekend, it was not exactly great, but it was an acceptable balance of 25 minutes of thrills and 65 minutes and seeing the game out.
Yesterday evening, after the insipid exit against Sevilla, Mourinho referenced the times he knocked out United with Porto and Real Madrid, following an earlier comment suggesting that continental elimination was something the club’s supporters should be familiar with.
Mourinho is infinitely a better speaker than David Moyes and more savvy with the press but there was something of the ex-Everton boss to be found in these comments. Compare these to the references of Sir Alex Ferguson, who, despite all of his achievements, stressed that the club should aim to do better in Europe. Because the club’s tradition isn’t an away goals elimination to Porto. It is following the Busby Babes and trying to make good on their lost potential.
This is where the thumb in the eye becomes particularly painful. Supporters like myself – who have backed him, and still do – will feel particularly horrified by that statement. After 70 minutes of last night’s dreadful display, all would have been forgiven if United had eked out an undeserved goal and qualified.
The truth is that Mourinho was a huge contributory factor to United’s exit and so all questions about their failure should start with the manager.
After all, he had all the tools at his disposal to put out a United side more than capable of entertaining and progressing. Lindelof, Pogba, Mata, and Martial were sitting on the bench and would have improved that United team from the start. Luke Shaw was not in the squad and would have improved the first team.
Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Axel Tuanzebe are currently out on loan when they should be the first back ups to a defence that should read Valencia, Bailly, Lindelof and Shaw. We should be discussing whether Fosu-Mensah is ready to take Valencia’s place, and instead, we are still debating whether Chris Smalling and Phil Jones will reach their potential. Cameron Borthwick-Jackson may be ‘just another academy graduate’ who makes his name away from the club at a lower league level but surely his potential was worth more investment than Matteo Darmian’s?
Even in continuing with the combination of Lukaku, Sanchez and Rashford, the manager made an error by re-deploying Rashford into a completely unfamiliar role, which was all the more jarring considering what he did to Liverpool from the left on Saturday. And you know what? Football being football, United could well still have gone out; but they would have gone out with round pegs in round holes and at least having tried to entertain.
There is no need, even at this point, to be completely dismissive of Mourinho, not only because of what he achieved elsewhere, but because of the start he has made at United up until the last 6 weeks or so (I’m still smarting over the error to play two midfielders at Spurs). It is so frustrating because you have to think a manager as savvy as he, a manager who will use every conceivable advantage, seems blind to some of the finest motivational tools this unique experience brings him.
At the end of last season Mourinho fielded six youngsters and brought on another in the game against Crystal Palace and their response would have surprised him, as too would that of the crowd.
This season he cannot fail to have seen the way the Old Trafford crowd have responded to the encouraging development of Scott McTominay or the way Marcus Rashford brings supporters to their feet in a way that even Alexis Sanchez can’t. The message is clear; with a side that is picked to win or at least has a bunch of homegrown young players in it, the crowd will respond. Old Trafford was the flattest I can remember it ever being on a European night – the brief moments of respite? The all-too-few occasions when Rashford popped up on the left and terrorised their right-back. Again, this doesn’t mean that success is guaranteed. But it makes defeat more palatable, particularly if you intend to serve it with a side-order of a recital of the club’s few failures under its greatest ever manager.
This moment will undoubtedly serve as a defining one in Jose Mourinho’s time at Manchester United and it can be one that is wholly positive. The fixture calendar is no longer so demanding, and United’s chances of Champions League qualification are no longer so precarious that giving Luke Shaw a ‘last chance’ to prove his worth by giving him an extended run in the team isn’t worth trying. We need to give Bailly and Lindelof a chance to get to know each other’s games, and to work with Luke Shaw, before we know whether a £30m-70m investment in another centre-half is necessary.
The attacking chemistry needs to start improving; there are signs, but there are also occasions like last night where it seems as if that selection of players are simply incompatible. This will mean persisting with trying to find the right place for Alexis Sanchez to shine but it should not come at the cost of existing, successful dynamics within the team. The Christmas period had joy in the combination of Lingard, Mata, Pogba and Martial in away games – to lose this to try and accommodate a single player is a shame.
It is clear that Mourinho, as his reputation would suggest, has tried to instil a disciplined mentality within this United team. By and large that has been a success.
But there is an incompatibility on a fundamental level; call it spiritual, call it the expectation of supporters — but at Manchester United, setting up a team to do just enough is asking for trouble for a club whose greatest successes are founded in overcoming setbacks, whether they are inflicted by an opponent or themselves.
In October 1997, United were all set to take on Juventus and prove they had learned from their previous meetings. They were a goal down inside thirty seconds. In January 1999 Liverpool scored in the very first minute and United supporters had to wait the length of an excruciating game to feel the most unbelievable joy. Even Old Trafford, the Theatre of Dreams, comes with the caveat that many of the greatest successes are narrated with the very real threat of failure. And this is something the supporters accept as part and parcel of the fabric of the club.
Mourinho spoke about winning 7-6 or 2-1 as acceptable results before the game – the clear threat from the first game was that should United concede, they themselves would need to score twice. This isn’t a “United fabric” problem. It is the very reason why a goalless game away in European knockouts puts pressure on home sides to score twice. The statistics for progression favour the home team from the first leg, and United have fallen foul to that in their past more than once.
Speaking about the club’s failures as being part of its identity that supporters should be familiar with, especially so soon after the recent landmark anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster, is almost incomprehensible; this is not to say that there was any particular insensitivity in the remark, but more a concerning sign of incompatibility.
It is not the responsibility of Manchester United’s supporters to lower their expectations; it is the responsibility of the manager to live up to them.
To his credit, at Crystal Palace, Mourinho showed the sort of reaction which suggested he was starting to get it. But that’s the issue, the deepest underlying issue; reactivity as opposed to pro-activity.
Manchester United may not have the tools or resources to beat Manchester City. They certainly don’t this season. They may not have the resources to outmuscle Manchester City in the entire time Mourinho is manager.
But they do have the resources to do better and play better than what they currently are, and the expectations on that score are quite rightly higher than what supporters have been subjected to; for the first time, it’s the responsibility of the manager more than the players to begin to meet those expectations.
It is within the manager’s capability to begin to field a cohesive defence which is stable enough for the players in front of it to express themselves. It doesn’t mean playing Jesse Lingard at right-back, but it does mean planning for future success instead of doing just enough to get by in the present.
It is within his capability to field a selection of midfielders and attackers who can dominate a game of football and entertain the crowd while doing so.
United can still fail doing so; failure while trying to win is something supporters can stomach. At least that will be progressive. In order for Mourinho to truly succeed at Old Trafford, this is the attitude he must embrace, and quickly.