Debates continue as to whether José Mourinho is the right man for the Manchester United manager’s job. Mourinho has cultivated the same level of cultish following amongst supporters that he enjoyed during his first reign at Chelsea and then at Inter Milan. The debates are emotive and fiery. It is the arena for extremists. There is no middle ground.
What are the criteria for keeping or sacking Mourinho? Fans appear to be taking sides in the ongoing power struggle between José Mourinho and Ed Woodward, which is being played out in a disorderly manner in the media. It is unbecoming of a club of United’s standing and regardless of the outcome, whether Mourinho stays or not, it will remain an ugly stain on the club’s history.
Detractors will point to ‘boring football’ that has failed to bring the best out of Mourinho’s signings while Mourinho supporters will argue that he has not been sufficiently backed in the transfer market.
It is wrong to judge Mourinho on the back of two bad performances against Brighton and Tottenham. It is equally wrong to highlight losses over Mourinho’s tenure. It is with the intention to take the emotion out of the Mourinho debacle – and add balance - that we look at some of Manchester United’s best footballing performances under Mourinho since Mourinho took the job in May 2016.
31 December 2016; Middlesbrough @ Old Trafford, 2-1 win
Despite initial positivity about a potential ‘destroyer’ midfield axis of Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini, United soon began to struggle in the Premier League. From the start of September until mid-December, United won just 2 of their 11 league games. Middlesbrough at Old Trafford might have seemed like an easy prospect at first glance but after a dour first half, United went behind half way through the second half. A spirited fightback in the final fifteen minutes revived the spirit of Fergie Time and for the first time under Mourinho, United looked to have found their fire.
16 April 2017; Chelsea @ Old Trafford, 2-0 win
United had been systematically humiliated at Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge the previous October and Chelsea’s visit offered the Portuguese opportunity for retribution. The sides had met a month previously in the FA Cup and United had started that game well. United had had a clear template for the match in which Ander Herrera would man mark Eden Hazard. The plan came undone when Herrera proved too vigorous in his endeavour and was sent off. United set out at the Premier League meeting to play the same way. The result was emphatic. Mourinho was heralded. Man-marking was back in vogue and Herrera clocked up an assist for Marcus Rashford’s early finish before slotting home himself in the second half. The match was important because it came at a time when many detractors were beginning to claim United had lost their big game bottle.
13 August 2017; West Ham @ Old Trafford, 4-0 win
The 2017-18 season kicked off in Manchester with beautiful sunshine and it was destined to be a sign of things to come. José Mourinho always wins the league the second season of his management in any club and Manchester United kicked off Mourinho’s second league campaign with pomp. New signings Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matić showed their class before Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba scored late goals to add icing to the cake.
2 December 2017; Arsenal @ Emirates, 3-1 win
Manchester United have a history of fantastic counter attacking football at the Emirates and their 3-1 win in December 2017 will be remembered for a number of reasons. Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard performed excellently. Lingard announced himself on a world stage - despite having scored an FA Cup Final winning goal - in the game at the Emirates with terrific link play and finishing. Anthony Martial also provided a superb assist for Lingard’s first goal. Lingard was unlucky not to be named man of the match, but the other side of the game saw an intense rear-guard action by United to keep Arsenal at bay. Not since Everton bombarded De Gea’s net in October 2014 had De Gea seen such intensity, nor performed so excellently. De Gea’s double save to deny Alexis Sánchez at a crucial point in the second half will long play an important part on the highlight reel of the talented Spaniards’ career.
1 January 2018; Everton @ Goodison Park, 2-0 win
The first half at Goodison Park was an utterly forgettable affair with Everton content to play defensive football that was the polar opposite of expansive football. United failed to capitalise and the teams were deadlocked at the break. The second half, much like the game against Middlesbrough a year prior produced a different United. United emerged at the break like a team determined to break the wheel. Paul Pogba played inspired football and teed up Anthony Martial to break the deadlock on 57 minutes. Jesse Lingard added a second before the end but the tie was never in doubt.
10 March 2018; Liverpool @ Old Trafford, 2-1 win
Jürgen Klopp might have stunned Manchester City at Anfield earlier in the campaign, but his Liverpool side managed a mere consolation goal against José Mourinho in the 2017-2018 campaign. Similar to the Chelsea game at Old Trafford a year previous, United put in a fantastic team performance with Marcus Rashford scoring two goals. Much of the hype had surrounded Mohammed Salah prior to the game but Mourinho’s game plan crowded Salah and he was shadowed by Ashley Young for the entire game, barely managing a shot on goal. United had been unfavoured in the build-up to the game and the score line was a ripping riposte to those doubters.
7 April 2018; Manchester City @ Etihad Stadium, 3-2 win
In a manner similar to the Middlesbrough and Everton games previously, Manchester United failed to turn up in the first half and went in at half time 2-0 down. A completely different Manchester United appeared in the second half and Paul Pogba produced a marauding performance rolling through the centre of City’s defence that saw United soar into a 3-2 lead. The media were unequivocal in their praise of United following the game, a game in which Mourinho ‘let the handbrake off’ and his team duly performed. It was unquestionably the greatest Manchester United performance under José Mourinho and one which would inspire hope within fans for the six months since.
21 April 2018; Tottenham Hotspurs @ Wembley, 2-1 win
United fans will have felt going into this game that it was theirs to lose. Following a first season in which Mourinho’s team failed to beat high quality opposition, this crux had been buried and United performed well against fellow league contenders. Spurs took an early lead through Dele Alli but Alexis Sánchez craned brilliantly to level the scoring on 24 minutes. Spurs did hit the post through Eric Dier but Ander Herrera scored the important goal in the second half to send United through to the final.
The list is by no means exhaustive and omits a Europa League Final win, though a game which would best described as rudimentary. These are the games in which José Mourinho’s teams have performed most effectively and aesthetically and they are the games upon which Mourinho should be judged rather than any media battle between Mourinho and Woodward.
Mourinho’s display in the press conference following the loss to Tottenham was petulant and crass. He has won 3 Premier League titles, as many as his ‘specialist in failure’ nemesis Arsene Wenger. Having said that, Mourinho should have been backed in the transfer market. He was the man chosen to lead United and it is on the basis of his judgement, success and track record that he was hired. Woodward’s antics in the media; briefing journalists on the eve of the transfer deadline lacked class.
It is difficult to ascertain what type of game Woodward is currently trying to play in the media, but it is not one which is helping Manchester United.
Fans will continue to bay for blood; either Woodward’s, Mourinho’s or that of those fans who dare say Mourinho should be sacked. Manchester United are a club in crisis and there is no sign of it abating soon.