The prospect of Jose Mourinho taking over may not sit right with many Manchester United fans but the Portuguese coach is comfortably the club’s best option beyond this season.
Manchester United fans do not appear to be queuing up to join ‘Jose Mourinho’s red and white army’, with the thought of the Portuguese boss presiding over Old Trafford from the dug out leaving many conflicted. Some simply don’t want him and what baggage he may bring, while many who do accept that the former Chelsea manager is the best available man for the job still appear reluctant to embrace the prospect.
The Mourinho sceptics should not be looking a gift horse in the mouth. Having overseen the worst title defence in Premier League history, Mourinho’s stock may have taken a nosedive from its peak, but his CV remains one of the most impressive in world football – and the mess United find themselves in certainly makes them a far less attractive proposition than perhaps they might like to think they are.
United’s problems run deep and infect almost every area. Louis van Gaal is not the club’s greatest problem but to many he represents their quickest fix.
Supporters have run out of patience with the philosophy preached by the Dutchman, who has lost what bargaining power he may have had due to his team’s dreadful run of results and form over Christmas and the New Year. Having had to face open dissent from the terraces, Van Gaal has also had to publicly contend with the media’s disdain.
Behind closed doors at Old Trafford, things are just as murky. It is not clear which players are playing for the manager; his assistant is clearly longing for his job, while there appears to be a battle waging in the boardroom between the PLC board and what David Gill called the football board, where the former chief executive sits alongside Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Bobby Charlton in a ‘much more ambassadorial’ capacity.
Throw into the mix the harmony across town at the Etihad and it is easy to see why Pep Guardiola plumped for City. United were criticised for having allowed their neighbours a free run at the Bayern Munich coach, but even if they did throw their hat in the ring, City are simply a far more attractive proposition right now.
Regardless of the threat of City, the United squad requires reinvigorating. If not in time for the run-in, then certainly during the summer. Mourinho is the man for that job.
United turned their nose up at Mourinho in 2013 when Sir Alex Ferguson retired, opting instead for someone supposedly “cut from the same cloth” as the manager being replaced. The club’s snobbery around David Moyes’ appointment was perhaps understandable. They were champions for a 20th time and were built on a foundation as solid as any in the world game.
But the landscape at Old Trafford, in Manchester and across the game in general is now vastly different. Can United really afford to reject a proven winner, a man who is hungrier than ever to prove himself in a job he has seemingly longed for?
Ask the sceptics what is their biggest concern about Mourinho and you will get a variety of answers, ranging from his playing style, brashness, supposed short-term approach and apparent reluctance to promote youth.
Mourinho can meet each charge with a convincing defence.
No, his sides have not always played swashbuckling football, but few teams not named Barcelona or Bayern Munich do.
Mourinho prioritises victory over style, in much the same way his ‘friend’ Ferguson did at Old Trafford. As Van Gaal has pointed out, Ferguson’s approach could not always be described as cavalier. He did what he had to for victory, especially during the times his squad was in a transitional phase. Similarly, for every Mourinho side that was functional, there was one that was thrilling. Like the Chelsea team of 2005-06. Or Real Madrid’s record breakers of 2011-12.
The Ferguson defence can also be used by Mourinho to answer claims that his behaviour is not always befitting of Manchester United. The Portuguese coach is an extremely driven and demanding individual, with a history of criticising referees and being occasionally disrespectful. He is not a gracious loser. Who does all that remind you of?
Mourinho is not a coach to build from the bottom up but his previous employers have necessitated a rather more immediate focus from the manager. Neither Roman Abramovich, Massimo Moratti nor Florentino Perez have the patience to allow any manager to build a dynasty and they are certainly not the only club principles seeking the fastest route to success.
Players at the highest level also demand results, regardless of the level to which they contribute to it. The modern make-up of the elite dressing room, often full of young millionaires looking out for themselves, means that very few managers see out more than two seasons at any club. When the motivation of group slips, it is easier to provoke a response by changing the manager rather than overhaul a squad.
This is where Mourinho slipped up at Chelsea this season. After sauntering to the title last year, the players were allowed to rest on their laurels, with an extended pre-season and no top-quality recruits to stir up the squad. The manager will have learned that lesson, and regardless, United would doubtless prefer to contend with the challenge of keeping a winning team motivated, rather than continue in their current malaise.
Many fans and pundits would prefer to see United turn to Ryan Giggs or Mauricio Pochettino but this is not the time to appoint another unproven manager. Old Trafford chewed up and spat out Moyes, who took over a winning team. The challenge now is arguably greater and not one for a first-time boss such as Giggs, or even one with marvellous potential such as Pochettino – not yet.
Either Giggs or Pochettino would represent a gamble United cannot afford. Gary Neville once said that United “stand against the immediacy of modern life” but after a post-Ferguson spell of two wasted seasons which looks likely to stretch to a third come May, the Red Devils cannot afford to slip further off the pace in either the European or domestic game.
As their recent recruitment has shown, United are becoming harder to sell to the world’s top players, despite Woodward’s apparent desperation to snare a Galactico. Despite his most recent experience with Chelsea, Mourinho would make United a more attractive proposition to the majority of targets, certainly in comparison to his rivals for the job next year.
Mourinho’s apparent desire to manage United makes it more likely that he would be willing to compromise on certain aspects of his approach. He would have to consider United’s history of promoting youth, but the lack of care and attention paid by the club towards their academy over recent years poses a far greater threat to that tradition than Mourinho.
And he has mellowed over recent years. Mourinho’s chimp occasionally still gets the better of him – no bad thing, sometimes – but the edges have been smoothed somewhat since the confrontation-seeking, eye-poking behaviour he displayed in Milan, Madrid and his first stay in west London. If Sir Bobby Charlton can take Fergie at his worst, he should be able to stomach Mourinho.
And so too should the United fans. Mourinho was the best man for the job in 2013 and three years later, if Van Gaal is to step aside in the summer, his credentials make him the safest option again.