Johannesburg – In my preview to this review, I spoke about my conviction behind the decision to appoint Jose Mourinho as the next Manchester United manager. At the time what I had convinced myself of was that, Jose was a winner at every club he had managed and had a very strong record at the biggest of clubs – Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid. At the time I had convinced myself that he had a point to prove to his former employers Chelsea and that Manchester United post Sir Alex Ferguson had a point to prove and unlimited resources so this was a marriage made in heaven.
I also alluded to the fact that Manchester United needed the first version of Jose Mourinho, the one who arrived at Chelsea and announced himself as being special in his first press conference and blazed a trail of glory in English Football in his first 2 years. He was young, charismatic, innovative, abrasive and inspirational but all those different characteristics seemed to materialise at the perfect moment for the scenario. An easy example was how he dismissed a 5-4 London derby score line between Arsenal and Spurs by labelling it “embarrassing”. “A 5-4 result is a hockey score, not a football score,” he began. “In a three-against-three training match, if the score reaches 5-4 I send the players back to the dressing rooms as they are not defending properly. “So to get a result like that in a game of 11 against 11 is disgraceful. I did not see the game but the defenders were a disgrace,”
This style of commentary became synonymous with Jose Mourinho in his first stint at Chelsea and if you’ve been a supporter of Manchester United, you will have noticed that Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t have the greatest relationship with the media and often treated them with disdain but they respected him, he had an air of authority in every press conference which was sorely lacking in David Moyes and to a lesser degree Louis van Gaal. Jose hasn’t disappointed in that department as on many occasions his press cons produced headline grabbing comments evidenced in his constant berating of his own players. Hendrik Mkhitaryan, Anthony Martial, Luke Shaw, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones all had their turns in the spotlight. This style of man management seemed to work on Mkhitaryan whos form in the European winter seemed to improve dramatically but isolated those deemed to be weaker in their individual mental toughness such as Martial and Shaw. Criticism of Smalling and Jones also didn’t seem to bring them back from injury earlier than expected when the fixture list started to weigh Manchester United down as games in cup competitions and the league started to tell on the squad.
So United didn’t get the original Mourinho and despite a decent start to the season, the 4-0 defeat at Chelsea seemed to suggest that perhaps Jose was not that “special” anymore as the Chelsea supporters reminded him of this on the day. After winning 4 of his first 4 games as the manager of Manchester United, the Manchester derby defeat and subsequent losses to Feyenoord in Europe, Watford in the Premier League and draws to Liverpool and Stoke City brought back bad memories of Chelsea struggling the season before under Jose. He had lost quite a number of games in a short space of time if you consider the back end of his Chelsea tenure. The defeat to Chelsea would however be the last in the English Premier League for 25 games as Manchester United started to rebuild some pride. The much maligned 25 game unbeaten run, which happened to be the longest in the history of the club but because the club moved from 6th to 6th in that time it doesn’t carry the respect a run that long deserves. Literally from October 2016 to April 2017 Jose’s United did not lose a single league game. There was a defeat to Fenerbahce in Turkey, a defeat to Chelsea in the FA Cup Quarter Final but just too many home draws in that time. So he had at least instilled a resilience in the squad and they had developed a reputation of being hard to beat. Players who had developed a reputation of being untrustworthy were becoming reliable none more so than Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones who would form a fairly impenetrable but unlikely centre back pairing for Manchester United during this run. Marouane Fellaini to most United fans dismay was being used more and more in the quest to find the right balance in midfield but he too was becoming reliable to a degree and often being used in the right manner to exploit his strengths and hide his weaknesses.
So Jose still polarises opinion but there was clear progress unless you’re someone who’s enjoyed the demise of the club. References to how much money was spent is often thrown in the faces of those who can see tangible improvement. The team is much harder to beat on an average day, there is more quality in the side than there was in the past 3 seasons with the inclusion of Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Hendrik Mkhitaryan and Eric Bailly and the club was able to win the EFL Cup, get to the Quarter Finals of the FA Cup as well as the recent win of the Europa League, which confirms Manchester United’s inclusion in the Uefa Champions’ League group draw for the 2017/18 season. Mission accomplished then?
It’s not that simple it is? For Jose it is but this is just one reason he polarises opinions. For Jose, he has delivered 3 trophies in his first season. Yes, he counts the Community Shield as a trophy whilst many football supporters and managers may not necessarily count it as a triumph. I certainly don’t it’s a warm up for the English football season but I’m not a football manager so who am I to say what qualifies as success and what doesn’t, what I do know is that win or lose in that fixture the rhetoric remains the same – it’s a non-event – so it’s better to win it for morale.
There is also the small matter of 6th in the EPL, which is lower than both of LVG’s seasons and again the £175m spent to finish below him will be a point of debate and will be thrown into the faces of Manchester United fans and had become the point of departure immediately after the last league game last Sunday. You’ve spent all this money and brought in a world class manager and broken the transfer record only to finish below Van Gaal. This rhetoric of course is fine until you consider that in other competitions Manchester United did rather well and I’ve highlighted that in the paragraph above. The league is the bread and butter we all know and the expectation was that with all the factors above considered Manchester United would challenge once more for the title but this simply didn’t materialise and it’s down to home form, which was diabolical and that’s putting it kindly.
It became a running joke that when Manchester United play at Old Trafford it will be a draw, I had even consoled myself to the reality that we will miss a few early chances and then the pattern would be the same as every other league game and even if there is an early breakthrough we will miss chances and eventually the opposition will score. Just too many draws against sides in the bottom half of the table. So who’s to blame for all these draws? Another point that polarises opinions so depending on which side of the Jose Mourinho fence you sit, it was either the tactics or the players. I tend to assign more blame to the players especially when you consider that the conversion rate was 5%. So we created a mountain of chances but only took 5% of them, which is quite woeful. Even top scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic with 28 goals could not be excused, collectively as a club United left themselves exposed as they didn’t have the efficiency to close out games. I’m open to listening to the other side of the story that the tactics are too conservative in big games but the buck ultimately stops with the players, for me.
The tactical master classes in nullifying Chelsea at Old Trafford and Ajax in Stockholm in the Europa League Final seem to suggest there’s still life in the old dog. Jose Mourinho will never be a manager who believes in a total football philosophy, he will never be a manager who believes in possession is the be all and end all, he will never be a manager who caresses the feelings of his players unless they buy into his way of thinking. If your expectation was any of the above you may feel a little bit short-changed after one season. If, like most of us who support Manchester United, expected him to steer the club back in the direction of being capable of winning the league again then you may still feel a little bit short changed but if the past 3 years has taught anything it’s that there are no guarantees in football – just ask the City fans who had visions of their club playing like Barcelona or Bayern Munich when Guardiola arrived – or the Liverpool fans who expected Klopp to deliver overnight with gegen pressing and heavy metal style of football. They’ve finished 6th and 4th and lost two finals. Not exactly overwhelming is it?
So it’s been a season full of attrition rather than anything spectacular, a season of learning and growing, a season where despite very poor league results the fans have always had something to look forward to and celebrate. Chelsea are the only English side to win the Europa League in its current format. Liverpool won the UEFA Cup in 2001 but besides that English sides just don’t win that competition. English sides have also had very poor results in Europe since Chelsea won the ultimate prize in 2012. Manchester United had also never won the competition in any form in their history. Despite what people may say the Europa League triumph two days ago was a coup for the club.
Two “minor” trophies, a win in the Shield and Quarter Finalists in the FA Cup whilst also qualifying for the group stages of the Uefa Champions League next year makes it a good first season for Manchester United under Jose Mourinho. The expectations will grow and 6th in the league will never be acceptable again under any circumstances. With all of that in context I would like to think a B- is a good rating for Jose this season. Mission accomplished for now! The benchmark has been set and only a strong league season and advancement into the knockout stages of the UCL can be seen as an improvement to this season.