First things first: yes, Manchester United are in an awful position. Not just on the pitch, where results are so-so and the football largely testament to Louis Van Gaal’s stubbornness, but off it too. They’ve botched the successions of Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill, have no clear and coherent plan for the future and, as reported repeatedly across the British press, their academy is falling further and further behind Manchester City’s.
This is a full-on institutional crisis. In truth, it began years ago, while Ferguson was still at the helm and leading United to trophies using those strange mystical powers only he really understood. The mistake, which seems so obvious now but made lots of sense at the time, was to become reliant on the strange mystical powers of a once-in-a-lifetime demigod manager.
While others were investing in scouting departments and new data analysis techniques, or re-imagining football on a theoretical level, or creating a holistic cycle of development that gave 14 year-olds at the club a better chance of making strides in the first team a few years down the line, United were falling behind all of them in the future, while paradoxically remaining some distance ahead of them in the present. As soon as Fergie went, the house of cards collapsed. This much is commonly known and understood. Or is it?
There exists a perception, not just amongst United fans but across the spectrum, that United could and should still be winning trophies. This seems to be based on two things: 1. simply that they are Manchester United, and after two decades of constant success, a world in which they no longer win things makes worryingly little sense; 2. that they’ve spent a lot of money and still have the capacity to spend more – much more.
The first is obviously rather silly. Although the pre-Leicester monotony of the last decade’s top-level football may make it seem like football rewards the same few big clubs repeatedly and probably fixes contests in their favour, that’s not true. The same big teams keep winning because of good players, good practices, good coaching and the hunger of all involved to achieve the maximum every season.
If the first point is silly, the second is infuriating. Simply spending lots of money doesn’t entitle United or anyone else to win anything. You don’t spend £250m in two years and therefore win football. In fact, spending £250m in two years probably makes it less likely that you'll win. You have to spend it on the right players, train them properly, develop mutual understanding and friendship, keep them motivated and adherent to high professional standards off the pitch, et cetera. Doing that in two years from a standing start is damn near impossible.
Somehow we all understood this when Abramovich ploughed his money into Chelsea in 2003, and when Messrs Shinawatra and Mansour dumped unfathomable amounts of cash on Man City’s driveway. Now that United are spending ludicrous sums every season, it’s a legitimate reason to expect 90 points in May. Failure to meet this target sees criticism of the team based on their cost, by fans, pundits and journalists alike.
All of this brings us to the present day and Man Utd’s current predicament. Ignoring how much it cost, the squad looks lightweight, lacking in depth and full of uncomfortable stylistic clashes. If we were to write down five or six potential line-ups and gameplans, we would find that we were only really getting the best out of three or four players, at most, in each scenario. It’s impossible to compete at the very top level like this. Sorry as it is to say, more players need to come in and go out.
The current manager probably isn’t the right man for the job, and he’ll only be around for one more year anyway. Now, this writer has previously defended Louis Van Gaal and will continue to do so until he goes, because the problems that hinder the club’s performance aren’t of his own making. That said, the fact remains that he appears just as baffled by what’s happened as the rest of us. Results have arguably been exactly what should’ve been expected of the players Van Gaal has at his disposal, but that in itself is a good argument to change direction and seek a new figurehead to oversee the club’s redevelopment. No-one will be surprised when Van Gaal goes in May – the only real shock will be if he lasts that long.
The obvious – some would say ‘only’ – incomer is José Mourinho. A globally famous manager for a globally famous club, a born winner for an outfit that supposedly prides itself on finishing first with monotonous regularly, a guarantee of results for a fanbase which is suddenly coming to terms with being fourth or fifth favourites for the title every August. Perfect, right? Well, no. Not at all – but not for the reasons you’ve read about lately.
There have been three obvious criticisms of Mourinho, apparently illustrating his unsuitability for the job in hand. The first is that he doesn’t represent "the United way" – which is a bit of a misnomer, given that the United way has only really been truly represented by two of the club’s 19 managers, covering 51 of the club’s 138 years. If the manager gets results and delivers silverware on a regular basis, no-one inside Old Trafford is going to care how it was done. So let’s file that criticism under ‘bullshit’.
The second is that he doesn’t develop clubs off the pitch as much as he does cores of successful teams on it. Both Chelsea and Internazionale quickly collapsed and entered malaises after Mourinho left, while Real Madrid entered an institutional crisis so profound and bitter that club legends like Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos and Xabi Alonso either thought about leaving or actually did leave. He comes, he wins for a few years, then he goes, and you’re left not with fertile ground, but scorched earth.
That criticism is more valid, but given that Real Madrid won the Champions League one season after Mourinho went, and Chelsea have remained at the top end of the Premier League throughout the last decade, even winning it in his absence, his toxic effect on institutions is perhaps overstated. United is a club big enough and wealthy enough to be Mourinho-proof.
The third criticism is that he’s simply a prat: an awful egotist who courts controversy, sacks physios for doing their job, sticks his fingers in the eyes of opposing coaches (from behind), and is generally a deeply unsavoury piece of work. His list of misdemeanours dwarfs Joey Barton’s and Luis Suárez’s (from a purely numerical point of view - Barton's and Suárez's worst acts are obviously worse than Mourinho's), and there’s no-one who will argue seriously that Barton and Suárez aren’t terrible. It’s as close to a fact as it can be that Mourinho is not someone you want at your club.
That said, Sir Alex Ferguson was a bully, a liar and a cheat, and yet very few people raised objections to his personal conduct, or suggested that he was too awful a person to manage United. Simply put, there’s no reason why being a total dick should stand in Mourinho’s way.
And yet, if I was Ed Woodward, I would sooner hire myself than let José Mourinho get within fifty miles of Manchester. Why? There are two very good reasons.
Firstly because there’s no guarantee that Mourinho’s methods work anymore. Since leaving Real Madrid, where his primary motivation was not securing victory for his own side but getting one over on Barcelona, there has been little to suggest that he has what it takes to lead Man Utd back to the absolute pinnacle of European football. Chelsea won the title last year but basically crawled over the line, looking absolutely exhausted. Then this season happened, and the less said about that, the better.
In Europe, things haven’t looked good for Mourinho since he won the Champions League in 2010. Semi-final defeats with Real Madrid were arguably good performances, but his teams’ tactics on those nights were embarrassing and doomed to fail. In his second spell at Chelsea, they looked a long way from winning the competition – last season’s defeat to PSG, for example, was obviously his fault. He parked the bus against ten men – when has that ever been anything but a monumentally stupid idea? Indeed, many of Mourinho’s tactical trademarks now look like monumentally stupid ideas.
In short: United would be hiring Mourinho just as he enters his Wenger-post-Emirates-move era. They’ve already blundered through two seasons with a brash maverick who made his name ages ago, does things his way and doesn’t care what anyone else says. Doing so again would be negligent.
Secondly, hiring Mourinho is the same as giving Jorge Mendes a free pass to dump his clients at Old Trafford in expensive and not-at-all beneficial deals, as though United haven’t done enough of that already. They should be looking to minimise ties with Mendes, before they fall as far as Monaco and Valencia have. The best case scenario is that they become a sort of high-level Porto, with a host of established players looking to show up on the radars of Barcelona and Real Madrid arriving en masse. But for each of those United will get a Paulo Ferreira, a Maniche, a Deco, a Falcao, another Bébé.
If Man Utd want to make a Faustian pact to guarantee short-term success, that’s their prerogative. But this is, lest we forget, a full-on institutional crisis: the club’s academy needs an overhaul, the first team isn’t up to scratch and they’ve been overpaying for underachievers for two years already. This cannot go on. The new manager has to be someone who will redevelop the club off the pitch and address first-team concerns without simply phoning one of the world’s least trustworthy agents and getting him to parachute his men in.
English football has already seen one supposedly unstoppable juggernaut roll to a halt and enter reverse gear. Liverpool’s stagnation has been analysed to death, and yet United are making the same litany of mistakes on and off the pitch. Hiring José Mourinho, a manager whose methods probably won’t work on the pitch, who won't address the structural problems at United, and one bound to put his agent’s interests ahead of the club’s, would see them continue down the path Liverpool took two decades ago. They have to find another solution.