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The Mourinho Project: Where is Manchester United heading under Jose?

“Christ, he’s a cocky bastard, him.”

said Sir Alex Ferguson, reminiscing about his thoughts when in 2004, Jose Mourinho joined Chelsea and entered the English Premier League fracas. Sir Alex admitted, however, that over the years, his opinion of the man had changed considerably.

“He can manage anywhere, absolutely. I’m not going to put any forecasts on what is going to happen at this club. I won’t last forever, but José can manage anywhere, there is no question about that.”

Sir Alex would be glad he did change his opinion as Jose Mourinho joined Manchester United as a manager in May 2016. In his first interview for Manchester United, Jose stated that he would prefer to look at Manchester United history as a whole, rather than the past three years.

“I think we can look at our club now in two perspectives. One perspective is the past three years and another perspective is the club history. I want to focus on the history of this giant club and give what I have and what I don’t have, so I will give absolutely everything to try and go in the direction we all want.”

Two years on, Manchester United are still to win the Premier League title and Jose Mourinho, at times, casts a forlorn figure on the touchline. Many people have begun writing him off, pointing to his quite frequent rants during press conferences, his negative attitude, and his complaints when things don’t go his way. Many in the media have also speculated his ‘impending implosion’, basing all of this on his ‘Third-season Syndrome’, as Mourinho has been susceptible to have a terrible third season, usually resulting in him leaving the club.

Although, Mourinho has iterated multiple times that he and the United board see eye-to-eye, now, would be a good time for the United hierarchy to evaluate their investment. Having backed Mourinho without blinking an eye for the past two years, it wouldn’t be the worst decision to question Mourinho’s intent before giving him what he wants.

The question that needs to be asked though, is that what parameters should be used to judge the Manchester United manager? Ed Woodward has ensured that Manchester United have done well in the financial sector and United’s support worldwide is as strong as it ever was. However, being a football club, at the foremost, the criteria to assess Mourinho’s performance should revolve around United’s progress on the pitch.

Silverware

An obvious parameter to judge a club’s success is the number of shiny pieces in the club’s trophy cabinet. Louis van Gaal had askedUnited fans to be patient with the team as he needed time for his overhaul.

“We are in a process and that process shall take more than one year. It shall take three years. It takes a lot of time. But at the end, when they (the players) know it and they are doing the things with conscience, the results shall come. Our goal (this season) is to get back in the Champions League.”

Mourinho, in stark contrast to his predecessor, aimed to fight on all fronts. In his first news conference as Manchester United manager, he made a very clear objective.

“It would be easy, honest and pragmatic for me to focus on the last three years, and the fact we didn’t qualify for the Champions League, and to say, ‘Let’s work, let’s try to be back in the top-four, let’s try to do well in the Europa League’, but I am not good at that, and I don’t want to be good. I prefer to be more aggressive and to be more aggressive is to say ‘We want to win.”

And he did exactly that. In his first season at Manchester United, he won the EFL (English Football League) Cup and the Europa League. United were knocked out by Chelsea in the Quarter-finals. However, they managed to finish a lowly sixth in the Premier League.

In the 2017-18 season, United did not win any silverware, something many fans pointed to, as a sign that the club might have gone backwards. But some others stated that in fact it was a pretty good season for United as they finished second in the league and reached the FA Cup finals. The only reason it may have felt like a failure for some fans, was probably because Manchester City had an exceptional season, getting 100 points in the league, a massive 19 point ahead of second-placed United.

Results– Mourinho did do justice to his words as United battled on all fronts in the two years, he has been at the helm. United went to the business end in all cup competitions in the two years. Barring the slightly early exit from UEFA Champions League, United could boast of doing better than all other English teams, except Manchester City.

In the 2016-17 season, Mourinho enjoyed a win-percentage of 57.8% winning 37 games out of 64that United played. That improved the following season to 66.1% as United managed to win the same number of games, while playing 8 games less. As compared to Louis van Gaal’s last season, the numbers are far better as United in the 2015-16 season won only 52.5% matches.

In the 2017-18 season, United managed to collect 81 points and finish second in the Premier League, the most points and highest finish in the post-Ferguson era. United reached the FA Cup finals, but lost 1-0 to Chelsea. They were knocked out of the UEFA Champions League in the Round of 16 by Sevilla and suffered a shock exit in the EFL (Carabao) Cup in the Quarter-finals at the hands of Bristol City.

Although the season can look like a mixed-bag for some fans, Mourinho believes that the 2017-18 season was a far better season than what others may think. In his pre-match press conference ahead of the Premier League opener against Leicester City, Mourinho said;

“It is difficult for me to understand, we finish second which I keep saying, that I won eight championships and three Premier Leagues but I keep feeling the second last season was one of my biggest achievements in the game.”

United under Sir Alex Ferguson were a feared team, especially at Old Trafford. Many thought that with Mourinho’s excellent home record at his previous teams, Old Trafford would continue to be a fortress. United, under Mourinho, have lost only four games at Old Trafford in the two seasons, but have leaked a lot of points at home, with newly promoted teams gaining confidence of gaining a point. That is one area of concern for Mourinho moving forward.

Squad

Mourinho has obtained a good balance in the squad and has managed to remove some of the ‘deadwood’ in the squad he inherited from van Gaal. In David de Gea and Sergio Romero, Mourinho has probably two of the world’s best goalkeepers. Lee Grant is a good addition as a third-choice goalkeeper owing to his immense experience.

Mourinho has tactically added one player each to his defence and central midfield each season, providing the newcomers and the team enough time to adjust to the new changes. United have exceptional defenders in Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof, with Chris Smalling and Phil Jones providing enough cover and experience in the Premier League. Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young have found new strides in the last couple of seasons and Luke Shaw paid off his manager’s trust in him with a great performance and a goal in the season opener against Leicester City.

The midfield can boast of world-class players like Paul Pogba, Juan Mata, Nemanja Matic and the strike-force has Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez and Anthony Martial. Mourinho has also managed to develop his younger squad members as Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Scott McTominay, and now Andreas Pereira are an integral part of the team.

Mourinho also seems to have eased on his liking for a smaller squad. In 2016 he stated;

“I normally like to work with 20 players plus the three goalkeepers, which is what I have done for 15 years… I made the decision to be with 23 plus three goalkeepers, which is still a lot.”

only to be embarrassed about squad depth as United faced a crisis of injuries that season.

The one area he can improve on is possibly his player management. The way Mourinho deals with his players indicates that he is a strong advocate for tough love. He has publicly criticized his players like Shaw, McTominay, Rashford, and Martial. It has worked in some cases for players who can handle the criticism, but for some like Martial, it isn’t as easy and can hamper the player’s development and confidence.

Transfers

Mourinho has spent a lot of money in transfers in his two seasons, but that has been partly due to the bloated transfer market. His targets have been a success as everyone who has joined the club, excelling or showing good promise, with the exception of Henrikh Mkhitaryan. But one could argue that it was sheer luck or incompatibility for the 2015-16 Bundesliga Players’ Player of the Season, as he couldn’t reach his former glories and carve out a place for himself in the squad.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic did more than just score goals. He brought a belief and ego that is needed for a club like Manchester United. He stood for excellence and glory in the dressing room and someone that the youngsters could look up to. Paul Pogba, a United academy graduate, came with his flair and flamboyance, and in recent weeks he has shown, what a leader he can be in the dressing room. Nemanja Matic and Eric Bailly are rock-solid in their respective positions and provide a sense of calm during games. Mourinho found his target man in Romelu Lukaku and he did deliver a lot of goals in his debut season for United.

Philosophy

Sir Alex Ferguson, at the memorial service for the 60th anniversary of the Munich air disaster, said that

“While I was Manchester United manager, the (Busby) Babes were always a reference point for us, in terms of having belief and trust in what young players can do and building a loyalty base from there. The Babes are what gives this club such a fantastic romance, in terms of how they played the game and how they generated this thread of youth throughout the club. The spirit of the club is created by all these young players, and that began back then.”

Many criticize Mourinho as being very result-oriented and point to the fact that he prefers to buy players rather than give the academy fledglings a chance. However, Mourinho seemed to have embraced the United tradition, as in his two seasons, he has played United academy graduates more so than any other manager has played their respective young players.

Even if Paul Pogba, a United academy graduate, is excluded, Mourinho’s plans heavily feature Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford, Scott McTominay, and Andreas Pereira. He has also praised players like Axel Tuanzebe and Timothy Fosu-Mensah, for their hard work, and has sent them out on loan for them to gain valuable experience and playing time.

Fans differ on their opinion on Mourinho but that is partly because of the man himself. Over the years, he has been sort of an enigma, with people either really liking him or harbouring downright hate for him. Ever since he proclaimed himself as ‘The Special One’ back in 2004, Jose Mourinho has reached peaks that others can only dream of or has reached nadirs that people cannot recover from. Time and again though, owing to his hunger to be the best, he has bounced back from depths of failure, to be envied by the world again. He has long claimed that he would love to manage United one day. And now that he is the gaffer, an ego like Mourinho won’t let United’s board decide his fate, he will write it for them.

Written by Chinmay Tembe

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