Had Jose Mourinho replaced Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013 there’s every likelihood we would reflect on his time at Manchester United differently.
The squad that Fergie easily won the league title with in his final season was a long way short of the world class teams he had created before. But they had the ego, confidence and leaders that would have probably done well for Mourinho. It wouldn’t have lasted for long, as nothing ever does when Mourinho is in charge, but they may well have gone on to win or at least challenge for the title under him.
Instead, United went for David Moyes. Louis van Gaal then replaced him and United’s football went from poor to possession obsessed, with us creating just one or two good opportunities a game.
Under Mourinho our football was better than it had been under his two predecessors and he added another two trophies to the FA Cup that Van Gaal won in his final season, but it still wasn’t good enough.
Despite this, we finished second in his last full season in charge. We were miles behind Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, with them wrapping up the title months before the season ended (even if they bottled it against us at the Etihad) but still finished ahead of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool and Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur.
We would have been struggling to finish in the top four if not for David de Gea though, who bailed us out time and again.
With a new season approaching, Mourinho, having signed a contract extension months earlier, let the club know that a world class central defender was the priority signing for the summer.
The club didn’t back him though, with Ed Woodward briefing the press to claim that there weren’t any defenders United could sign who were better than what we had already. Harry Maguire had just shone for England during the World Cup, with Phil Jones warming the bench and Chris Smalling not even making the squad. Spurs’ Toby Alderweireld was another player Mourinho reportedly wanted but United didn’t even bother to put in a bid.
Had Mourinho signed the central defender he craved and United desperately needed, our season might have gone differently. Liverpool have scored just five goals more than us but are 16 points ahead (with a game in hand). Spurs have scored three goals more than us but are 10 points ahead. Chelsea have scored five fewer goals but are six points ahead.
Not only would a world class defender have improved our defence, and therefore our position in the league table, it would have also kept Mourinho, the manager whose contract we had just extended, happy. More importantly, it would have sent a message to the players that the club had faith in the manager and he was here to stay.
When you consider that City were second, just three points behind Leicester and still favourites for the title in 2016 when it was announced that Guardiola would be replacing Manuel Pellegrini at the end of the season, only to finish fourth, 16 points behind the champions, it’s obvious what an impact the fragility of the manager’s position has on a squad.
Knowing that the manager’s position is secure gives them a sense of stability and a further incentive to perform. When you look at how often Mourinho talked about his need to sign a defender, only for his wish to be ignored, it must have sent a clear message to the squad.
United signed Rio Ferdinand for £30m in 2002 and 15 years later signed unproven, and relatively unknown, 22-year-old Victor Lindelof for £31m. Taking in to consideration how much the price of players has increased over the past decade or two, the fact the club were unwilling to back Mourinho in the position he highlighted as a weakness had to give a signal that Mourinho’s day were numbered. We finished second and while statistically our defence looked strong enough, the reality is De Gea picked up a lot of the slack and we needed to buy to match our rivals. If we wanted to keep up with the teams around us and overtake the team above us, we needed to improve.
Klopp was afforded £75m for Virgil van Dijk and Pep Guardiola was given £58m for Aymeric Laporte, £52m for Benjamin Mendy, £50m for John Stones and £47m for Kyle Walker. You can understand why Mourinho would have been frustrated with the owners for giving him less than £20m for a Portuguese teenager. While Diogo Dalot has the potential to be a great full-back one day, he was never going to make the difference this season that our rivals’ expensive defensive signings have made for them.
Mourinho started the season pessimistically as a result, claiming that finishing second in the last campaign was overachieving and we’d struggle to replicate that this season. He was beaten before we even began. This is not acceptable. In the summer of 2006 we sold our top scorer, Ruud van Nistelrooy, and signed only Michael Carrick. Title winners Chelsea added one of the best players in the world to each position in their squad, when bringing in Ashley Cole, Michael Ballack and Andriy Shevchenko. Ferguson managed to instil the winning mentality in to his squad regardless and we won the league against all odds.
But Mourinho isn’t Ferguson. No manager is. So while people can be critical of him for having this attitude it was no surprise. It shouldn’t have been a shock to the Glazers either, who chose to extend the deal of an egomaniac and then deny him the players he wanted to be successful. He threw his toys out of the pram as a result, giving negative press conferences which dulled the spirit of the fans and the squad, but that shouldn’t have been unexpected to our owners. He didn’t have a personality transplant when he became United manager, after all. This was the manager they picked and this was the way he behaved.
It’s also no surprise that the players quickly stopped performing for him. Whatever his faults were behind the scenes, and I can imagine there were plenty, the squad had to know his time at the club was quickly coming to an end if his transfer targets weren’t brought in.
However, chances are signing the defender Mourinho wanted would have only delayed the inevitable. He had lost the dressing room, too many players weren’t performing for him, his tactics weren’t good enough, and even if our defensive record would have been better, we wouldn’t have been challenging for the title. While it was a mistake to let the summer transfer window close without us bringing in any experienced defenders, it was arguably a bigger mistake to lengthen his stay at the club if the owners had already lost faith in his ability to do the job.
Like plenty of other United fans, I was convinced that Mourinho’s defensive tactics were the only way to get through the season with the defenders we had available. Maybe we could win a trophy. Maybe we would scrape top four. But what could you really expect us to do when Woodward and the Glazers wouldn’t buy the defender or two that we needed to improve?
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s four games in charge have shown that our defence isn’t any better, with us claiming our first clean sheet against Newcastle. Only four teams have scored fewer goals than his first opponent, Cardiff, with Huddersfield and Newcastle the bottom two teams for chances converted. We’ve let in goals against teams who hardly ever score.
However, while our defence still hasn’t been great, what has seen is us secure maximum points and us score plenty of goals. Before Solskjaer took charge, our best goal difference for the season was +2, following our 4-1 win over Fulham. After just four games, our goal difference is now +11. We were eight points behind fifth placed Arsenal and 11 points points behind fourth placed Chelsea when Mourinho was sacked. Those gaps have been reduced to three and six points in just two weeks. We were 18 points behind City, now it’s nine points (but they have a game in hand).
People will rightly point out that the opposition has been poor. But then Derby (6th in the Championship), Brighton (13th) and West Ham (10th) are hardly setting the world alight, but they all beat us this season. We’ve drawn against Southampton (18th), Crystal Palace (14th) and Wolves (9th) too.
It’s not just about winning these games against weak opposition though but the way we’re winning. We’ve averaged 3.5 goals a game since Solskjaer took charge. Under Mourinho, we scored more than two goals in a league game on just two occasions this season, averaging 1.7 a match over all.
You’ll have heard United supporters repeat the old cliche, that attack is the best form of defence, and Solskjaer has shown that to be be true so far. While it’s hard to prove either way, it’s easily believable that Mourinho wouldn’t have won all of these past four games, and almost certainly would have done so scoring as many goals as we have.
Against tougher opposition, these tactics may not prove to be as fruitful though. We face Spurs next week and if we spend 90 minutes throwing all of our men forward, we may well find ourselves four or five goals behind. It’s easier to scare the defences of poorer teams and rely on the fact their forwards are not good enough to beat De Gea when one on one.
In the last four games, against bottom half of the table teams, we’ve had 40 shots against us. For the sake of comparison, Liverpool have had 31 against them over their last four games, and two of their opponents were in the top six.
We can celebrate Solskjaer’s attacking approach when it pays off but the reality is that against better teams, with defences that are better than ours and with forwards that are at least our equal, we may well struggle. Let’s not forget that our fixture against PSG is on the horizon.
Had Mourinho reserved his defensive approach for just the big games, then maybe we wouldn’t have as much room to complain. We picked up six points against Arsenal last season, four against Liverpool, and three against City, Tottenham and Chelsea. The issue was we managed just three points against West Brom and Huddersfield, and four points against Stoke and Southampton, when two of those sides were relegated and the other two almost were.
We got absolutely battered by Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final at Old Trafford in 2008, having drawn 0-0 away. To have 38% possession at Old Trafford was pretty much unheard of in those days. But Sir Alex Ferguson opted to get to the final by any means necessary and trusted his defence to get the job done (which they did, with Barcelona only having three shots on target to our two).
To be hanging on against poor teams though, as we have so often this season, even if we did go on to win, is not acceptable, and I somehow believed that it was. I looked at Valencia, Smalling, Jones, Rojo and Young and believed the only way we could survive was if we stuck players behind the ball and relied on our talented forwards to make the most of the scraps they were given. I was wrong.
Victor Lindelof has been our best defender this season, along with being named Sweden’s Player of the Year, and while Eric Bailly has largely been a disaster in 2018-19, I have hope that he will one day turn it around. He has the makings of a top, even if unconventional, defender, but has yet to prove have that consistently. Still none of these players are currently a patch on even our recent title winning defences that included the likes of Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, Wes Brown or even Rafael Da Silva.
I’ve seen a minority of United fans claiming, during the darkest of Mourinho’s days, that they’d rather see us draw 4-4 than win 1-0. I’ll never be in that camp. I’d always rather see us win. In both of Mourinho’s title wins when he first joined Chelsea, they scored just 1.9 goals per game, scoring just 72 goals in each season. When we lost out to City on goal difference in 2012 we scored 17 more than that! But if Mourinho had seen us score a goal or two a game on the way to winning the title, I’d have happily taken it, even if the football wasn’t the most entertaining we’d ever seen.
The problem is that we didn’t come close to winning it, so what’s the point in playing defensively if all you have to show for it is finishing 19 points behind City?
We’re not going to win the league this year. So if we get to keep seeing us stick four or five goals past our opponents on the way to finishing in the top four, I’ll be happy this season. That doesn’t necessarily make Solskjaer the ideal candidate for the long term, the results against the top teams will determine that, but it will certainly make for more fun this season than we’ve witnessed for a long time. It also can’t harm our future to have a former player of Solskjaer’s calibre training forwards like Rashford, Martial and Lukaku on finishing.
Plenty of United fans claimed “anything is better than this” during the final weeks of Mourinho’s tenure, but that wasn’t true. It was totally plausible that United would have replaced him with someone worse (this is the club that appointed Moyes to take over from Ferguson, lest we forget). Finishing sixth felt dreadful but there are plenty of managers who could overseen a worse league position than that.
However, I was wrong to think there wasn’t someone in the short term who couldn’t get more entertaining football out of the players we had, who could bring in better results than the ones we would have otherwise had. It’s too early to judge conclusively, but these four games under Solskjaer have been some of the best moments we’ve had as United fans for a while, so I applaud the club for being brave enough to make the decision so early on. They hung on to Moyes and Van Gaal for so much longer than they should have and it appears as though they’ve learnt from those mistakes.
Time will tell whether Solskjaer has the ability to take on the position on a permanent basis but for now I’m just enjoying watching us play proper football again. I’m loving seeing the players who failed to show up for Mourinho playing their socks off. It’s great to see our academy players making it in to the match day squad and getting on the pitch. It warms the heart to see our manager celebrating every goal as if it means the world to him and singing the praises of our players after every game.
Mourinho did a better job than history will probably credit him for. He won two trophies, qualified for the Champions League in both seasons, and outperformed media darlings Klopp and Pochettino in both league position and silverware. But it fell apart this season and I was wrong to believe we couldn’t find someone who could do better, if Solskjaer’s start is anything to go by.
It’s fun watching United play again, for the first time in a long time, and Mourinho should feel embarrassed for failing to get the best out of our attacking players. It’s unlikely he’s capable of such an emotion though, given he always claims his failings are someone else’s fault. We can be glad for what he gave us, and that night in Stockholm will long remain as one of my favourites as a red, even if many non-Mancunian supporters can’t get their head around it (purely judging from the response I’ve had on social media when I talk about what that evening meant to me).
But we’ve got our hero in charge of our club, someone who talked about United as “us” even when he wasn’t our manager. Someone who understands the honour it is to be the manager of Manchester United and it having nothing to do with his ego or reputation. Someone who learnt his trade from Sir Alex Ferguson and still calls on him for advice. Someone who celebrates every goal as a fan, because he is a fan. Someone who understands our history and the importance of promoting youth. But more important than any of that, someone who loves attacking football and understands how much the fans want to be entertained. Long may it continue. Ole!
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