Manchester United: A false dawn
Perhaps Jose Mourinho explained it best when he said, “There is a mystique and a romance about it which no other club can match.” He was, of course, talking about Manchester United at his first press conference as manager of the club. To assume that this mystique and romance has solely to do with their trophy cabinet would be a gross mistake.
To understand the success that Manchester United enjoyed one must look more closely at Sir Alex Ferguson. Yes, United had a long history of success before his arrival – Sir Matt Busby was an inspiring manager who led them to many victories and the first European trophy for any English club. But that was long ago when the sport was vastly different from what it has come to be.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s work at United will, perhaps, always remain unprecedented – in 26 years he won a total of 38 trophies but since his retirement, the club has become a spectre of its former self. David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, though welcomed with great hope by fans and players alike, left the club in shambles.
Enter Jose Mourinho. The Portuguese manager refused other jobs because he wanted this particular one – manager of Manchester United. It’s not just his arrival, but the arrival of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Eric Bailly, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba that has led fans to believe their club is back, back to winning ways.
And why not? After all, they have some of the world’s best players on their side and they’ve already won a trophy (FA Community Shield) and their first three league games, two of which, rather splendidly.
Well, here’s a look at why not. United’s success has always been superlative. It follows that their expectations are unusually high as well. But to think the good old days are back after such a promising start to the 2016-17 campaign is foolish.
In Ferguson’s United, players came and went. The one constant was their manager and his philosophy. In a case study for the Harvard Business Review in 2012, he spoke at length about his ‘formula’.
“From the moment I got to Manchester United, I thought of only one thing: building a football club. I wanted to build right from the bottom. That was in order to create fluency and a continuity of supply to the first team.”
This was perhaps the most crucial part of his system that set him apart from the others – rebuilding the youth structure. He was fortunate too. He started at United when football wasn’t a competition about who spent the most and there was less pressure to produce immediate results.
However, his formula cannot be faulted. His work with the youth system ensured that United had a string of talented players coming through. Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and David Beckham were a product of his youth academy. He was quite a shrewd businessman too. He sold many of his players for quite a profit after moulding them into great players. Think Ruud van Nistelrooy, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Ferguson wasn’t just concerned about his first team. What happened in the entire club mattered to him. Like David Gill, former chief executive of the club said, “Steve Jobs was Apple; Sir Alex Ferguson is Manchester United”.
Jose Mourinho, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. His philosophy encompasses all of one word – ‘winning’. Yes, he’s won trophies in Portugal, England, Italy and Spain but at what cost? His refusal to stay anywhere for longer than a couple of years means he knows little about building a club.
Since winning is the only end-game for him, Mourinho doesn’t look beyond his first team. He definitely knows how to buy well but he makes no use of the reserve team or the youth squads.
It’s happening at Manchester United already. Mourinho is close to narrowing down his first team and he’s getting rid of anyone who is in excess. There has been an exodus of young United players leaving on loan deals and permanent transfers these last two weeks.
Mourinho’s football tactics don’t stand the test of time either. Just think back to Chelsea last season. Once all the teams caught on to their strategy they became pretty easy to rip apart – Mourinho and his men mounted the worst title defence in Premier League history.
The Portuguese manager’s routine at every club follows a pattern. After the first two seasons of success, he either moves on elsewhere or he gets sacked because his teams become predictable and starts losing. He has absolutely no experience of building a club from the ground up. Rather, he seems to be better at bringing ruin to a team.
The Portuguese league is a two-horse race where either FC Porto or Benfica win. He helped Chelsea to many titles but left them in shambles both times. He won the Serie A with Inter Milan but they haven’t won anything since. Real Madrid won the La Liga in 2012 with him but haven’t claimed the title for themselves thereafter.
It’s hard to believe that United are headed for the road to recovery with Mourinho in charge. There has been a vacuum in the club since Ferguson’s retirement and it won’t be filled by a grand-standing manager who won’t stay past three years at the most.
Although, United would be lucky if he left after the first couple of seasons since the third time is never the charm for him and his team.
Ferguson was a one-of-a-kind manager. With him gone, Ed Woodward will feel no qualms to fire Mourinho if he doesn’t produce instant results. And even if he does, will United be ready for the wreckage he leaves in his wake?
The key to longstanding success is sustainability but Mourinho’s vision for any team never extends that far. Just give it two years. You’ll see…