By Paul Gunning
The name ‘Manchester United’ has long been synonymous with attacking football. From the storied Busby Babes to the great teams of the Sir Alex Ferguson era, speed, flare, finesse and fantasy have been a must in the eyes of demanding fans for whom success alone is not a price worth paying for a dearth of style.
Louis van Gaal suffered the consequences of choosing pragmatism over adventure and, despite getting better results, suffered far more derision from the Old Trafford stands than even his predecessor, David Moyes, whose reign was generally wretched.
Jose Mourinho may be many things, but stupid, he is not. He would have been well aware when taking the job as United’s manager that it was not just a few influential figures in the boardroom who harboured misgivings about his appointment. Many fans were also apprehensive, distrustful of a manager with such close, long-standing ties with Chelsea.
Even more worrying for those supporters, however, was the Portuguese’s approach to the game itself. Mourinho’s name, in contrast to that of the club he was walking into, has always been associated with caution. ‘Parking the bus’ became a speciality for a man whose teams quickly mastered the art of shutting games down at will. Mourinho teams were rarely seen clinging on to slender leads. Rather, they swatted opponents away, crushing them underfoot like a cruel dictator stifling revolt, sapping their spirit, draining their energy, leaving them to depart bloodied and bruised from flinging themselves futilely at the brick wall that was Mourinho’s watertight defence.
The truth, as is so often the way, is more nuanced than the accepted lore. Mourinho has, in fact, managed with style at points in his career. His stint at Real Madrid springs to mind, along with periods during his most recent title-winning season during his second spell at Chelsea. Nevertheless, he has never been renowned for verve and vivacity, preferring solidity and strength of will.
It was an approach that reaped great rewards for Mourinho, who became one of the most successful managers of the modern era, but surely not an approach that would sit well with a fanbase so insistent on expansive football. With Van Gaal gone, United fans feared that Mourinho would not offer enough by way of contrast in terms of entertainment.
Yet, a little over six months into his tenure, there are signs that, far from Mourinho trying to impose his philosophy on United, it is he who is attempting to soak up the traditions of the club he now serves. The painfully slow football from the last two seasons under Van Gaal is gone, fans are no longer falling asleep in the stands and games are anticipated with relish once again, rather than being dreaded like a chore that has to be suffered through a sense of duty.
Mourinho seems determined to disprove the theory that his time at the top has been and gone and that he cannot evolve as a manager. “One of the things I proposed to myself was to come to a club like Manchester United and play the kind of football that people want. It’s Man U tradition,” Mourinho said after his side’s recent 4-1 win over West Ham United. “I want this beautiful team to win more matches. Playing beautiful, attacking football – that is something the fans like – but we need results. So goals plus performance means the real happiness.”
Music to fans’ ears after the last three years and, overall, it is obviously not just talk from United’s manager. The team is, generally, playing well, and playing in a style that clearly does not come naturally to Mourinho himself. Even now, he occasionally reverts to type, attempting to shut up shop when leading by a single goal, as against Arsenal and Everton in recent weeks, when he threw on Morgan Schneiderlin and Marouane Fellaini respectively. United conceded late equalisers on both occasions.
Mourinho’s lingering mistrust of the swashbuckling style of play United fans desire has cost him points already and it may yet take time for him to fully accept that, particularly with his current team’s defensive frailties, attack can often be the best form of defence. He is, however, learning fast, as his words, along with United’s generally entertaining style of play, attests.
The last three years have been a betrayal of United’s traditions of attacking football. It will take time, but Jose Mourinho is, slowly but surely, bringing such football back to Old Trafford.