A year on since he was named manager of Manchester United, just how good, or poor, has the ‘Special One’ been?
The 2015/2016 season was a highly tumultuous one for Manchester United in almost every area. With Louis van Gaal’s no-risk possession based style of play infuriating fans and pundits alike, the Dutchman was unable to counter the criticism with results as United crashed out of the Champions League at the group stage and finished fifth in the Premier League, thus losing out on the chance of competing in Europe’s elite competition in the 2016/2017 season. There were also reports of players being unhappy with Van Gaal’s tactics– this, coupled with the fact that an increasing portion of the fan-base were losing faith in their manager, meant that United had no choice but to dismiss Van Gaal at the end of the season despite him leading the club to the F.A. Cup a few days earlier.
Speculation over who would succeed Van Gaal had been raging on well before the Dutchman had been relieved of his duties, with a host of names being mentioned. Finally it was Van Gaal’s former protege and friend, José Mourinho, who was appointed as manager. The Portuguese himself had suffered a highly dysfunctional season in which he had been sacked by Chelsea despite having led them to the title in the previous season. It was the lowest point of Mourinho’s managerial career, and he decided to respond by taking up the biggest challenge of his career, that of converting the broken squad he inherited at one of the biggest club’s in the world into one capable of regularly winning silverware.
One year on, and Mourinho has had a highly polarising first season. He has led United to two trophies- the EFL Cup and the Europa League, but could only take the club to a dismal sixth place in the Premier League following another infuriating campaign, albeit for different reasons. So has Mourinho been a success or failure thus far? The answer is somewhere in the middle. Let’s take a look at how he has gone about managing United so far..
Transfer Market Dealings
The first sign of Mourinho’s impact at United was the way in which the club went about its business in the 2016 summer transfer window. Sacked by Chelsea in December and with questions being raised over Van Gaal’s position as early as January, the Portuguese had plenty of time to observe United from afar. Mourinho is a skilled operator in the market, famed for the way he forensically analyses his squad and identifying the areas that need to be addressed as well as the personnel required to fulfil the role, often to great success.
Perhaps the biggest strength of Mourinho in this area, however, is the efficiency with which he conducts his transfer dealings. The same cannot be said for United for the previous three seasons, with the club falling into a scatter-gun approach despite the vast resources being available. David Moyes presided over one of the most farcical transfer windows ever, with United pursuing a range of targets in the summer of 2013 and ending up only with the signing of Marouane Fellaini on deadline day, the humiliation compounded by the fact that they could’ve paid £4m lesser for the Belgian had he been signed ten days earlier. Things were better under Louis van Gaal but still nowhere near good enough, highlighted by the fact that the club went into the last hour of the 2015 transfer window not knowing who their no. 1 goalkeeper would be, with David de Gea’s transfer to Real Madrid eventually failing to materialise. Departures of the likes of Michael Keane were also puzzling, and there was much room for improvement in the way United approached the market.
Under Mourinho, the process has become a whole lot more refined. The positions of centre back, central midfielder, attacking midfielder and striker were identified as the areas of the squad that required strengthening. Ed Woodward was then given a list of primary, secondary and tertiary targets to work on and he successfully managed to acquire the primary ones– Eric Bailly, Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Eric Bailly transfer was a bit of a blitzkreig, with the deal all but wrapped up before anyone in the media could even get a sniff of what was happening. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was announced a few days later followed swiftly by Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and three out of Mourinho’s four signings were available for United’s entire pre-season schedule. The fourth was Paul Pogba and his world record £89m transfer, with all its vast complications and complexities, was completed two whole weeks before the end of the window. All four deals bore Mourinho’s finger prints, and there have been multiple reports that he personally took some part in the negotiations, which sped up the process.
Player departures have also been vastly different. With a reputation of being a poor selling club, United have been completely different in this regard under Mourinho. With the exception of Bastian Schweinsteiger, who left on a free, United were able to bring in decent money for the sales of Morgan Schneiderlin and Memphis Depay, who both departed in January. Schneiderlin was sold to Everton for £24m, nearly as much as he was bought, whilst Memphis was sold to Lyon for a fee of around £20m, with the inclusion of a buy-back clause/’gentleman’s agreement’ in his contract which given his potential and the amicable way he departed the club, is a smart move indeed.
So whilst Mourinho has spent a fair bit of money, he has also helped bring in a decent amount through player sales. His performance in this department has been excellent.
Dealing with the pressures of being manager of Manchester United
The post of manager of Manchester United is one of the most sought after jobs in football, given United’s size, history, fan base and incredible amount of resources. It could also be said that it is the most challenging, given the immense pressure of keeping a club of its stature constantly in the hunt for trophies in the manner in which Sir Alex Ferguson did in his glittering twenty six year reign at Old Trafford.
The weight of expectation can prove to be too overwhelming for some, as seen with David Moyes. Appointed as Fergie’s successor, Moyes was visibly unable to cope with the pressures of the job, with his demeanour, body language and (often baffling) comments proving that he was clearly out of his depth at the elite level. Louis van Gaal was the polar opposite, with his experience of managing clubs like Barcelona and Bayern Munich showing that he was more than capable of leading United although he too succumbed to the pressure in his second season, with his highly authoritarian approach ironically being one of the main reasons for his downfall.
Coming into the job at the lowest point of his managerial career, there were question marks over whether Mourinho would be able to cope with the demands of the United job. One season in, and he has managed admirably. Three consecutive victories provided the perfect start to the Premier League campaign but United went into free fall after, winning just one of their next seven league games and struggling to make it out of the Europa League group stage, with the slump reaching its nadir in a humiliating 4-0 thrashing away to Mourinho’s former employers Chelsea, a result which would’ve surely rankled the Portuguese. The critics were beginning to smell blood and by deciding to chastise his players in public for their performances in addition to his increasingly prickly demeanour on the touchline and with the media, there were signs that the pressure might just have started getting to him.
But he managed to turn things around. An upturn in league form and the deficiencies of others meant that United were in firm contention for a top-four finish and after negotiating a tricky group, comfortably progressed through the knockout stages of the Europa League, along with the EFL Cup triumph. After the demolition at Stamford Bridge in October, United responded by going twenty four games unbeaten in the league, equalling the club’s previous unbeaten record set in the 2010/2011 season. The run, although littered with several frustrating draws, is testament to the resilience Mourinho has instilled in his squad over the course of the season and although it finally came to an end against Arsenal in May, effectively ruling out a top four finish, there was barely any outrage as Mourinho had managed to convince the United fans and football world that the Premier League was a dead rubber.
It was all classic Mourinho, the way he in which manipulates events and perceptions around him and his team. Throughout the season he pointed the blame at everything from shoddy refereeing to fixture pile-ups for his and his team’s failings, managing to create a siege mentality around a club as big as United. Although he was correct to prioritise the Europa League over the Premier League given the circumstances, the fact remains that he should have never had to make that choice– United should have finished comfortably in the top four but ended up a dismal sixth, lower than the previous season. Mourinho managed to divert attention from this catastrophic failure by claiming that he was only concentrating on the Europa League, and his comments that a club like United favours winning trophies over finishing higher in the league is a testament to his savviness.
It also appears that he is genuinely thrilled at being United manager, a job he has reportedly been keen on since first locking horns with United as manager of FC Porto in 2004. Even the fact that his family is living away from him in London has not visibly unsettled Mourinho, and if anything has allowed him to bury himself more in his work. He has endeared himself to the supporters with his passion and enthusiasm, perfectly encapsulated by the loud cheers he received whilst repeatedly patting the United badge on his track suit while walking off the Old Trafford pitch after a 2-0 win against Chelsea.
Loved by the fans and achieving the board’s targets, Mourinho has masterfully strengthened his position over the year.
Infamous for his incredibly demanding nature, it is of no surprise that Mourinho has clashed with a host of players in his career. His third and final season at Real Madrid was overshadowed by reports of numerous rifts in the dressing room. Mourinho took the astonishing step of alienating club captain and legend Iker Casillas from the squad, and the dressing room was torn apart as several players decided to back their captain. He also managed to fall out with Cristiano Ronaldo toward the end of his spell, but by then the writing was already on the wall. It was a similar story during his second spell at Chelsea. Having led them to the title in his second season, he fell out spectacularly with key players such as Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas at the beginning of his third season, and was sacked as the defending champion’s wretched start left them close to the relegation zone. Mourinho, it seemed, had as much of a penchant of creating team spirit as he did of destroying it.
With this in mind, it was a bit of a surprise to see him named manager of United, given that some members of the United squad were on the verge of mutiny over Louis van Gaal’s style of management. What would a manager as polarising as Mourinho do with a squad that was already broken?
So far he has been a mixed bag, although stories of player confrontation are always around the corner. Bastian Schweinsteiger was the first to suffer Mourinho’s wrath and was exiled from the first team and made to train with the reserves as early as pre-season. Mourinho, it seems, was acting on the advice of others at the club who had been unhappy with Schweinsteiger’s conduct the previous season, but the German remained highly professional, managing to change Mourinho’s mind and was welcomed back into the fold. Schweinsteiger would depart for Chicago Fire in February, but not before he received an apology from his manager over the way he was treated.
As the season began, it became evident that whilst some players such as Ander Herrera and Antonio Valencia had taken to Mourinho’s demands, some were clearly struggling to adapt to their new manager. The first such case was that of Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Restricted to a few substitute appearances since signing from Borussia Dortmund in the beginning of the season, he made his first start for the club in the Manchester derby. Mkhitaryan would go on to have a disastrous opening period and was promptly hooked off at half time, after which he would not make an appearance in the Premier League for the next two months. According to Mourinho, this was down to the fact that the Armenian was not showing him enough in training, and that he would have to work a lot harder to get into the team. Mkhitaryan responded, and after making his way back into the team he has become a key player for Mourinho, finishing the season with eleven goals. Mourinho has since used him as an example for the rest of his squad.
The two players who have still been unable to fully settle under their new manager are Luke Shaw and Anthony Martial. The issue both have had with their manager so far has been their mentality, while Mourinho has also been happy with Shaw over his apparent unwillingness to play through the pain barrier. Although Martial has still managed to play a decent amount of games this season, Shaw has spent large parts of the season out of the team, with rumours rife about his future at the club. To be fair to the twenty year old, it has been only his first season since his comeback from a career threatening injury, which would have had a serious effect on him psychologically. Toward the end of the season he seemed to be responding to his manager’s extraordinary public criticisms, and seemingly won over Mourinho when he played the whole 120 minutes of the second leg against Anderlect despite struggling with cramp. A bit more patience from his manager would be welcome.
In a recent interview with Rio Ferdinand, Mourinho mentioned that perhaps his biggest weakness as a manager is that he finds it increasingly difficult to work with players who do not share the same mentality as him. It is something that he has to work on, to be patient and try to nurture his players in that direction like Sir Alex Ferguson famously did, or he could once again risk losing out on players of Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne’s ilk the way he did at Chelsea.
Style of Play
The biggest question marks over Mourinho fitting in at United were over his style of play, with the Portuguese having a reputation of favouring defensive organisation over adventurous attacking football in his teams, with some critics going as far as labelling the approach as ‘anti-football’. Given the immense frustration felt by the fans and players over Van Gaal’s no-risk approach, the idea of the Dutchman being replaced by someone whose system was apparently anything but the radical, full-throttle attacking approach craved by the fans that was the “Manchester United way” was bemusing to some.
To be fair to Mourinho, he has been at the helm of some fantastic attacking teams. His Real Madrid side in 2011/12, built on the counter attacking strengths of Cristiano Ronaldo, Angel Di Maria and Mesut Ozil, beat Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Barcelona side to the title, finishing on a record 100 points and scoring an incredible 127 goals along the way, the highest tally ever recorded by a team in La Liga history, which is certainly no mean feat. His 2014/2015 Chelsea side had a blistering start to the season, with Diego Costa, Cesc Fabregas and Eden Hazard helping them take the league by storm and they had the title all but wrapped up as early as February, albeit finishing slowly. Mourinho could create a powerful, attacking side, especially one that was adept at the counter attack but when the going got tough, he was more than willing, perhaps too easily, to get his side to set up their stall and frustrate the opposition, especially in big games, much to the annoyance of football purists.
This has more or less been the case for United in the first season under Mourinho. Under his tutelage, there has been a significant change in United’s style of play, with much more emphasis on attack compared to the football under Louis van Gaal. The direct approach has meant that United create more chances and have more attempts on goal by a significantly larger margin than they did under the Dutchman. The supporters have taken to this approach, coming up with a chant for Mourinho which has the line “José’s got us playing the way United should” to show their appreciation, and Mourinho has acknowledged that he must pay heed to United’s attacking traditions, more than at any other club he’s worked at. Unfortunately however, this attacking football has not translated into enough goals, with United’s woeful finishing being the primary reason for them finishing sixth in the league this season. Too many chances were squandered by a number of players, which resulted in games that should’ve comfortably won ending up as draws to the immense frustration of players and fans alike. This will be Mourinho’s primary concern heading into the transfer market, and will undoubtedly be at the forefront of his training plans for pre-season, but there has been a clear shift in the way United play that shows that the club is heading in the right direction. There is also the fact that he is not averse to fielding young players, with Marcus Rashford feautring heavily and the likes of Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Axel Tuanzebe set for more first team football next season.
But as is always the case with Mourinho, there is always pragmatism. He has shown that he is more than willing to get his side to shut up shop to defend first and foremost, and attack later. This has been the case in away games against top sides, as seen in the visits to Anfield and the Etihad, and was also the case in the Europa League final against Ajax, where United stopped their Dutch opponents from playing their football and ground out a win. Although the critics were vociferous, claiming that Mourinho had merely parked the bus against an u-23 team from the Dutch league, he was fully justified given the entire season was at stake, and victory was all that mattered. However, there is a tendency for him to switch to a defensive approach at the first sign of trouble, whether it is injuries or lack of form, which can be a source of incredible frustration. It has also to be noted that United are no strangers to pragmatism, with Sir Alex Ferguson frequently adopting a cautious approach over the course of his career, especially in Europe. Whilst Mourinho cannot be accused of being pragmatic, he can be accused of adopting the approach a little too easily. Strengthening his team over the summer should reduce that tendency.
José Mourinho has impressed. He has been a smart operator in the transfer market, and his charisma has been a hit with the fans. He has also improved United’s style of play, but there is significant room for improvement and he could also do with adopting a holistic and more patient approach with some of his players. It is fair to say that all things considered, his first year has been a moderate success.