Perhaps the most damning saga of José Mourinho at Real Madrid detailed in Diego Torres’ The Special One biography is the pursuit of the Portuguese striker Hugo Almeida. Almeida, described by Torres as “the classic target man … the perfect choice to complete [Mourinho’s] direct style of play – long balls bypassing midfield” was never considered Galactico material by the Madrid hierarchy, nor was he ever “on the wanted list of any of the top clubs in Europe.” Torres details a mild obsession on Mourinho’s part, repeatedly going to Florentino Perez asking for Almeida’s signature to “complete” his team. The situation is being mirrored this year with Mourinho eyeing a move for his former Inter Milan striker Marko Arnautović, a striker better known for his physical domination of opponents above any other trait. The implication is that José Mourinho values the functional over the stylish, the dependable over the dazzling, and these are elements which have been evident in Manchester United’s football this past year.
When José Mourinho was hired as Manchester United manager, it was understood that style would be sacrificed for substance, attacking verve would be subjugated to defensive solidity. Fans believed that this was the man who led Real Madrid to their highest scoring La Liga title win ever, but they knew that Mourinho also sometimes overvalued defensive structure. Manchester United finished second in the Premier League this season with a finishing points tally that is their best since 2013 and would have won six of the previous twenty Premier League campaigns but they also lost to each of the newly promoted teams, Huddersfield, Newcastle and Brighton.
United produced dismal performances before Christmas when they were knocked out of the League Cup by Bristol and then drew with Leicester, Burnley and Southampton. They were eliminated from the Champions League by an unfavoured Sevilla side in February before losing a poorly contested FA Cup final to Chelsea in May. In those games, United lacked attacking imaginative play - ultimately resorting to the aforementioned long balls bypassing midfield - and those touches of creativity needed to unlock defences at the highest level were noticeably absent.
Fans are not seeing the substance for which they sacrificed the style and they have frequently seen uninspiring performances devoid of attacking threat. Crucially, Mourinho favours rigid structure and hasn’t readily trusted “flair” players. It is because of this that young players have traditionally struggled under Mourinho. The travails of Luke Shaw, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford are nothing new. At Madrid, Pedro León was the young player the fans wanted to see. Mourinho reacted with derision: “You’re talking about Pedro León as if he’s Zidane or Maradona.” At Old Trafford, Mourinho was quick to implicitly criticise Martial and Rashford following the defeat to Brighton in May: “For many months you are always asking me why this player doesn’t play, why that player doesn’t play, why this player is on the bench, why always Lukaku?” Had Alex Ferguson publicly attacked his players following defeat at Villa Park in August 1995, it is questionable whether the Class of 92 would have had such success. For now, the fans can hope that players like Shaw, Martial and Rashford will persevere to find success at Old Trafford and not elsewhere.
Marko Arnautović is indicative of a Mourinho preference for functional over stylish. The disparity lies in the fact that Manchester United have a history of signing the stylish player. A club of Manchester United’s ilk will traditionally look to buy young malleable talent whereas it could be argued that a Jose Mourinho team thrives on more functional players. Issues have arisen in recent months due to this divide. Is Paul Pogba a vintage José Mourinho player? The answer is — at best — “possibly.” Players like Pogba have succeeded in Mourinho’s teams previously; Frank Lampard at Chelsea, Wesley Sneijder at Inter Milan, Mesut Özil at Real Madrid, but despite working together for two years already, Mourinho and Pogba are yet to settle on a system which is mutually agreeable. Hopefully the signing of Fred will liberate Pogba – in Mourinho’s eyes – from some of the rudimental tasks that are needed in any side.
The José Mourinho experience at Manchester United is arguably no different to previous incarnations of teams which Mourinho has produced. It is possible that Mourinho still doesn’t have the team he wants. Perhaps those disparities – between players José wants and traditional Manchester United signings – are continuing to slow that progress. It should equally be kept in consideration that United’s style of play as been all the more difficult to watch given the verve of Liverpool and Manchester City. While Diego Torres has detailed Mourinho’s issues at Real Madrid, Mourinho’s time there was ultimately successful. The way United have played this season has been serviceable and has produced statistical victories. Fans can point to the highest points total in a number of years as somewhat of a riposte to the excellent football being played elsewhere in the north of England.
It is highly unlikely that the Manchester United of 2018 are going to win many new fans, but it is very possible that they are doing just enough to sustain the fans they gained in times gone by.