Jose Mourinho and Manchester United should probably part ways sooner rather than later, but that probably won’t happen. Why? Well for reasons both emotional and financial, it’s just too painful for either party involved to take that step. It’s important to note that if he does go, that will not begin to solve the most profound problems at the club — even though, all things considered, it would be a start.
To some extent, the problem is not of Mourinho’s making. The hope was that at Old Trafford he would grow into the role of someone who would build a dynasty, a team which would compete for a generation. You could even argue that he was in the process of achieving something of that nature in his first spell at Chelsea, winning two straight Premier League titles before the signing of a post-peak Andriy Shevchenko was forced upon him and the fluency of Chelsea’s forward line subsequently evaporated. But late-era Mourinho is short-term Mourinho, and perhaps it was unfair to expect him to be any different.
When Sir Alex Ferguson appointed David Moyes, he did so in the hope that the job would change Moyes — that taking the position would, over time, give Moyes the vision and the confidence to make it happen. But that didn’t transpire. Instead, Moyes found himself overwhelmed.
It is not the case that Mourinho finds himself overwhelmed — if he were, he would not be so defiant in his news conferences. It is also not that Mourinho is unwilling to make changes — if he were, he would not have shuffled the pack so dramatically as he did against Spurs, playing an unusually daring formation at an exhilarating tempo. It is not that Mourinho has anything to prove — his trophy cabinet should see to that. If he were never to coach another game, his name would still rank alongside the coaching immortals. And he can rightly point to considerable success in the time he has spent at Old Trafford. A Europa League title and two trips to Wembley finals, winning one, are not to be taken lightly.
There is a different argument for why he should go, and it is this — that, sometimes, some appointments simply do not work. When Fabio Capello took the England job, he rightly did so with great expectation, following his exceptional achievements with AC Milan and Real Madrid. Here, it was reasonably considered, was the magnificent disciplinarian needed to guide England’s talented but temperamentally unsound souls to international glory. Yet Capello fell far short of what everyone thought he could do, including him. Far earlier, Brian Clough apparently had everything he needed to succeed at Leeds United. Juande Ramos was astonishing at Sevilla but well below his best at Spurs. Hector Cuper was extraordinary at Valencia but has struggled everywhere else.
Why has Old Trafford not worked out for Mourinho? Responsibility can fairly be apportioned between him, the players and the club’s administration. To start with the players — there is every right to expect a better level of overall performance from them so far. Luke Shaw has managed to prosper despite the uncertainty around him, and it seems that Mourinho deserves no small credit from the turnaround in his form.
Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku were superb at the World Cup, and it is fair to expect finer form from them, especially since Jesse Lingard, who exerted himself similarly this summer, has started the season so well. But this is about more than just three games, and how well or poorly various players have performed. It is about the past two years, over the course of which Mourinho looks to have made too many regressive steps. The underperformance of individuals is one thing, but the systemic underperformance of the team — due in no small part to his handling of the players at his disposal — is a consistent, enduring problem. Most importantly, it is not a problem that will be solved with the odd morale-boosting win against an elite team. At this point, it appears to be terminal.
Why terminal? Because, if it were not, then the club would have wholly supported Mourinho in the transfer market this summer — after all, they have the wealth to afford to spend another few hundred million in pursuit of his wishes. If the problem were not felt to be terminal by Ed Woodward and the Glazers, then the money would not have dried up. It is strange that United would have handed Mourinho a new contract and then declined to buy him the targets that he requested.
Why, then, was it awarded? From a commercial perspective, perhaps a club which is constantly changing its leadership is not so attractive for investors, and having secured second place in the league table Mourinho may have felt that he provided a sufficient return on investment. Indeed, there is no shame in finishing second to Guardiola’s Manchester City, particularly ahead of teams playing football as consistently thrilling as Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool and Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur. Mourinho will feel aggrieved that his position is at risk, given that he — a supposed dinosaur — outwitted these two supposedly futuristic coaches over the course of a season.
But again — this relationship between Mourinho and Manchester United is not working, and this is, in the end, because Manchester United in the era of the Glazers are not ultimately sure what kind of club they want to be. This is fundamentally a problem of ownership and of governance. It seems as if United hired Mourinho in the hope that he would match Guardiola and then suddenly bristled when he aimed to buy a series of experienced, fast-aging stars — which he had long showed a record of doing.
It seems as if — and this predates Mourinho, — they want to be a club which builds for the long-term, but then make signings which have no coherent place within a clearly defined tactical plan or a wider strategy. Crucially, too, this level of unrest may eventually dissuade some of the game’s leading players from going to Old Trafford.
Elite footballers are not motivated merely by money — if they were, they would all be running for pay cheques in China and the Middle East — and if they move to a big club, they want to have a significant chance of winning all the major titles. Given the turmoil at the club, that chance is perhaps at least a season away. Old Trafford still has a major pull, but in its present state of uncertainty the attraction must be a little diminished.
And so we are where we are. Mourinho’s departure would be an admission by all parties that, somewhere along the line, they had made irreversible mistakes — and, most glaringly, a public admission by Woodward that he had failed to bring stability to the club which hasn’t looked sure of itself since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson and the stepping down of David Gill. That is why his departure is unlikely to happen, and that is why, their fates tethered together, Woodward and Mourinho edge uncomfortably forwards.