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Mourinho and United ended up like a loveless celebrity marriage | Barney Ronay | Football


Farewell, then, José. It’s been fun. Or if not exactly fun then fitful, tedious and wreathed in a familiar sense of entropy. Either way José Mourinho’s abrupt departure from Manchester United on Tuesday morning completes a familiar three-year cycle of doomed hope, doomed decline and, by the end, simply doom.

There was at least an inevitability about the end. It has been clear since the summer that Mourinho was preparing for this moment, using his public pronouncements to shift blame, distance himself from the squad of players assembled, and tend to the one element that really matters: his glorious but increasingly distant legacy.

In the event, United’s struggles through the autumn proved irresistible. Mourinho has seemed to be fraying a little in recent weeks, resembling in his post-match interviews a particularly haggard and doomed minor European aristocrat hurled up against the palace wall by a cabal of Bolsheviks and asked to explain his extravagant misuse of the public purse.

But then, let’s face it, the glorious red dawn of José Mourinho was only ever a chimera, someone else’s misguided daydream. At times José in Manchester has felt like a loveless celebrity marriage, two fading stars of the last decade clinging to one another in the hope of some mutual rekindling, a Queen reunion tour fronted by Rick Astley.

And so here we go again, glancing around the jerry-built structures of another doomed post-Ferguson era. There will of course be an immediate urge to pile in on Mourinho, to attach all blame to the manager. This is the easiest and, indeed, most attractive option. It is also the option Manchester United’s directors and owners would much prefer.

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This is in part why football managers exist. One of the key functions of the first ever managers was to stand out front and assuage the ire of the Victorian crowds, straw men hoist into place to create a layer of padding between angry customers and the keepers of this fevered new form of public entertainment.

Not that Mourinho doesn’t deserve his share. At United, he failed in the most basic task of creating a coherent high-level team out of the payers at his disposal. Indeed, it is hardly controversial to suggest Mourinho is basically done at this level, that his methods and his persona simply seem out of time.

There will always be a place for defensive or “reactive” football. Mourinho’s deep block, the idea of crouching behind your guard and letting an opponent punch itself out, has given him some of his finest moments. But nobody really plays like this any more at the top end. Even nihilistic team defence has moved on and left Mourinho behind, becoming more complex and nuanced in other hands.





José Mourinho during a press conference in Turin last month.



José Mourinho during a press conference in Turin last month. Photograph: Alberto Ramella/Sync/AGF/Rex/Shutterstock

Plus there has always been a basic paradox in Mourinho’s presence at Real Madrid and Manchester United, club football grandees with a certain romantic entitlement about their own style, their own way of winning. Here is a manager who got so good at coaching underdog teams that he got to coach the overdog teams, employed by clubs where his strangulating methods no longer hit the right note.

Along the way his key early superpower, the ability to inspire undying loyalty in his star players, has been replaced by constant gripes about the youth of today. Mourinho has become managerial gammon, bleating on about the snowflakes and millennial narcissists, these kids with telephones and haircuts. Which is all very well. But Frank Lampard has retired. And while Paul Pogba may have plenty lacking in his game, he is also what you’ve got, José old boy.

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In the end his failings at United were prosaic and even quite dull. Mourinho was unable to coach greater solidity into some average but serviceable defenders. As a result he never trusted his most skilful players, never conceived any workable set of attacking rhythms against stronger opponents. Worse, he just seemed to lose heart, to lose the basic fun of inspiring players and building the vital units of a team. By the end United had become something they can’t be, not just a poor team but a boring one, trapped within their own muscular limitations.

Not that anybody really needs to say any of this. We have been here before. There is little to be gained by flogging at the Mourinho-shaped piñata. In the end, the most startling thing about the sacking of José Mourinho by Manchester United is still the appointment of José Mourinho at Manchester United in the first place.

The 30 months since tell us a great deal more about United’s current state. It is easy enough to suggest what they really need is not a new manager but new owners, or at least owners who don’t see this great sporting institution as just another business to be wrung out and stripped down, squatting upon its noble old shoulders like vampiric corporate homunculi.

Look closely enough and club owners are often a wretched spectacle. But what is most striking here is the lack of expertise and basic care in the grass-based football-facing side of the business. It is here that strange feeling of emptiness starts to creep in. Just enough is being done, corners cut, funds directed elsewhere. At the very least United require a coherent structure in place to fill that vacuum around the manager, a director of football to provide a layer of ballast between football and marketing departments.

There is no coherence to United’s recruitment, style of play or managerial succession. David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, José Mourinho: what do these people have in common? Those with first-hand experience wince over the scouting and coaching structures. Even the stadium is starting to rattle a little compared with the best around Europe.

There is still a remarkable quality of deathlessness to the United brand, marching off around the world like a red and black zombie army. But how much longer can this momentum sustain itself?

Above all, in the dog days of the José era, this has felt like a club without direction, but also without love, without warmth, without someone in there taking absolute care over the details of what happens on the pitch. Mourinho may have gone. But it will take a great deal more hand-wringing, a great deal more leverage to shift the people who put him in place, and who remain at the rusting wheel of this grand old sporting supertanker.





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