Student writer Chris Lierly discusses the state of the Manchester United Football Club with a spotlight on the trouble brewing with its manager Mourinho.
The position of manager at Manchester United holds a special place in the world of sports. Like head coach for the Lakers, quarterback for the Cowboys or pitcher for the Yankees, it’s the kind of job that can jumpstart a young career or cement a legacy. A lot of this prestige is due to the man most famous for the role, Sir Alex Ferguson. “Fergie,” as he has been affectionately dubbed by the Red Devil’s faithful, won a total of 49 trophies in his tenure that lasted from 1986 to 2013. In the post-Ferguson world, it was necessary for United to bring in a manager that would create entertaining football, stability in the dressing room and most importantly consistent success both in the Premier League and in Europe. None of these things sound remotely close to the club under Jose Mourinho.
Mourinho came to Manchester United in the 2016-17 season and with him came the heavily defensive and low scoring system that he used at Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan, and Real Madrid. Not all football has to look pretty to be good. Success alone will make most fanbases fall in love with a manager. However, this is not Porto; this is one of the five biggest clubs in the world, and Mourinho’s style is about as entertaining as an 8 a.m. chemistry lecture from a monotone professor. He often wins, but it seems like he has more final scores of 1-0 at United than Ronaldo and Messi have career goals. If this static strategy produced a stable atmosphere throughout the squad and success at the top levels than it could be ignored, but this summer, one of the biggest headlines in soccer after the World Cup ended was the friction between Mourinho and one of the best players he’s ever managed, Paul Pogba.
At the beginning of Pogba’s time at Old Trafford, it seemed like the French midfielder was not going to be worth the world record fee that United payed to get him back from Italian club Juventus. However, that changed with his second, more improved season in Manchester, and the intricate role he played in France’s World Cup victory. It was not long after the summer tournament in Russia when every headline in soccer was about the strained relationship between Pogba and Mourinho.
It remains unclear what issue truly set the manager and the star against one another, but Pogba having to return to Mourinho’s slow pack-the-box strategy after achieving success with Didier Deschamps’ electrifying French National team can’t be far off the mark. What’s followed in the months since has been a back and forth passive aggressive feud that has caused a headache for anyone wearing red in Manchester.
After Pogba returned from a World Cup winning run with France, he was snubbed as Antonio Valencia was awarded the captaincy of Manchester United for the 2018-19 season. Following this, Mourinho implied that the World Cup suited Pogba better since it was easier to focus on than a Premier League title race. Then the manager went on to say about his star, “I don’t think it’s about us getting the best out of him, it’s about him giving the best he has to give.”
It wasn’t long before Pogba had a chance to comment on his future at the club after Mourinho’s string of comments. After the team’s 2-1 win against Leicester City, Pogba told a reporter in the post-match interview, “I cannot say what I want or I will be fined.” In the same interview he made a point to thank the managing staff and just happened to leave out Mourinho’s name. This response did not help matters, but putting blame on the midfielder is hard after the way his own manager spoke of him earlier in the summer.
It’s beginning to look more and more like one of them will have to leave before this battle of egos does damage to the rest of the team, and Juventus, Pogba’s former club, has been rumored to want the superb midfielder back. If one of them does leave, it will be up to the bosses at the head of the organization to make that call, and at the end of the day they will choose the option that promises them a major trophy the soonest.
What may ultimately doom Mourinho’s stint at United is time. He has already been there for two seasons. In those two seasons he has won multiple pieces of hardware, but as we saw earlier, when Alex Ferguson was winning major title after major title, your fans won’t get riled up over a Europa League trophy. The stadium in which the man coaches has “Theatre of Dreams” plastered above the rafters. That makes success a requisite for keeping your job and Mourinho’s contract will be up at the end of this season. What Mourinho does have going for him is prior success. He won the Premier League Title with Chelsea three times in two separate runs as manager. This is the reason the directors at Old Trafford hired him in the first place, but that is not the most important relationship for Mourinho as his time as manager of the Red Devils enters its most critical hour.
The brass at Manchester United have the final say but an angry fanbase could likely sway any opinion the executives might hold. Currently the board of directors have Mourinho’s back in his feud with Paul Pogba. Still, his frustration at the organization for not helping buy another central defender (after he squandered his money on quality attackers that he refuses to use) show that like Pogba, his relationship with his superiors might not be a rosy affair either. The support that Mourinho’s superiors do have for him could vanish at a moment’s notice if the fan base turns on him. This could happen if it looks like success will have to wait another season or if they think that Pogba could leave.
Trying to gauge the reaction of a fanbase is difficult. Even if Mourinho fails to win the Premier League or the Champion’s League, a good campaign in either could save his job. However, United has two major rivalries and they are against the Premier League’s current reigning Champions and the League’s current leaders, Manchester City and Liverpool respectively. In the case of a loss in either rivalry match, Mourinho’s job will depend on if fans see the loss as his loss or the players’ loss. Nonetheless, United fans and executives seem to be at a boiling point. A loss to either rival team or a finish in the Premier League below third and Mourinho could be sacked midseason. This seems like the most likely outcome unless the coach from Portugal can pull off another miracle season like the ones at Chelsea that made his name known across Europe.