In a blur of bright red hoodie, black jeans and white trainers, José Mourinho’s son raced towards his dad on the pitch in Stockholm moments after the final whistle. The greeting left both of them on the floor hugging having wrestled each other to the ground in celebration. Against an inexperienced Ajax side, United clinically navigated the 2017 Europa League final, with the weight of the Manchester Arena terrorist attack two days earlier still unfathomable and raw. Emotions were especially high, and the sight of the manager and teenage Zuca trying to out-hug each other will live long in the memory. The start of something good.
No other trophies would follow. It should have been different. It wasn’t. Mourinho would only see another season and a half. United fans weren’t treated to the full heights of a league tilt under the Portuguese, but increasingly subjected to a dour boss unhappy and doomed after a disastrous third summer transfer window. A marriage of convenience in appointing Mourinho dissolved rapidly into a game of brinkmanship with the board – and no clear winner. Mourinho felt unsupported over transfers and player power, the board presumably felt Mourinho was inflexible and cut their losses.
Granted, the clouds have lifted at United with Mourinho’s departure and Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s arrival. Fresh-faced hero and all-round good guy, Solskjær has reverted to United traditions and, in doing so, presided over eight back-to-back wins with quick, attacking and counter-attacking football. Music to everyone’s ears. However, previous problems at the club were not all Mourinho’s making and, unless lessons have been learned by the board, some issues still lurk behind the relief of a new chapter in life after Ferguson.
Mourinho’s downfall was well documented before it even arrived; stifling conditions on and off the pitch, questionable output of the talent at his disposal and an apparent unhappiness in his work. Mourinho did leave the squad in much better shape than he arrived – which you would expect having spent well – part-way through building a side to his liking, even though transfers were hit and miss. Expect to hear more about buying Victor Lindelöf if the defender continues his quietly impressive progress, and how he’d be even better with a commanding partner coveted. The most problematic of all Mourinho’s signings happened to be Romelu Lukaku.
In the absence of Zlatan Ibrahimović, Lukaku signed in summer 2017 primarily tasked with turning the home draws against lower table opposition into wins and finishing higher than sixth in the league. In 2017/18, it was largely a success with United second behind a rampant City. Lukaku was a likeable player and many United fans warmed to him. Unfortunately, United looked more rigid with Lukaku in attack and were guilty of bad habits when things weren’t going well lumping balls up for the striker to aimlessly chase. Rather than looking to promote Marcus Rashford from the wings, Mourinho bought a depressed and broken Alexis Sánchez. Hindsight again.
Mourinho gave endless minutes to Rashford in his first season, may have had plans to move him centrally in time and provided further education from the likes of Ibrahimović, but was ultimately unwilling to take a chance over a proven forward to lead the line. Mourinho’s reticence was immediately Solskjær’s gain who hadn’t hidden his opinion of the England international. Solskjær clearly wants the job full-time and will attempt to keep momentum going for as long as possible, but Rashford is arguably his major project as caretaker manager. Rashford’s a romantic story for Solskjær that chimes with the fans and the traditions expected at United, doing his cause no harm backing the 21-year-old. It’s also great for Rashford, who looks ready for the challenge of a starring central role. Solskjær has pleasingly settled on Lingard-Rashford-Martial as his preferred front three and, unlike Mourinho, is not under any pressure to select Lukaku. Sánchez remains to be seen but may benefit in a team with more freedom.
United and Solskjær are in the honeymoon period still, prolonged by consecutive wins including Tottenham and Arsenal away. United rode their luck in large periods at Wembley, but will be better for it having come through unscathed. Confidence breeds confidence. At the Emirates, it was classic United and classic Arsenal.
Every Cardiff fan regards him as a disaster. Tactically inept, endless shuffling of team and formation, weak recruitment, left us 17th in the Championship. Lovely, lovely dude who we’d all buy a beer, but just wasn’t up to the job.— Cennydd (@Cennyddball) December 19, 2018
The nagging feeling of caution is inescapable, sadly. Equally, how quickly players can turn performances on, intentional or not, when Solskjær inevitably hits bumps along the way. Players will be ruthless with anyone, and this group have just seen off one of the biggest managers in the game so are unlikely to be cowed.
The specter of Mourinho loomed recently, in a rather surreal studio drenched in purple, being interviewed by Richard Keys. There is always a kernel of truth from Mourinho – even in his most outlandish claims laced with agenda and ultimately bitterness. Mourinho was unable to talk candidly about United, no doubt contractually, which will have suited him as he often relies on inference anyway.
The detail that will worry fans most is around the structure of the club. Mourinho was reportedly unhappy to work under a director of football at United after being sacked, yet pointedly disclosed he wanted one in place along with other support for the manager. When United announced plans to recruit for the position, concerns were that Ed Woodward was strengthening his influence on the manager with a diluted director of football reporting into him. In any case, holding off hailing Woodward as a genius for hiring Solskjær would be advisable. The first half a dozen fixtures for Mourinho’s temporary replacement, we’ll give Woodward credit for. Probably.
Bigger tests await in February and March, and only then will we get an indication of Solskjær’s suitability to the job permanently. In the meantime, enjoying football again and the ride of a likeable legend and his staff at the wheel will do for many supporters. That’s, after all, the general idea.