Jose Mourinho - From the Special One to the Helpless One
In July 2004, having led his Porto side to a miraculous Champion League triumph, Jose Mourinho announced his arrival at Stamford Bridge and the Premier League by proclaiming himself as a “Special One”. By then, nobody could challenge Mourinho’s trumpet as the Portuguese not only led Chelsea to a record-breaking season in his Premier League debut, but his Chelsea side also raised the level of the league significantly. His credentials were further boosted after he returned to Chelsea in 2013 and guided the Blues to another league title in the 2014/15 season. With his rich experience and strong credentials in the Premier League, Mourinho arrived at Old Trafford with the high expectation of ending Manchester United’s league title drought. Three years entering his tenure, the Red Devils not only are nowhere near challenging for the title, but they have found themselves in huge turmoil on and off the pitch. This begs the question of why has Jose Mourinho, one of the most successful managers in the Premier League, failed so miserably in Manchester?
Mourinho’s Style of Play and Signings
Jose Mourinho has implemented a specific style of play to every team he has managed: a well-organized backline, two aggressive holding midfielders, an effective playmaker, wingers with excellent work rate, and a powerful centre-forward. However, his style has not produced the desired outcome at Man Utd.
Defense: Jose Mourinho must be reminiscing the back four of his first Chelsea side. Not only did his 2014/15 Chelsea only conceded 15 goals, which is still a Premier League record, but his back four of John Terry – Ricardo Carvalho – Ashley Cole – Paulo Ferreira were always reliable. In his other teams, the likes of Walter Samuel, Marco Materazzi, Sergio Ramos, Branislav Ivanovic, and Cezar Azpilicueta always made him feel secure at the back. Man Utd’s excellent defensive record last season was, in large part, due to David De Gea’s heroics and Mourinho’s defensive approaches in most of United's league matches, including at home against weaker opposition. Mourinho's tendency to play defensively highlighted the Portuguese's lack of trust vis-à-vis his defenders. Jose Mourinho plays defensive football not because “parking the bus” is his modus operandi, but he did so due to his strong sense of insecurity at the back. Manchester United’s center-backs are nowhere near the levels of John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho, while Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia are wingers converted into wing-backs. Nevertheless, the lack of defensive qualities does not absolve Mourinho from his duty to improve United's defense. Mourinho signed Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof to bolster his center back options, but both signings have failed to live up to expectations. Bailly was perceived by some as the next Nemanja Vidic; unfortunately, his constant injuries and calamity at Brighton have undermine his progress at the club. Lindelof has made too many simple errors which inevitably raises the question of whether the Swede is good enough to play for United. As such, Mourinho desperately pushed for the signing of a world-class center-back over the summer to amend for his error of judgement, but Ed Woodward refused to sanction any deals, an outcome which heavily strained the pair’s relationship.
Midfield. Mourinho’s midfield system consists of two holding midfielders and a playmaker. With Michael Carrick passing his prime and Ander Herrera not an orthodox holding midfielder, Mourinho brought his loyal servant Nemanja Matic to Old Trafford in summer 2017. Aside from freeing up Paul Pogba, the Serbian also provides more security in front of the shaky back four. However, Matic’s arrival did not remove United’s midfield problem altogether. United still lacks a versatile, box-to-box midfielders like Xabi Alonso, Ramires, or Dejan Stankovic. Ander Herrera appears to be fitting into this category, but he has failed to replicate his brilliant form in the 2015/16 season and cement his place after the signing of Paul Pogba. It remains to be seen if Fred can be the person filling the hole in midfield. The elephant in the room, however, is the role of Paul Pogba in Mourinho’s system. Mourinho brought Pogba back to Old Trafford because the manager hoped that the United youth product would feed his main striker, just like the Lampard-Drogba, Özil-Ronaldo, and Fabregas-Costa partnerships that were so successful. There are two flaws in Mourinho’s plan, however. First, Pogba simply cannot thrive when he touches the ball in his own half. During his Bianconeri days, with Arturo Vidal and Andrea Pirlo sat deeper in their own half, Pogba was allowed to use his power, deft touches and distance-shooting prowess to hurt the oppositions. Pogba barely had the opportunity to do all that in a United shirt because he has found himself hovering around his own half under Mourinho. The notable exception was the second half of the Manchester Derby in April, wherein the Frenchman openly admitted that he was able to score two goals because he was given the license to go forward after knowing that Matic or Herrera would sit in midfield. Second, while Mourinho knew that he needs to push Pogba further forward, hence the signing of Fred, Pogba has not lived up to his price tag. He claimed that Man Utd is his “house”, but United fans, pundits and even Mourinho felt that the World Cup winner does not show the desire and discipline for his club and country. During the World Cup, Pogba was tidy on the ball and fulfill his defensive duties very well. However, back in Manchester, he often gave the ball away cheaply and failed to sense the danger when the opposition is building up its attacking play. Perhaps the Frenchman simply could not adjust to the intensity of Premier League football, but Jose Mourinho and Ed Woodward would lament the money they paid for the incredibly gifted Frenchman.
Attack. It is no secret that Mourinho favors wingers with high work rate and a robust center forward. As the United board refused to meet the hefty price tag of Ivan Perisic, Mourinho's no.1 target for a long time, Mourinho was forced to improvise with a straight swap involving Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Alexis Sanchez in January. At the first glance, the deal makes sense because 1) Mourinho had completely lost faith in the Armenian, and 2) Sanchez works very hard for the team without the ball, thus making him the ideal alternative for Perisic. Unfortunately, Sanchez has been a massive shadow of his previous self. His appalling goalscoring and assist records for the Red Devils are just microcosms of his main issue at United - his inability to link up with his teammates. He often gives the ball away cheaply and makes wrong decisions in front of goal - trying to find his teammates instead of finishing the opportunities himself like he usually did for Arsenal. Is Sanchez's massive dip in form a result of him being incompatible with Mourinho's tactics, or the Chilean's loss of self-confidence, or both? Regardless, Sanchez's predicament has prompted many to, once again, question Mourinho's judgment and ability to get the best out of his players. As for center forward, Mourinho understandably signed Zlatan Ibrahimovic and late Romelu Lukaku because he needs a proven and powerful striker to lead his front line. Both Ibrahimovic and Lukaku have done their job fairly well but at the expense of Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford. Rashford, in particular, has been forced to play as a winger under Mourinho. While the young Englishman has the pace and skills to tear fullbacks apart, he is much more effective playing in the middle, as evidenced by his performances under Louis Van Gaal and for England. However, as Lukaku is likely to remain as Mourinho's only striker, questions will continue to linger around Rashford's development and happiness at the club.