“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” – Mike Tyson
So far, so splendidly José Mourinho. The Portuguese manager strolled into his first press conference at Old Trafford looking and sounding every inch a Manchester United boss. Gone was the wild-eyed stare of the perpetually out-of-his depth David Moyes. Banished too was Louis van Gaal’s now discredited talk of philosophy. It was always BS, you know. In its place, comes Mourinho’s bravado and clarity of thought – a trait already playing out in the transfer market. Yet, in the back of the mind is the sneaking suspicion that one day, it might go just a little pear-shaped.
Not today, of course. For the moment Mourinho is very much the right man in the right place after three disastrous years at Old Trafford. In another three the narrative may be different; Mourinho’s penchant for rebuilding teams, winning titles and then burning his work to the ground was repeated at Real Madrid and Chelsea. Twice. It’ll be fun while it lasts.
There is another narrative though. This one is a little more insidious; it’s the one that says José fails for the first time in his career. Not because of any innate decline in his preternatural managerial skill-set, but due to the structural deficiencies still grandfathered into United’s set-up. Failings that undermined both Moyes and Van Gaal in the wake of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.
Then there is Mourinho’s own weaknesses, horribly exaggerated to a frankensteinian proportion last season. After all, it is when things are not going so well that Mourinho’s faults are exposed most – the deft charm and charisma on display at Old Trafford is not always his default emotion. Behaviour is not always as collect. Decisions not always rational.
And while the underlying media narrative – and that on the terraces – is overwhelmingly positive during Mourinho’s honeymoon period, the real pressure is yet to build. The rosy future, a nirvana of glory and vanquished opponents, may not come to pass. Fans hope that a vision of success is to come, but Mourinho has some form in the opposite direction too…
United’s sporting structure, Ed Woodward’s role in it
It has long been held by some critics that United is a club built for commercial success – perhaps at the expense of on-the-field glory. In the wake of Ferguson’s retirement the Scot’s edifice came crashing down; negligence in the transfer market and a failure to update the club’s sporting structure has fostered an environment of dangerous short-termism.
The United hierarchy proclaims the benefits of a lean model that enables rapid decision-making. Few other élite clubs hands so much power to the manager and his CEO. Indeed, Woodward’s role as United’s executive vice-chairman appears to offer him significant power over both the club’s commercial arrangements and dealings in the transfer market. He is expert at only one.
Those calling for a sporting director to be found, as is employed at Manchester City, Chelsea, Leicester City, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich – to name just a small selection – will be disappointed though. Whether that’s because United has found an edge, or Woodward likes his dual role is an open question.
Scouting network, reliance on agents
Related to structure is the question of reliance on agents. United’s relative success in the transfer market this summer has been built on a new-found relationship with Dutch agent Mino Raiola, who represents both Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Others, most notably Paul Pogba or Blaise Matuidi, could well be wearing red before the summer is out.
So much for the narrative that Mourinho’s arrival would bring a string of Jorge Mendes clients to Manchester, although it is still possible of course, with Mourinho once accused of packing his Real Madrid squad full of his friend’s makeweights.
The cost is both literal – United may spend upwards of £20 million in Raiola fees alone to bring in Pogba – and more nuanced. With power over United’s transfer policy abdicated to outsiders, just how much control over the club’s destiny really lies at Old Trafford?
The real and related challenge is the overhaul of United’s scouting network – a deficiency noted by Moyes, and only recently acted upon by the club. Both could hamper Mourinho’s ability to build the squad he needs to succeed after three demoralising years in which confidence has been shattered and the turnover of players was far too high.
Another manager, another turnover in staff
Out: Ferguson, Mike Phelan, Rene Meulenstein, Eric Steele.
In: Moyes, Steve Round, Jimmy Lumsden, Phil Neville, Chris Woods.
Out: Moyes, Round, Lumsden, Neville, Woods
In: Van Gaal, Albert Stuivenberg, Frans Hoek, Mex Reckers, Ryan Giggs
Out: Van Gaal, Stuivenberg, Hoek, Reckers, Giggs
In: Mourinho, Rui Faria, Silvino Louro, Ricardo Formosinho, Carlos Lalin, Emilio Alvarez, Giovanni Cerra
So much for stability and continuity. Three years, more than 20 different coaches through the revolving Old Trafford door. No wonder Phil Jones has the mark of the permanently confused etched across his face. Mourinho will spend six months undoing Van Gaal’s painfully prescribed philosophy; decoding the bad habits obtained, and altering the mindset of his players.
Change in football is not always a bad thing. Ferguson’s ability to constantly evolve both his players and staff was a unique skill-set. Most of Europe’s big clubs change manager and playing staff on a three-year cycle. But massive change, year-on-year, is rarely the formula for sustained success.
Then there is, of course, the fierce competition that this likely to rage in the Premier League next season. As of mid-July, United has conducted good business, but City and Chelsea will spend big under new management, while the foundations remain strong at Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal. Few expect Leicester City to repeat last season’s remarkable title win, but either way, if Liverpool is added into the mix, there are seven clubs that can claim to be targeting the title next season.
United’s newly found deep pockets mean that Mourinho’s target will be the title – or to challenge at least. The Reds must come within five points of the eventual winners as a minimum viable goal.
Yet, what happens if the title race is very close next season, with a points spread far narrower than in recent years, could be telling. And United just might miss out on the top three even with a significant boost in performances.
Too many question about key players
After all, despite United’s business this summer there are plenty of doubts about the Reds’ squad. Bailly is a sound acquisition, but inexperienced and yet to be acclimatised to the Premier League’s idiosyncratic nature. Ibrahimovic turns 35 during the season, while Mkhitaryan is not the first creative player to arrive from Borussia Dortmund. The last didn’t fare so well.
Elsewhere, none of United’s central midfielders starred last season, while Memphis Depay, Wayne Rooney and Ashley Young suffered abysmal campaigns. Juan Mata, Marcos Rojo, Bastian Schweinsteiger may not be long for Old Trafford, while none of Phil Jones, Paddy McNair, and Matteo Darmian can be certain of a long United tenure. In short, Mourinho has much to fix in his squad. Not all of it can be resolved in the transfer market.
That combustible Mourinho temperament
And if it Plan A doesn’t quite go to script, is Mourinho the man to pivot, or will his ego get in the way? Chelsea found last season that bravado can quickly translate into destructive narcissism under extreme pressure. His players reacted in the most negative way possible, and the Portuguese was sacked in ignominious circumstances for the second time as Chelsea manager.
This trait is, after all, one of the key reasons why United didn’t hire the 53-year-old on Ferguson’s retirement in 2013. Mourinho is a PR nightmare waiting to happen, with a tendency to burn bridges first and ask questions later.
He has a plan. How quickly will it change when he is inevitably punched in the mouth?