Why José Mourinho was the right man for Manchester United all along
Most football teams in the world fancy that they have a ‘philosophy’. It’s a way to give shape to a club over long and complex histories; it rescues teams from the potential chaos of a game heavily coloured by chance and it flatters them that success can be predicated on anything other than economic determinism. Though this model of understanding the beautiful game may have seemed hopelessly outdated as recently as a year ago, the Leicester title has provided a timely reminder of the merits of team-spirit and tactical cohesion amongst clubs populated by pricey individuals: sometimes a team really can be more than the sum of its parts.
Off the bat, it should probably be admitted that any idea of a club ‘philosophy’ raises some pretty tricky questions. When we hear fans speak of the ‘Tottenham Way’ or the ‘Liverpool Way’, we are confronted with both philosophical ‘Ship of Theseus’-style questions about when a team is not the same team anymore, and, since the fans seem to be the only constant in most football clubs, more material concerns about the locus of power in a football club. The best way to defuse these problems is to reposition the club ‘philosophy’ as one articulated by one or more key managers- after all, it is much easier to understand how a manager (who is usually tasked with picking a first eleven and choosing a game plan) could take responsibility for the ‘style’ of a team. Thus the ‘Liverpool Way’ might be rearticulated as an appraisal of Paisley or Shankly, and the ‘Tottenham Way’ as the legacy of Bill Nicholson; the reason these managers hold their privileged position in the fans’ lore is that their style has since become the yardstick for all subsequent managers and teams.
In the case of Manchester United, this position should nowadays be held by Sir Alex Ferguson. Although some older fans might have watched Matt Busby’s teams (and might even view Ferguson’s style as an inheritance from United’s earlier glory days) the modern Manchester United has rightly become inextricable from the figure of Ferguson. It is for this reason that replacing him was always going to be hard, and, importantly, this has been as much a question of style as one of success- if the ‘Manchester United Way’ now talked about is indeed one defined by Ferguson’s teams, the question of finding a manager to fit this style necessitates comparison with the Scotsman. Certainly, during the various gripes about Van Gaal’s style being irreconcilable to the ‘United Way’, one feels that fans were longing for Ferguson’s predilection for pacy wingers à la Giggs and Ronaldo, his desire for players like Scholes and Beckham to look for balls in behind, and his readiness to add to the squad with older, readymade talent like Cantona and Van Persie. In their various combinations, these habits can begin to explain the connotations of the ‘United Way’- pace, power, directness, and lots of goals.
With this in mind, it does seem that the managers chosen in Ferguson’s wake were not the best appointments. David Moyes gained a reputation at Everton for steady success and defensive solidity, and Van Gaal prizes patient, possession-based football with a strong focus on positional sense- a far cry from Ferguson’s ruthless counter-attacks and unshackled flair players. Yet it is the appointment of José Mourinho that has raised the largest outcry among fans and pundits; even more so than his previous incumbents, his ‘philosophy’ has raised concerns for those still pining for the Ferguson years.
For one, this seems odd given his history of success. When Van Gaal was appointed, the reaction of many United fans was to praise the club for appointing a ‘winner’ with a ‘track record’, especially after the tenure of David Moyes, who had few credentials for managing a title-chasing team. One of Ferguson’s greatest qualities was indeed the ruthless ability to win, even with squads (especially in 2010-11 and 2012-2013) which were arguably inferior to some of his rivals. It seems unfair to praise this quality of Van Gaal and yet malign Mourinho who, since winning his first league title with Porto in 2003, has not only won far more league titles than Van Gaal in that time (eight versus two) but even edges Ferguson’s record (who only won six titles between 2003 and his retirement ten years later). Mourinho is simply the biggest ‘winner’ in the modern game, and, if a ‘winning mentality’ is said to be a characteristic quality of a Ferguson team, there is no better man to take it forward than the Portuguese coach.
Admittedly, it would be glib to reduce fans’ anxieties about Mourinho to concerns about winning. The average Manchester United fan simply may not have known as much about Van Gaal as Mourinho, who is well-known to Premier League fans through his two stints at Chelsea. Perhaps it is natural, therefore, that the newly appointed manager has endured a more thorough grilling than the Dutchman, as fans are better equipped to make judgements about the typical style of a Mourinho team. This style might be summed up as ‘overly defensive’, with a solid foundation, lots of clean sheets and less concern about dominating games- again, seemingly incompatible with fans’ expectation for a Ferguson-esque commitment to ‘attack, attack, attack’.
However, one would do well here to mark the Scotsman’s own comments about the Leicester title. His praise of their ability to grind out 1-0 wins highlights a key part of United’s successful campaigns that fans may be less wont to remember, and shows him to be more akin to Mourinho than these fans might realise. One need only look at the way in which both managers won their various titles: when Mourinho first lifted the title with Chelsea in 2004-5, his team won 12 matches by a one-goal margin, and settled for three away draws; meanwhile, Ferguson’s last title win in 2012-13 included 16 matches won by a one-goal margin and five away draws. Before that in 2010-11, United settled for 10 away draws, four of which were goalless. Even during Ronaldo’s last title at Manchester United, 16 matches were won only by a one-goal margin and the overall goals scored in this season only reached 68- less than any of Mourinho’s six title wins. Although Ferguson’s teams tend to score more than Mourinho’s, the difference is usually only five or six goals, and the highest goals total by either manager is comfortably Mourinho’s, whose Real Madrid team scored a remarkable 121 goals in 2011-12.
Some fans might argue that this Real Madrid team, who had a record-breaking Ronaldo in their ranks, should be seen as an anomaly in Mourinho’s past. Though it is true that this team somewhat skews his statistics, it is his time at Real Madrid that may provide the best idea of what he could bring to United; when trusted at the helm of a global super-club and given a hefty financial backing he built one of the fastest, most prolific, and most effective counter-attacking sides of the modern era. Although he might not have Ronaldo with him in Manchester, the signings of Ibrahimovic and Mkhitaryan have already given ample suggestion that he is in a position to reclaim this style, which, at Madrid, managed to topple arguably the greatest club side in history.
Hindsight is 20-20, of course, and there is little praise to be gained in pointing out Moyes’ and Van Gaal’s shortcomings after the event. Yet one should see that neither of these managers can approximate Ferguson’s achievements and style as well as Mourinho, and, if it is a crime that he might want to scrap out results in the pursuit of a title, one should remember that Ferguson was hardly innocent in his own time.