Few marriages – if any – are perfect, no rose garden is without its thorns, and no match, despite the popular phrase, is made in heaven.
Many Manchester United fans were wary of – if not fully against – the appointment of Jose Mourinho as their club’s manager at the end of the 2015/16 season. And, while many more were thrilled to see the Portuguese given the job, even they could probably understand the deep-seated misgivings of those others. Mourinho has always been a man who polarises opinion. He doesn’t just ruffle feathers, he plucks them out and pokes them in the eyes of those to whom they belonged moments before.
Indeed, it was Mourinho’s fiery, fractious nature that probably prevented him from getting the United job when Sir Alex Ferguson retired. That other United behemoth on the board, Sir Bobby Charlton, made his feelings plain at the time, echoing the sentiments of many fans who no doubt still watch Mourinho through narrowed, suspicious eyes, forever viewing him as a Chelsea man now besmirching their beloved club.
It certainly remains a strange, surreal experience singing Mourinho’s name from the stands and the man himself may have unwittingly hit on something when he recently heaped praise on his new club’s fans for their imaginative song that, in turn, praises the Portuguese’s progress at the club so far. “Jose’s playing the way that United should,” goes the ditty and, whether you agree with the sentiment or not, it sticks in the craw a lot less than the more simple, more tribal, more ‘Chelsea’ “Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho” (though the gusto with which that was spat at Chelsea’s home support during United’s recent FA Cup defeat at Stamford Bridge was quite something).
Not all United fans agree that Mourinho has really got the team playing the way United should. By mid March, the expectation going into the season would have been to be fighting for the title, not struggling to make the top four. It doesn’t help Mourinho that he spent a record transfer fee on Paul Pogba, who himself has had an up and down season due to lofty, perhaps unfair, expectations. When you’re managing the most expensively assembled team on the planet, a dog-fight to make the Champions League places is simply not good enough, so the argument goes.
And it’s an argument that holds some weight, though there are caveats. After all, Mourinho wasn’t walking into a smoothly run club on an upward trajectory. On the contrary, despite success in last season’s FA Cup, there was a palpable air of despondency and drift enveloping United last term. Louis van Gaal should probably have been replaced, probably by Mourinho himself, long before he was and, though Van Gaal’s tenure had its moments – think Marcus Rashford’s emergence, Anthony Martial’s arrival and a handful of big wins against rivals – the Dutchman’s face never truly fitted, his philosophy was quickly torn to shreds, and he left numerous players looking like frightened children who have forgotten their PE kits and been forced to play in nothing but their pants.
Mourinho has certainly, with the help of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, restored some confidence and charisma to the club and its players and, though his bus-parking inclination still occasionally rears its head – as against Chelsea and Middlesbrough in recent weeks – overall there is a sense of a club that, having been subdued, meek and cripplingly unsure of itself since Ferguson left, once again beginning to stir.
Mourinho has spoken of the need, upon his arrival, to restore harmony between the team and fans, as well as the difficulty of playing with United’s traditional style and verve while still getting results. It has not always been plain sailing but, at times this season, United have been a joy to watch, capable of scintillating passages of play and breathtaking moments of individual and collective brilliance.
All of which has been achieved while, you sense, Mourinho has been fighting a personal battle against himself while he tries to fit in at a club that, just three years ago, rejected him. He’s had his moments, of course, and you’ll probably always have to accept that his one-man-pantomime nature will never be completely quelled but, like any new signing on the pitch, a manager with so much water under his personal bridge, who has never been far from the headlines in this country even when working hundreds of miles away on the continent, also needs to be given the chance to find his feet. He now describes himself as the ‘Calm One’ and, while the serenity he claims to have found could no doubt erupt like a dormant volcano at any moment, he is certainly trying and appears to have struck on a balance between work and life that was clearly lacking during his early days at the club.
Mourinho’s four summer signings have, on the whole, done well. Pogba may have come in for some criticism – some of it justified – but it is, on the whole, absurd, and spouted most often by those who only watch him occasionally. And the very fact that Mourinho continues to deploy negative tactics every now and then suggests that he knows he needs to strengthen further. As they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day, though, had Twitter been around at the time, there would have been plenty of people with too much time on their hands ready to lay into the builders of the Colosseum.
Divorces and separations can be messy, and Mourinho was clearly shellshocked after his own acrimonious split from Chelsea. He has then walked into a club still reeling, three years on, from their own separation from Ferguson and the unsuccessful flings they’ve had since. Things are far from perfect but, the fact is, Manchester United and Jose Mourinho are still getting to know each other. They may not be a perfect match, but perfect matches probably don’t exist and, in truth, things haven’t been all that bad so far.