“I think he’s doing really well,” noted Sir Alex Ferguson of José Mourinho’s start at Manchester United. “It’s not easy coming to United. It’s not easy to transform the club’s fortunes from my time. But I thought Louis van Gaal did a good job and I think José’s doing a great job.”
Those seeming innocuous comments, reported widely last week caused no rumpus, barely even a stir among the United faithful. It was, as we might expect, a simple case of a United legend – who still follows the club’s fortunes – backing the club’s current manager.
Ferguson’s opinion carries weight. He was United’s manager for 26 years, won 13 league titles and countless other trophies. He is the manager the game accepts as the best. Yet, here he is lauding the achievements of a man who’s barely muddied his office carpet after an ordinary six months in Manchester. It could sound like the bizarre acceptance of mediocrity.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Seeming innocuous comments caused no rumpus among the United faithful. It was, as we might expect, a simple case of a United legend backing the club’s current manager.[/blockquote]
Van Gaal was very far from doing “a good job.” The Dutchman stifled the life out of world-class talents, such as restricting Juan Mata to a right-wing role; he repeatedly left Morgan Schneiderlin out in favour of Marouane Fellaini; and squeezed Wayne Rooney into the team even when the Englishman dropped far off the pace.
In his first season, the Dutchman too often relied on bizarre tactics, such as launching it long at Fellaini. His second campaign bore witness to a succession of gutless performances that left Old Trafford stunned into silence.
Van Gaal’s time was one of confusion, at once relying on the multi-talented English teenager in Luke Shaw, while bizarrely throwing his lot in with mercenary striker Falcao. Even Van Gaal’s decision to appoint Ryan Giggs as his assistant left the legendary Welshman grasping at any managerial opportunity that comes his way.
One can’t help feel that even Marcus Rashford’s emergence, which came on Van Gaal’s watch, was a happy accident. After jettisoning James Wilson on loan, Van Gaal’s hand was forced due to a glut of injuries. Four goals in Rashford’s first two games gave Van Gaal an elevated sense of self-achievement. He has ‘found a gem!’ It was, of course, Rashford who deserved the plaudits for injecting life into Van Gaal’s static team.
And if by “good” Ferguson means Van Gaal’s theatrical dive, which earned the attention of every meme and vine merchant with a laptop, then van Gaal did a brilliant job.
It certainly wasn’t good finishing fourth and then fifth in the Premier League, even if Van Gaal’s team did win a frenetic FA Cup final against the one of the worst Premier League sides of 2016. For many clubs this is good. It would never have been good for Ferguson.
The Scot’s argument that “Jose’s doing a great job” is arguably even more odd. Notwithstanding United’s recent form, which still leaves the club in sixth place drowning in the wake of Antonio Conte’s barnstorming Chelsea, it is a curious assessment.
“Great” means forcing Henrikh Mkhitaryan into exile for three months, during which time United floundered when challenged to break down defensive teams. In reality, Mkhitaryan’s presence could have earned the Reds six additional points and United could have utilised a lock-picker of the Armenian’s prowess during the autumn. After all, Mkhitaryan dominated the Bundesliga last season with 18 goals from midfield, arriving at Old Trafford amid huge fanfare and a £26 million price tag.
It also means leaving Shaw an outcast, ostracised to the point of disillusionment. In truth, Shaw has cried out for a manager to put an arm round his shoulder, the way Ferguson would have done.
If by “great” Ferguson means benching Chris Smalling, arguably last season’s most impressive outfielder, then Mourinho has done well too. Smalling, who was on an upward trajectory after last season’s breakthrough, should be one of the Premier League’s best centre-backs. That form has dwindled along with his confidence, and Smalling has reverted to the panic stricken centre-back recognisable from the 2014-15 season.
Then there is the abuse of Rashford and Anthony Martial, two of the club’s most exciting attacking prospects, who are being linked with loan moves elsewhere to kickstart their careers. The pair should be given the freedom of Old Trafford, competing with Pedro and Eden Hazard, Christian Eriksen and Delle Alli at the top of the Premier League.
Mourinho is far from doing a great job – not yet anyway. For that United must no longer be a fading force that fails to qualify for the Champions League. Success is ingrained in the club’s DNA. When the team falls short of perfection, questions should be asked.
Indeed, there is a very real possibly that United will finish sixth this season and miss on bagging a trophy. It would be hard for Ferguson’s to characterise José’s performance as “great” then.
None of this observation is meant as vitriolic criticism of Ferguson, nor the achievements or credibility of Van Gaal and Mourinho. Patience is a virtue around Old Trafford these days. Perhaps the halcyon days once so common under Ferguson will return, but for now supporters must wait, and the team must pounce when the moment arises.
Yet, accepting mediocrity has never been the United Way. Demanding commitment and dedication, ambition and perfection – that’s the United way. Ferguson’s way.
Acquiring world-class players doesn’t necessarily work, nor does hiring world-class managers . Yet, United can surely only reclaim the glory that was once so common by once again setting the aim sky-high. That was Ferguson’s goal when he took over a floundering club in 1986.