Manchester United lost 7 of their last 11 games to finish the season, including knockout fixtures to Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League and Wolverhampton Wanderers in the FA Cup, and a 4-0 blowout loss to Everton at Goodison Park. Two dreadful draws to Chelsea and Huddersfield — maybe the worst Premier League side in history — have officially ruled out Champions League football for Manchester United next season. Things are not going well.
However, though the football is indeed dreadful, it’s interesting that José Mourinho of all people has somehow been able to shed the memory of his unbearable nagging and ridiculous tactics to emerge as some sort of martyr for a few United fans. He’s been doing a bit of punditry since being sacked by Manchester United, and in doing so has managed to revive his cult of supporters. Well, it’s easy to go on TV and say that passion and pride spur a team on, or that trust and structure build a strong team, but he can’t say that he brought any of that to Manchester United this season. He can say whatever he wants about the passion of other managers and players; it does not absolve him of his disastrous management and alienation of players that divided a locker room and wasted a season.
“I do not want to talk about it,” Mourinho said, right before talking about it. “I said nine or 10 months ago that after winning eight Championships, finishing second with United may have been my greatest achievement. Now people understand.”
When a team goes from 6th to 2nd in the league the normal understanding is that the team will continue to build and progress. Instead they came right out of the gate looking like an exhausted, demoralized group. Mourinho deflected blame onto the players and the club and stuck to his guns as the team went further and further off track, showing he’s learned nothing from his previous failures in management.
Perhaps Ed Woodward should have done more in the transfer window to support Mourinho, but it would be inaccurate to say that investments were not made. The inaction in the third transfer window was frustrating, but perhaps a bit of distrust was justified. Mourinho had shown little in terms of sustainable progress by the end of the second season, other than Zlatan Ibrahimović, not one of his signings had been an unquestionable success, and he had already begun causing a rift in the dressing room by benching and criticizing players. Add in that Mourinho has never been one to focus on developing talent, which showed clear as day through the lack of progression evident in the younger players, and you’ve got quite a bit of reason to doubt.
Of course the failure of this team is not all his fault. The Glazers and Ed Woodward have been mismanaging the club for some time now, and it’s never easy to build a team when you aren’t backed by the board, but one could argue Mourinho had more backing than either David Moyes or Louis Van Gaal. Ibrahimović, Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Nemanja Matić, Romelu Lukaku. These are expensive names, and talented footballers. Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelöf showed tremendous progress as defenders, United were scoring goals and playing freely, and the team was right up there with City in the fall of 2017. So what happened? Even if it was just the players lacking the will to stay competitive, guess whose job it is to make sure they stay competitive?
So, let’s make a few things clear :
- Nobody thinks that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is a magician who immediately made a 6th place squad elite.
- What is rightly celebrated about Solskjaer at Manchester United is his spirit of optimism, his focus on developing talent, and his willingness to attack opponents.
- This rough patch has only further exposed problems in personnel that were abundantly clear 6 months ago.
- Pointing out flaws in this United side that everyone already knew existed is not insightful.
The problems that have plagued Manchester United the last few seasons do not leave with the previous manager, but it’s ridiculous to indict a manager who hasn’t been given any sort of power, and who took over such an underwhelming squad. Solskjaer has not yet had a transfer window to address the problems he sees in the squad, or to ship out players that don’t fit his agenda. He’s indicated in recent weeks that the quality and depth of the squad needs massive improvement, and even went so far as to say after the Everton loss that several of the current players do not fit his vision. If anything should be taken from this run of bad losses it’s that the biggest problems appear to be fitness and composure. This squad doesn’t respond well to adversity, but that could be a chemistry problem. The squad has been built by 4 different managers who all implemented different styles, and now the 5th manager is having to deal with the hodgepodge collection of styles of players.
Mourinho’s narrative has some truth to it, but not enough to deflect all of the blame, and in reality it’s been convenient for him that this team fell apart down the stretch. However, some of that could have been down to Mourinho as well. When Solskjaer took over he took the team on a run with a healthy and fit first team. Around March it became clear that progressive fatigue was becoming a problem. The forward thinking, attack-minded approach Solskjaer brought to the side required a lot of running from the forwards. That paired with very serious injury bug certainly appear to have been factors leading to the top 4 race collapse. José Mourinho’s conservative approach to football is quite different from the fast buildup style of Solskjaer.
Inferring that Manchester United should have waited and given more thought to hiring their next manager is reasonable, but calling for Solskjaer to be sacked just 2 months into his reign, with a team he had no say in constructing, is absolutely ridiculous. The poisonous short term memory that is thriving in modern football is no longer just rampant among pundits, fans, and everyone else on social media, it’s now directly influencing the decision making of clubs. United are on their 4th manager post-Sir Alex. The last thing they need to do is sack Solskjaer because he couldn’t fix Mourinho’s broken team in 5 months.