Here we are again, then. Manchester United have played a game of football. Manchester United have played a game of football badly. And Manchester United are creeping ever closer to doing that other thing they seem do quite a lot these days: sacking their manager.
In a sense, a managerial sacking is simply the completion of a process that began some months or maybe years before. Every manager is sacked at the moment of their hiring, and is always progressing inexorably towards that sacking. It can be deferred by doing well, or getting a better job, but these only serve to upgrade the eventual severance package. And it can be escaped by retiring, by sacking oneself.
Those are the choices: delay, or embrace. Otherwise, the life of a football manager is one long march towards the moment of destruction. All football managers are out-of-work football managers. Some of them just happen to be wearing branded sportswear.
We should say: those are the not-choices for the manager. For the people that bear responsibility for deciding the moment of dismissal — the chairpersons and chief executives, in a concrete sense, and then more abstractly the players and even the fans — there is actual calculation to be done. They’ll have to go eventually, of course; they always do. That’s what they’re for. But when?
Here are the important questions governing whether the axe must fall at Manchester United.
1. Have the squad reached a point where the presence of José Mourinho is actively making them worse?
Well, they didn’t really try against West Ham, and they lost badly. Then they tried a bit against Valencia and they drew, badly. So … yes? At the very least, there doesn’t seem to be anything positive flowing from coach to players.
2. Would Mourinho’s dismissal make things better in the short term?
We’re guessing here, but … maybe? Certainly, there seems to be an ongoing cycle of Mourinho insulting and belittling his players. At some point we’ll reach the Scott McTominay Event Horizon, where the poor lad will stand alone as the only player in the squad that Mourinho hasn’t insulted. Because he’s the one being used to wage proxy war against everybody else.
We can’t imagine too many inhabitants of the dressing will be sad to see him go, is what we’re saying. Whether happiness translates into better football is a separate question, but at the very least, Michael Carrick seems unlikely to spend quite as much of his time calling Paul Pogba rude words.
3. Would Mourinho’s dismissal make things worse, in the short term?
Could do. Could all go horribly wrong. Hard to see how it could make things more boring on the pitch, mind, unless Louis van Gaal fancies another crack at things. And being boring, or otherwise, is more important than it is often given credit for.
4. Would Mourinho’s dismissal solve every problem that the club has?
Ahahahahahahahahah. Hahahahahahaha. Hahahaha. Hahah. Hahahaha. Oh, mercy.
5. Is any decent manager with good instincts for self-preservation, or even just for self-respect, going to come and work for this weird excuse for a football club?
See previous answer.
Perhaps we should think of Manchester United as a thing too big, too complicated, and too contradictory to really work properly. A thing torn and tugged by internal and external stresses. The club has to (a) win all the trophies while (b) making a fortune, sufficient that they can (c) keep winning all the trophies and (d) service the debts helpfully laden onto the club by its owners. That might not actually be possible, not least because there are other clubs trying to do (a) without having to worry about (d).
The manager, then, is there to hold it all together for as long as they possibly can. To join the boardroom to the pitch via the spending of money in one direction, and the delivery of results in the other. To join the team to the fans by getting performances from the former, thus generating support from the latter, which feeds into performances from the former, and so on.
And then, at the right moment, as all those impossible tasks are revealed in their impossibility and everything starts to shudder and shake, to be offered up as a sacrifice. This is why dismissal is inevitable and necessary: it isn’t just a reset. It is an action intended to provide catharsis, healing. To lift an onerous burden, and lighten the spirits of those left unsacked.
If timed correctly, this should provide enough succour to allow the club to roll on into the next managerial reign, and keep the whole thing lurching forwards.
Many football clubs have moved away from this model, of course, dispersing the responsibilities throughout a network of coaches and sporting directors and so ensuring that one person never need take the fall for everything. United, though, have so far stood against the expediency of modern life, attempting the old-fashioned solution: staving off a total collapse into chaos by opting for frequent partial collapses into chaos.
So they give the manager the club, knowing no other way, knowing that it will have to be taken back again, violently, when the time is right. And if the time isn’t right now, it’s getting closer: the king must be killed, so that the cycle can begin again. It’s basically The Wicker Man, except here, Ed Woodward’s holding the torch.
Maybe this time, the fruit trees will bloom again.