By Iwan Lehnert
In hindsight, perhaps Manchester United fans shouldn’t be surprised at the position that the club currently finds itself in. Even the most optimistic members of its fanbase must have accepted Jose Mourinho’s appointment in the summer of 2016 with the knowledge of the Portuguese’s history of less-than amicable exits from his last two appointments as proof that The Special One’s time at Old Trafford could eventually reach a destructive nadir. Still, the speed at which this latest and seemingly terminal situation has arisen, 28 months into the job and without having gotten United anywhere near the top of the English or European game is impressive. Alarming and maddening and with more than a hint of inevitability, sure, but still; impressive.
Saturday’s 3-1 defeat away to West Ham United capped off a terrible week for United, with the previous weekend’s anodyne draw at home to Wolves and a pathetic League Cup exit to Derby County representing a stunning new low for Mourinho’s side. Accusations of tactical ineptitude, puzzling personnel decisions and repeated criticism of a complete absence of an attacking plan have dogged the former Chelsea boss for much of his time at the club, so it’s not like this latest slide into mediocrity wasn’t signposted. Still, plenty of United fans wished that his destructive patterns would be broken and hoped to see the Portuguese establish something of a dynasty at the club, however idealistic that now appears.
But as realism rears its all-too familiar face and precedes to dance in front of the club’s fanbase with carefree abandon, it’s nigh-on impossible to view Mourinho’s current situation at United as salvageable. That’s almost exclusively down to his past appointments and well-documented behaviour, with the scorched earth left behind after his exit from Stamford Bridge with the then-reigning Premier League champions hovering above the relegation zone just one of several cautionary tales to be taken from his past exploits.
That’s not to say that hiring Mourinho has been a total disaster; three cup final appearances in two seasons is not something to be sniffed at in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson landscape, and good memories haven’t been completely absent during his reign. Difficult situations have been managed, including a successful Europa League campaign (however close it came to disaster) and the phasing out of an ailing Wayne Rooney, both of which were of high importance, and his willingness to call out paymasters who frequently get a free pass when United stumble was laudable.
But the feeling as the clock ticked down on a third Premier League defeat of the season at the London Stadium a few days ago was that United are reaching the endgame when it comes to Mourinho’s management. With so many players drowning in a red shirt under his stewardship, and hilariously awful relationships with the club’s biggest talents combining to make an impenetrable blob of negativity, something has to give, and whilst many fans might be wishing for it, giving a huge chunk of the playing squad the chop seems counterproductive.
It’s not impossible for this situation to change, of course; just improbable. It’ll take more bravery, more careful man-management and a willingness to take risks, but Mourinho has enough tools at his disposal to turn this current slide around and craft something resembling a positive season. But that isn’t how this story ends; it will almost certainly conclude with a bitter exit, with plenty of damning public criticisms of his players and immeasurable vitriol thrown out before the end comes.
No one’s blameless here, either; the board saw fit to offer Mourinho a new contract earlier this year, yet confusingly refused to back him this summer when the Portuguese unsurprisingly yet again came calling with requests to sign reliable 29/30-year olds for big sums of money. As if they didn’t already know that their manager would want to sign Chelsea’s Willian or Inter Milan’s Ivan Perisic.
Paul Pogba, for his clear talents, hasn’t performed regularly enough for a player of his stature, and he isn’t the only one who will shoulder some responsibility for the way in which Mourinho’s tenure at United has turned sour, but if we’re rolling out the clichés, then the buck does stop with the manager.
If he cannot inspire his players to more than their current level, then that’s down to him. If he insists on a ludicrous central defensive strategy against a middling side that features a young midfielder that backfires badly, like it did last weekend, then it’s down to him. If players that Mourinho has purchased continue to look utterly bereft of confidence, ability and appear a shadow of their former selves, then either they’re suffering from an oddly specific virus that has drained them all of both said confidence and ability, or, as is somewhat more likely, it’s down to him.
Baring a stunning turnaround of gargantuan proportions, it’ll end at some point this season, and it won’t end well. And who knows? United’s board may get lucky, with his successor and that future director of football combining to bring a relative period of stability and success, and having spent so much of these last five years mired in negative football and negativity itself, what a blessed relief that would be. But that’s all prospective; what matters at this exact moment is United’s ability to manage a situation that is spiralling out of control, making a club that so often lauds itself as a behemoth look like a bumbling fool. Wins against Valencia and Newcastle United may calm the storm in the next week, but as this club’s fans have so frequently seen, trouble is often not too far away.
With that in mind, and the spectre of Zinedine Zidane haunting Mourinho in much the same way as he haunted Louis van Gaal for six months before his termination, another period of discord has taken root that will likely see Jose Mourinho sacked as manager of Manchester United. Perhaps it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that it all came so quickly, but with another season in its infancy seemingly consigned to the dustbin, that offers cold comfort.