When we think about we might want from a Manchester United manager, we can probably make a basic distinction between the football stuff, and everything else.
The football stuff is fairly obvious. Basically, the ideal Manchester United manager should coach his team to play attacking, aggressive, thrilling football, in matches both big and small; should win trophies, particularly league titles; and should achieve both of the above while using at least a few, and ideally plenty, of players that have come through United’s academy. None of that’s easy, of course. But it’s not complicated to define.
The other stuff, though. That’s a little messier. Plenty of United fans were much mocked for their early assertions that Van Gaal “was proper United”, that he “just gets it”, particularly when it turned out that he really didn’t. Yet “getting it” is a real thing, even if defining “it” with any real precision is surprisingly difficult. Loyalty to the club, acknowledgement of its traditions, a healthy respect for the fans, an awareness of what a privilege it is to manage the club, a healthy contempt for Liverpool ...
Putting it generally, we might call it a grasp of what is and isn’t important. Or perhaps we could just assume that almost everybody has their own list of what they want to see from United, and so from United’s manager, and if we could take the average, we’d find “it”. Since we can’t, we’ll have to leave it fuzzy, but we can be fairly sure that much of the lists overlap.
Clearly the former category is hugely informed by the latter. Indeed, beyond the basic truisms that everybody likes winning, and most people like attacking football, you could argue it’s entirely contingent upon it. Playing young players, having a go in the big games, even being aggressive and attacking — these aren’t just things that feel good, they’re things that feel United.
(This is not the same as saying they’re exclusive to United, obviously. It’s not a zero-sum game.)
And so, with a heavy inevitably, to the current occupant of the big coat: Jose Mourinho. Who fully embodies the wants-to-win part of the equation, and ... maybe nothing else? There’s an interesting piece over at the Independent looking at Mourinho’s recent performative misery, and it’s hard to take any conclusion away from it other than: Mourinho just isn’t that bothered about United.
Which is, in truth, deeply frustrating. Why isn’t he trying? Not the onfield stuff — he’s not going to shift his beliefs that pragmatic football is the best way of running things. The other stuff. Why isn’t he leaning in to the great and glorious thing that being a Manchester United manager could be? Why is he picking fights with fans and players, and winking heavily towards Paris? Why isn’t he enjoying himself? Why doesn’t he love this?
After all, this is in theory one of the great jobs in football. It’s a club with a wonderful history paying him a minor fortune and giving him a major fortune to spend. It’s a club with high standards but with the capacity for high rewards. Indeed, it’s one of the limited number of clubs in the world with the resources to support consistent campaigns at the very top level, which is presumably where Mourinho still imagines himself.
But then, after the frustration ebbs, it’s in some sense a relief. A lifting of responsibility. If he’s determined not to attempt to embrace what being United manager could mean, even should mean, then it removes any obligation from us to worry about it. If he wants to manage Manchester United from a hotel — figuratively more than literally, though conveniently both apply — then that’s up to him. The appropriate response is to support him in the same transactional, limited fashion.
If he wins, excellent. If he loses, annoying. If he makes a fool of himself on television, spends his press conferences spouting contradictory and conspiratorial nonsense, debases himself by hiking his skirts at PSG — if, in short, he shows no interest in even trying to get it, then so what? It’s an odd position, certainly, and maybe a sad one, not to be able to support the manager while still supporting the team. But if he doesn’t care to take it seriously, then we’ve no call to extend him the same courtesy. And it likely won’t last for long.