At the end of last season, I wrote an article arguing that Van Gaal shouldn’t be the manager of Manchester United, and many of the reservations I raised came to pass. Jose Mourinho has now been appointed his successor so its worth examining where the club are at, and what he can bring to the role.
What version of Mourinho are Manchester United getting? For all those that say he is a defensive minded coach who learned from Van Gaal, there are others who reference Madrid’s record points and goals tallies on the way to winning La Liga as a clue to what he will do. But at present, we simply don’t know what he will do with United. But the most consistent thread throughout his career is that he wins, and wins big, at every club he manages. At this stage in United’s history, this is what should take precedence above all other concerns.
The received wisdom is that Mourinho is so focussed on the immediate task of winning he will blaspheme the United way, and neglect the youth setup. This is probably false but also reflexively assumes that there is some talent there comparable to previous generations. But the many indicators are that United have serious issues in the quality and the set up of the youth academy. The under-18’s had a run of twelve straight defeats this season, the under-19’s went out of UEFA’s youth league in the group stages, our under-14’s lost 9-0 to Manchester City.
Manchester City’s set-up has overtaken United's by many measures, but perhaps most damningly is the amount of ex-United players that choose to send their sons to academy there, the likes Phil Neville, Robin Van Persie, Andy Cole and Darren Fletcher (there maybe others too).
United choose to do baffling things like halving the proposed number of specialist training pitches for the youngsters, to spend the allocated money on improving the first team car park. So lets not hear anymore damnation of Mourinho not caring about youth development. United increasingly don’t either, such that there will be no new youth team resources to draw from like Van Gaal and Moyes were able to. Players like Rashford and Fosu-Mensah, given first team debuts under Van Gaal, will probably be amongst the last group of youth players with the talent to make the step up for a few years at least, certainly the term of Jose’s contract.
There was a concern among some senior club officials that Mourinho may leave his own Satanic brand upon the Red Devils, and his reign would entail, at some stage, us being forced to stand behind a man whose repertoire includes besmirching UNICEF and gouging men’s eyes. It is this kind of behaviour that is said to have convinced club luminaries like Sir Bobby Charlton that he was unfit for the post, and that his view was a factor in Moyes being chosen to replace Sir Alex instead. Sir Bobby was not consulted this time around, his brand tarnished incrementally with every Moyes defeat.
Whilst respecting his playing legacy, I doubt many fans will mourn the erosion of his power base as Jose in parallel, builds his own. Many United fans who have sought his autograph at United matches (not just first team ones) will have found him incredibly put out to be asked for his time. A Manchester United manager probably doesn’t gouge opponents eyes, as Jose did to Barca’s Vilanova, but they have kicked boots into players faces requiring stitches and sued the club's owners causing a media storm that destabilised the club. And its fans continued to support players who assaulted people on (Keane) and off (Cantona) the pitch.
I doubt Mourinho will specifically do that again, but no doubt he will invite some controversy in the future because its a useful tactic to change newspapers narratives when his team aren’t playing well. This is something Ferguson did too. He was usually only headline material after a loss. When his team was winning he just offered platitudes as the results spoke for themselves.
United fans need not worry if their ambitions align with their managers in this instance. We know Mourinho is greedy for success too. But it's important for his relationship with the fans that he recognises an error in Moyes and Van Gaal trying to modify United fans expectations, claiming they were too high. This phrase or any permutation of words that mean the same thing, will be the death knell for any United manager whilst we are still fearful of ‘doing a Liverpool’ in the post-Ferguson era. We can laud tactical draws away against Barca in the semi final of the Champions League, but if draws against Newcastle and West Ham start getting praised then its a sign of creeping mediocrity.
Another common feature of the Moyes and Van Gaal reigns that Mourinho would do well to note is that they both tried to change the style of play at the club, whilst giving no indication that this would be as successful as what had gone before. The more deviant the change from waves of attacking football ideal(*), the more immediate success must be before United fans can accept the transition. This is where Ed Woodward needs to step in and communicate the roles requirements clearly and regularly, because the final common feature between Van Gaal and Moyes is they both seemed surprised (and betrayed) to be sacked, despite the entire country being aware they were not meeting minimal requirements. They could only have been under a different impression to the rest of us because of communication issues.
Its also been written that super agent Jorge Mendes is consolidating too much power at the club as he instructs both players and the manager now, but I think it has been tempered. When Mendes' client Falcao was left out of the United team repeatedly, Mendes was briefing the papers that Van Gaal couldn’t manage him properly. Mendes was also touting our only world class player (De Gea) to Madrid last summer. This type of thing will now have to stop, as it would only be undermining another client, Mourinho.
All in all, we can look forward to the new season with a sense of optimism and something closer to expectancy than hope. It will certainly not be the dull, wasted affair of the past two years under Van Gaal, either on or off the pitch. United finally have a manager of stature commensurate with the role, and someone intuitively theatrical in the theatre of dreams.
*Admittedly, Ferguson hadn’t honoured this tradition towards the end of his reign.