During the tail end of his second spell at Chelsea, I felt compelled to tweet the following observation about the future manager of Manchester United:
“Wonder what Mourinho’s got planned to deflect attention. Got to be entering cock out at the press conference territory now.”
Little did I realise that the gag would be retweeted after just about every disappointing United display the following season. The lesson here, dear reader, is that the Internet never forgets. But what to make of the erstwhile special one’s first season in charge at Old Trafford?
David Moyes was an unmitigated disaster at United, Louis van Gaal was a mitigated one. Perhaps the biggest surprise in most of the analysis concerning Mourinho is the tendency to compare his record with that of his immediate predecessors. The Portuguese was brought in as more than merely a safe pair of hands; he is a serial winner who has amassed trophies all over Europe with a playing style that has veered from pragmatic to intoxicating depending on the circumstances and personnel.
Between 1993 and 2013, Alex Ferguson won the league 13 times, the European Cup twice and was knighted. If one considers him the greatest manager ever to have lived (and one ought to), Mourinho was certainly in the top five for the majority of the time the pair were both in gainful employment. To say, “Well, the football’s better than it was under Moyes” is not good enough, the comparison should be with Fergie and the current United manager knows it.
The other common defence of Mourinho’s tactics is to claim that Ferguson’s teams were often overtly negative in his final years but the end justifies the means. This line of argument is wholly unconvincing, not least because the first half of the great Scot’s final season saw his team struggle at the back but outscore their opponents on an almost weekly basis. Things were modified around Christmas, opposition teams struggled to break United down and the league was won by a staggering 11 point margin. Most supporters would probably take relatively negative football for a few months if it meant winning the league at a canter but in order to finish sixth? Not so much.
Setting aside the Community Shield since even Moyes managed to secure that one, Mourinho won two of the four trophies on offer in his first season in Manchester. This is undeniably an impressive achievement and lends credence to the idea that his appointment is as close to a guarantee of silverware as exists in the modern game. Unfortunately, in recent years, one can’t escape the feeling that the very biggest clubs are really mainly chasing domestic titles and the Champions League. Still, since Mourinho was unlikely to lift the former in his first season at the club and United weren’t competing for the latter, qualification for next year’s tournament and a couple of trophies has to be considered a success.
There is a terrifying lack of nuance these days in any analysis of sport or politics. Things are too quickly deemed merely good or bad. In the case of Paul Pogba, either you believe he had a stunning season and the press were out to get him or he was a complete waste of money and flattered to deceive. The truth exists, as it tends to, somewhere in the middle. Pogba did not produce his best work in the biggest games and was often not aided by the decisions of his manager.
In the season to come, both will have to be at their very best if United are to produce a genuine title charge and we can talk of Mourinho having a good season without any need for caveats. Here’s hoping.
This article was taken from the RoM charity 2017-18 season preview. This is one of many fantastic pieces of writing in the e-book.