Why Jose Mourinho needs to adapt at Manchester United to deliver major trophies
A lot was made of both Manchester clubs this season. The battle for the Premier League was supposed to be between the two behemoths from the north. But City have zoomed ahead while United are struggling to remain second.
For the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson left, there was genuine hope in the red half of Manchester that the title would once again be theirs. A proven manager, an endless budget, and a ridiculously deep squad, it was hard to see how the title wouldn’t fall into their lap.
A strong start that papered over the cracks
Until recent weeks, United were miles above their competitors for the Champions League spots. Nobody could have foreseen the ruthlessness that Pep Guardiola's Manchester City have displayed this season. And it is for that reason, United, and particularly Jose Mourinho, were kept away from the frying pan.
But United had a pretty easy start to the Premier League season. The 4-0 victories led to a wave of euphoria amongst the fans. What wasn’t looked at was the fact that it was against West Ham and Swansea City who were closer to the bottom at the time.
The problem with United this season is that they are a reflection of their manager. When things are going well, the players pick teams apart with ease and score goals for fun – eventually taking all the credit – given to them by the manager.
In turn, when things begin heating up and the pressure starts to mount, Mourinho does what he does best – he redirects the spotlight to his players. He lurks in the darkness, plays his dirty mind games with the media and plays the innocent bystander.
It is when Mourinho’s ship hits these rough waters do people start to question his tactics and philosophy.
But the signs were there all season.
The result-oriented approach is stifling the players
United’s first real test this season wasn’t till 8 weeks in, against Liverpool when they needed another hero performance from De Gea to make sure they came away from Anfield with a point.
It was a typical Mourinho-esque performance from United; sitting deep in their own half and struggling for creativity in the opposition half. It was hard to believe this was a team boasting the attacking talents of Paul Pogba, Juan Mata, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, amongst many, many more.
A Man United team that focuses on the result rather than their performance isn't a Man United team.
It is an abomination.
United are a side with nearly endless resources, a crop of young talent, some of the biggest names in football, and a manager who claims to be the best. This is a team that should be ruthless – a trait the very best in Europe possess. Man City have taken their game to an elite level this season and now match up to Bayern Munich, Barcelona, PSG, Juventus and Real Madrid. United are miles behind.
And Mourinho is to blame.
A good manager improves the squad of players he has, is sharp in the transfer market, and is a tactical innovator. Mourinho hasn’t changed his tactics since his days at Porto.
It is the reputation that is keeping him going, but that too is in its twilight. A manager whose biggest impact came 8 years ago with Inter Milan and has been on his way down since then isn't a manager who can lead United back to the top.
United have a core of young players, around which they can build their squad - much like Man City do - but the players need an inspirational figure; a messiah off the field to help them take their attacking game to the elite level. Mourinho isn't that figure.
Playing Pogba out of position in a deeper role doesn’t give him the freedom that he deserves. His quality has never come into question more than it has this season, but these questions should be directed to the man who leads them. The man who has no problem shifting the blame onto his players and shirking away from responsibility.
Mourinho is on his way down to where it all began – the Europa League
This trait has now rubbed off on the players.
Against Newcastle United, the players looked bereft of ideas. Apart from Alexis Sanchez, not one player looked like he had the desire to take the game to the opposition. There was no fight; no spirit in the team. Newcastle had a purpose – they wanted a victory to stay up in the first division. They fought hard and deserved their victory. But Man United should never have given them the chance to do that.
United, instead arrived up north, walked onto the St. James Park and rolled over.
Alexis, who was their best player on the field, is one who represents hope and resurgence, but even he needs support. He needs his teammates to raise their game, rally around his quality and desire and match his elite levels. But if young players like Lukaku, Rashford, Pogba, Martial and Lingard aren’t given the freedom to express themselves by the manager, there is no way they can take their game to another level.
Lukaku has plateaued heavily since his monster transfer last summer, and is the shadow of the player that dominated games playing for Everton and West Brom. He has buckled under the pressure, overreacted under the criticism and lurked in the shadows when his team needed him the most.
United players need an inspirational figure
When Mourinho was at his peak with Inter Milan, he had a squad of ageing players who bought into his tactics. They believed in the grit and steeliness of his style and they fought tooth and nail for victory. And clearly, it worked.
But times have changed. Clubs in the Premier League, especially the ‘smaller’ ones are better coached, better tactically set up, and possess players of better quality. The budgets have increased and the incentive to fight has grown.
Mourinho has stayed the same. And the results are there to see.
At Real, he only managed two major trophies in his 3-year tenure, creating more chaos in the process including falling out with major players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos. Following his return to Chelsea, he brought the Premier League back to Stamford Bridge, but also oversaw a monumental collapse the following season that saw his team linger near the relegation zone for large periods.
During these tumultuous times, he resorted to his dirty tricks of shifting the blame onto his players – signalling out major names – and creating an utterly toxic environment. He was clearly the problem, and Chelsea had no problem getting rid of him again, bringing in someone who used those same players to lasso in the title the following season.
With United, Mourinho brought success in his first season winning the Europa League, the League Cup and the Community Shield. He steadied the ship quickly and managed to get everyone behind him early on. It is time for him and the club to kick on. The club and fans demand elite success; they demand the Premier League and Champions League titles, and absolute dominance.
Getting rid of Mourinho and bringing in a young, dynamic manager is a risky option for United right now and is very unlikely, but Mourinho needs to step up into the spotlight, grab the game by the scruff of its neck and shake things up tactically. His players need a leader whom they can follow. If he doesn’t step into that role, he and the club could find themselves right back down where he started – dawdling in mediocrity.