Updated: Dec 27, 2018
After all, while the Portuguese was (and never will be) a stylistic match for the Red Devils, his winning mentality and ability to attract some of the world’s best players was desperately required after three years of relative stagnation under the leadership David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal.
This made the capture of Mourinho a practical, if hardly ideal, move, and one that should have enabled the club to lay the foundations for a positive and successful future.
Less than three years on, however, and the Portuguese is fast approaching the point where his position at Old Trafford is untenable. In this article, we’ll look how Mourinho’s tenure has unravelled and ask why he has all but outstayed his welcome at the Theatre of Dreams.
The Changing Man
Make no mistake; Mourinho is a man who continues to divide opinion among Manchester United’s fans, while it’s possible to both vehemently support and decry him during the course of a single game of football.
Mourinho is hardly helped by his penchant for smoke and mirrors, of course, with his outspoken behaviour providing an almost perennial distraction from his own failings and those of his players.
This a theme that has run throughout the second half of his managerial career, with both his tactics and behaviour coming under-fire from Real Madrid legend Alfredo Di Stefano during his time at the Bernabeu.
His second spell at Chelsea also descended into chaos and acrimony, as the charm and effervescence that once defined ‘The Special One’ has continued to chip away as the years have passed.
What’s left is a seemingly frustrated and increasingly agitated Mourinho, who’s now unable to deliver the success that his ego craves or even take responsibility for failures he has endured over the last eight years.
How Mourinho has Fallen Behind Tactically
The Portuguese also seems to be grappling with the challenges of the modern game, which has evolved considerably since he emerged as a tactical innovator back in 2003. Back then, his extremely successful Porto side combined a compact diamond midfield and relatively aggressive front foot pressing to excellent effect, while his early sides were also renowned for their effective counter-attacking and ruthless efficiency.
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While his formative sides may have been efficient counter-punchers rather than tireless sluggers, however, they were extremely aggressive and capable of playing genuinely fluid football to punish over-committed opponents. One of the best examples of this came at Anfield in October 2005, when Mourinho’s energetic Chelsea side thrashed Liverpool 4-1 with a devastating display of pace, power and counter-attacking.
As Mourinho has recorded a number of failures and seen his carefully cultivated façade continue to slip over time, however, it’s his teams that have borne the brunt of these experiences. More pointedly, they’ve become increasingly tentative and defensive (particularly in big games), while they also seem unable to press or attack with any kind of cohesion or consistency.
In short, they’ve grown to reflect the confusion and inner turmoil that appears to have engulfed Mourinho, who seems to have lost much of his own identity and is unsure of how to dominate to change games at the highest level.
The Portuguese has hardly been helped by the emergence of Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, of course, who are stylistically opposed to Mourinho and just so happen to manage United’s closest rivals in Manchester City and Liverpool respectively.
The stark contrast here goes far beyond philosophies and styles of play, however, as these clubs embody the modern tactical trends that are shaping the game throughout the world.
Whereas Mourinho’s United like to drop back into two deep banks of four when they lose possession, for example, the vast majority of Premier League and European sides (including City and Liverpool) prefer to hunt in packs and win the ball back tenaciously. They also press high and look to command the ball in the opposition’s half, starving their opponents of possession and protecting their defensive lines in the process.
This is not necessarily an issue in itself, but it must be considered in the context of the quality boasted by United’s Premier League opponents in the current competition. As money has continued to flood into the game, for example, the EPL’s so-called “lesser clubs” have been able to attract far better players while becoming increasingly comfortable at retaining possession during games.
As a result of this abundant wealth, teams of this ilk are also fitter and more tactically evolved than ever before, and this has created a more competitive league where the elite clubs are required to carve out their own unique advantages.
Clubs like City, Liverpool and Spurs have responded to this challenge by adopting aggressive pressing games and attempting to outwork their opposition, so that they can make the most of the quality at their disposal and play predominantly in the attacking third.
In contrast, Mourinho’s United are far too passive in their approach, enabling their opponents to command the ball while starving their own expensively-assembled attack from threatening in advanced areas. This type of style has been on show throughout the season, resulting in unnecessarily close games with Wolves, Bournemouth and Crystal Palace in recent weeks and leaving United chasing shadows in the league.
As Mourinho’s approach has become increasingly defensive and at odds with a game that continues to evolve, so too his potency as a manager has declined.
While he has won an impressive 23 major honours during his career (excluding Community Shields), for example, 16 of these were won in just seven years between 2003 and 2010. In the subsequent eight years, however, he has won a relatively paltry seven trophies, and while this is still a good rate of return it betrays a gradual decline that cannot be ignored.
Not only this, but six of his eight league titles were won before 2010, with the Portuguese having delivered just two since this time. Increasingly, his sides have been unable to win consistently at the very highest level, while the man himself seems completely bereft of ideas as he looks to reclaim his former glories.
The Last Word – Why United Should Act Sooner Rather than Later
These factors have combined to create a perfect storm for Mourinho, whose lack of inspiration must be worrying for a man who blazed a tactical trail for others to follow less then 15 years ago.
While he may have inspired managers such as Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, however, the students have since outstripped the master while opening a chasm that the Portuguese seems unable to bridge. In fact, despite a net spend of £307.25 million and the procurement of the world’s most expensive midfielder in Paul Pogba, his side is falling further behind the leading clubs while struggling to keep pace with sides such as Everton and Bournemouth.
Of course, the clubs hierarchy should also be blamed for the lack of leadership and a clearly defined transfer policy, while Mourinho has also been quick to publicly criticise some of United’s younger players.
His unwillingness to challenge the lacklustre performances on his own signings Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic suggests that this just another Mourinho smokescreen, however, and one that arguably says more about the impact of the Portuguese’s divisive leadership than the players themselves.
There’s little doubt that another manager could get more out talented forwards like Marcus Rashford, who appears to be gripped by fear and doubt whenever he plays under the Portuguese. This provides a stark contrast with his recent performances for Gareth Southgate’s England, which have been defined by sharp movement, outstanding dribbles and excellent link-up play.
While Mourinho’s fans will claim that there’s no obvious candidate to take over (particularly with former Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane seemingly uninterested in the role), this should not distract from the issue at hand. After all, it’s becoming apparent that Mourinho is incapable of leveraging the talent at his disposal, with issues plaguing his defensive, forward line and the balance of his midfield.
As a result, he’s unlikely to land a top four finish this season, and it can be argued that the club would be better served by promoting Nicky Butt from the Academy side to take over for the remainder of the season. Sure, this would trigger a hefty pay-off for Mourinho, but the Reds have little to lose in their current circumstances and a change in management could still propel them into the top four.
The club certainly has the talent to challenge at the top end of the table, and no amount of spin or expert manoeuvring from Mourinho should distract us from this.
By recognising this now and installing a manager who understands the ethos of the club and the need to play attacking football, the board can breathe fresh life into the side and start a new and exciting chapter in its history.
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