We’re now two years removed from the firing of Louis van Gaal, and subsequent hiring of Jose Mourinho. In that time, we’ve experienced the joys of titles, and the lows of…everything else. The fabled “second season” was supposed to hail in the best of what Mourinho United can offer. It ended in failure.
The 2018 FA Cup Final is the latest addition to a sorry list of inexcusable failures currently mounting at Jose Mourinho’s doorstep. His hiring was advertised as a return to glory for a fallen giant. Despite a truly atrocious start to his second “third season” at Chelsea (leading to his firing), Mourinho was the obvious choice. A man whose name still carries a weight only matched by a few managers worldwide. He is one of the few managers who can truly claim to “guarantee trophies”. That claim should come with a “by whatever means necessary” follow up.
Two years is a very fair time frame to assess the situation. Elite clubs across the globe often find themselves reviewing a manager’s position after two seasons; Manchester United should be no different. The good news, Jose, is that you have a boss absolutely terrified of firing you. The bad news, however, is you’ve made no steps forward from year one to year two. Ouch.
Yes yes, I can already see you punching your comments about how “6th to 2nd is clear progress!” and how “no one would have ever been able to compete with City this year!”. And you’re right…at a very, very basic level. Any other season, and we’d have been looking at a title challenge, maybe even a crown come the end. An increase in 12 points is actually pretty impressive when you think about it (not for too long though, because you’ll realise other teams have done it, and done it better). Just…hear me out before you insult me, yeah?
The first failure of the Jose Mourinho-era is player recruitment. Fans are quick to point to the gaudy numbers Guardiola has PayPal’d clubs over the last two seasons, but it’s difficult to argue he hasn’t spent them wisely. What they don’t want you to know is Mourinho has spent a small fortune himself. And it has not been wise.
I touched upon United’s shifting recruitment policy a couple of years back, and you can brush up here, but it’s amazing to me that how relevant that actually is today.
Of Mourinho’s 8 signings, 3 started in the 2018 FA Cup: Paul Pogba, Alexis Sanchez, and Nemanja Matic. Of Mourinho’s 8 signings, 6 remain at the club. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has retired to America. Henrikh Mkhitaryan was used as a means to gain Sanchez. His big money centre back signings (Eric Bailly and Victor Lindeloff) didn’t make an appearance in the final. Romelu Lukaku made a cameo, despite being clearly hindered by injury.
Conversely, of Guadiola’s 14 signings, 9 played consistent, meaningful football in their pursuit of the title, and an additional 1 spent most of this season injured. The remaining 4 players are a promising young winger, a back up goalkeeper, a player on loan, and one who has left. You would imagine what players he adds to his squad will be players that will positively impact an already powerful side.
As rumours fly of a further £300-500 million cash injection, it’s worth asking whether it’s actually worth giving him the cash to make his signings? Based on the evidence presented to us, he only trusts half of his own signings (Lukaku would have started if not for injury) in a cup final. The region of anywhere between £60-80 million was spent on two centre backs, of which he is clearly showing buyers remorse towards. His inability to get the best, consistently, from our club record signing, as well as our reportedly highest earner, should raise massive concerns over his transfer policy. The reality is only 2 of Mourinho’s remaining signings have truly benefited from his tutelage.
Despite hundreds of millions of pounds being spent on undeniably fine talent, United are no closer to looking like a complete unit than they were 5 years ago. Still horribly unbalanced, still in requirement of at least one player up the spine, and a pair to play the full back positions. Of course, some of these issues wouldn’t exist if he wasn’t so stubborn.
He F****ng Hates Me
Which brings us to part two: man management and coaching. Jose Mourinho is a winner, there is no doubt about it. Work with him, and you’re more likely than not to add at least one medal to your mantlepiece. Unless you execute his will to a T, however…well you better have a bag packed.
The first big casualty of Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United was the aforementioned Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Barely 18 months from his move to the biggest club in the world, Mkhitaryan was moved on. Mourinho had started and dropped Mkhitaryan repeatedly over the course of his time at Old Trafford, seemingly unable to get the most out of his midfield Armenian. When he saw an opportunity to solidify the position, he swiftly moved on the hot and cold attacking midfielder. Mkhitaryan wasn’t the right player for what Mourinho wanted to achieve, and was given little on field opportunity to become that player.
I bring this up because it’s a story we’re seeing play out across multiple players. Luke Shaw, formerly the most expensive teenager in the game, has seen a smattering of opportunities to prove himself as a worthy starter. From day one, Mourinho’s distrust of Shaw has been evident, and has led to public shaming of a player barely recovered from a horrific leg break. Shaw has been called out by Mourinho in conferences, in post match interviews, and has extended to the shameful “half time sub”, despite providing an attacking option United fans have craved.
Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial are receiving the same treatment. Both players have shown immense promise over their careers so far, scoring vital goals in cup semi finals, against local and historic rivals, and provide pace and directness that became synonymous with United throughout history. Both players have been relegated to support and cameo appearances. Rashford only started the 2018 Cup Final because of an injury to Lukaku. Neither player can be happy with the way their careers have stalled.
The problem with this method of management is that you’re putting your players in a position where they can’t take chances. Rashford and Martial are instinctual players. They’re both direct, and at their best when running at the defence. That style of play will yield moments of glory (Martial vs Liverpool, Rashford vs City), but will inevitably lead to loss of possession. Both players need the room to play their games, yes, but the room to make mistakes without fear of being dropped for weeks at a time, or worse; being publicly lambasted by their manager. When you don’t play someone for a few weeks, you cannot expect them to hit the ground running. You can expect them to try to over think things in an attempt to impress, instead of doing the simple things. This is what we see with Rashford, Martial, and Shaw, every time they’re in the starting 11.
Similarly, the baffling decision to drop, then, Fans Player of the Year, Ander Herrera, for the start of this season. A midfield three of Matic, Herrera, and Pogba, logically, made the most sense to a lot of people. Herrera has played the least amount of league games this season since joining the club.
Jose Mourinho does not have the time, or patience, to allow something to grow. It simply isn’t in his nature to try to coax the best from a player. If they aren’t performing, they aren’t for him. What we’ve seen since, is players flourishing away from the spotlight of Old Trafford. Mkhitaryan fit into the Arsenal set up seamlessly, and put in a series of good performances before being hit by injury. Memphis Depay has set Ligue 1 alight, with 23 goals and 16 assists in all competitions, helping Lyon back into the Champions League. Adnan Januzaj, never given a kick under Mourinho, has made the preliminary squad for Belgium’s World Cup campaign, and is a nice bet to make the 23.
Realistically, over two seasons, you’re looking at Jesse Lingard as the only player, really, to have improved under Jose Mourinho. Lingard has put together his best season, production wise, this season, which has gone a long way to cementing him as a starter at the club, and a certain to play a key role in England’s latest summer disappointment. Honestly, if you can name any more, let me know, because I’m stumped.
Boring, Boring United
A lack of clear plan transfer-wise, and the lack of trust in half your players, culminates in, arguably, the greatest crime of them all: atrociously dull, un-adventurous, predictable football. All words you should never associate with Manchester United.
Addressing the “dull” part is easy. “Dull” is subjective. Mourinho spoke before the Cup Final of how he finds tight 1-0 wins more enjoyable than 5 or 6-0 wins, because it suggests excitement. And it does…to a certain degree. If you nick a 1-0 win off Manchester City in the last moments, you’re going to enjoy that far more than blowing West Ham away 4-0, for example. If you labour to a 1-0 win against relegation threatened Southampton, however, the fans are going to be less forgiving.
They’ll start to revolt when they see Tottenham Hotspur playing attractive, expansive football on a fraction of the budget. When they start to wish they played like City and Liverpool play, you’ve done something wrong.
We’re told repeatedly that United don’t only expect to win, but they expect to win a certain way. I can count on one hand the amount of times we’ve won that certain way since Ferguson retired. Maybe two of those wins came under Mourinho. The thing is, it was always going to be this way. Jose Mourinho’s sides have been notorious for being boring and predictable. Jose Mourinho’s biggest positive is that he will win by any means necessary, that is a fundamental clash with everything United stand for. He tried it at Real Madrid, and it was met with the same backlash.
Keep it tight, and put the focus on the big man up top. A game plan that wins you games when you have a Didier Drogba, or a Zlatan Ibrahimovic, even Romelu Lukaku. It doesn’t work with a smaller, shiftier Marcus Rashford. His unwillingness to adapt to the talent he has helped assemble is baffling. Can you expect Rashford to hold the ball up, when his game is predominantly pace and little strength? The answer is no, you can’t, and yet that is how he set up for the Cup Final.
Jose Mourinho came into the public eye playing the underdog with a Porto side far inferior to the opposition they defeated on their way to the Champions League title. He carried that style of play with him to multiple Premier League titles and an eventual Treble with Inter Milan. Between 2002 and 2010, he won every trophy you could possibly win for his respective clubs. Football adapted. Yes, he won La Liga, but he couldn’t get one of the most expensive sides in the world over the line in Europe. Yes, he returned to England and won more trophies with both Chelsea and United, but he ended his reign in Chelsea with them languishing in the bottom half. Post-2010, the world has Jose Mourinho figured out, and I’d say he’s at least 5 years too late to re-adjust to it.
Expected Greatness, Got Mediocrity
Finally, the statistics to back everything up. At surface level, there is a considerable improvement between 2016/17 and 2017/18. Surface level doesn’t tell half the story. I gave it some stick when I first heard they were calculating “expected goals” (xG for short), but, understanding it, it’s actually a very useful way of predicting what a side is going to look like in the coming weeks and months, and how good they *actually are*. xG calculates the probability of a goal being scored based on the location of the initial shot, the player taking it, which area of the goal the shot was destined for, and the quality of opposition. You’re then given a percentage chance of whether the goal would be scored under normal circumstances (10% chance is presented as 0.100, for example), and it’s all added up from there. It must be added that these results can’t take into account whether a player is injured, whether the side are fatigued, etc. they’re just a guideline to add more context. Regardless, the results aren’t promising.
Using statistics from understat.com, it’s clear that, despite two years of overseeing the playing staff, both current and incoming, there has been little to no improvement in Manchester United’s on field play. Based on xG points alone, United should have finished this season in 6th, with 62 points. For context, xG predicted United to finish on 71 points last season, not a million miles from their final total.
Dig a little deeper and things become even less enjoyable. xG goals: 59, xG conceded goals: 43. In reality, United scored 68 and conceded 28. We’ve often wondered where we would be without the superhuman-like performances of David de Gea, and xG is providing us with an idea: 6th place, 19 points worse off.
BUT WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN?!? You cry behind your phone or laptop. It means, dear reader, United have overachieved. Significantly. Around £300million spent over two years, and United have are being considered overachievers. That is about as shocking an indictment as can be made against Jose Mourinho. Under normal circumstances, 81 points would be considered a valiant title challenge. Unfortunately, under normal circumstances, United wouldn’t be close to that challenge.
Is there any hope?
The idea of progress under Jose is nothing but a fallacy at this point. His signings aren’t panning out the way they should, this ability to properly handle his players is seriously questionable at best, and his on field product is unsustainable to say the very least. Given everything we’ve seen, I have no reason to believe Jose Mourinho has the ability to get the right players in to make the charge expected of him. Some fans have speculated that the resignation of Rui Faria, coupled with the promotion of Keiran McKenna from the Under 18s, whose side won the 18th Professional Development League, and adding Michael Carrick to his coaching staff, we could expect a change in philosophy, and an openness to new ideas. He is on record as saying he likes to “shape them (coaches) into my way of thinking.”, so there goes that idea.
So the choices, as far as I can see, are clear: cut loose, and nab a manager playing sustainable, “attractive” football, who is currently on a smaller budget, with the scope to succeed at a bigger club (Mauricio Pochettino has solidified Spurs a statistical top 3 side with a fraction of Jose’s millions), or face a regression to the mean. With City and Liverpool strengthening further, Spurs’ young stars maturing further, and both Arsenal and likely Chelsea heading in a new managerial direction, it’s a case of adapt accordingly, or be left behind, again. 6th place doesn’t have a nice feel to it. There’s a risk that it’ll be a feeling you’ll have to get used to.