In July 2017, after having led Manchester United to two trophies in his first season in charge, Jose Mourinho said he intended to stay in the job for 15 years. Yet, two and a half years after being appointed Louis van Gaal’s successor, he finds himself out of work, having emerged from another messy divorce.
Although United finished sixth in the Premier League during his first year at the helm, success in the EFL Cup and Europa League, the latter of which returned them to the Champions League, was seen as a platform from which Mourinho could build.
There was renewed optimism, too, following the captures of Romelu Lukaku, a proven striker, Nemanja Matic, the midfield enforcer United have lacked in recent seasons and Victor Lindelof, a raw but promising central defender.
And while he led them to second place behind Manchester City last season, the sense of growing malaise that has afflicted the club has largely been his own doing.
Mourinho was the chief architect of the toxic atmosphere which permeated the latter stages of his tenure.
The 55-year-old has not always been synonymous with enthralling attacking football. Indeed, United’s style of play under the former Chelsea and Real Madrid boss often attracted discontented groans from the Stretford End but Mourinho has, for the most part of his career, been able to deliver results, mostly thanks to his ability to organise the defence.
United conceded 29 goals during their 2016/17 league campaign and 28 in 2017/18. That the Red Devils have already shipped 29 in the current term, after just 17 games, was overwhelming evidence that the manager had lost his touch.
But the significance of United pulling the trigger in the wake of a dismal defeat to Liverpool should not be overlooked. Under him, United were too often distinctly second-best against their top-six rivals. In the last few months alone they have been dismantled by Tottenham at Old Trafford, swept aside by Manchester City at the Etihad and overwhelmed by the intensity of Liverpool.
Jose Mourinho LEAVES United! The club have announced that he has left the club with immediate effect, and a caretaker manager will be appointed until the end of the current season…
— RedArmyBet (@RedArmy_Bet) December 18, 2018
If Ed Woodward and the club’s hierarchy hired Mourinho for his big-game mentality, the appointment was a spectacular misfire.
Of course, Mourinho contributed to his own downfall. On too many occasions he could be heard criticising the technical, physical and mental attributes of his players. For much of the last year, he has cut a snarling, detached figure in interviews and press conferences, often bemoaning the club’s lack of transfer business but his comments following the defeat at Anfield surely stuck in United’s craw the most.
In his post-match remarks, Mourinho said United lacked players of Liverpool’s intensity and physicality while hailing the ‘incredible’ Andrew Robertson.
“I am still tired just looking at Robertson,” said Mourinho. “He makes 100 metre sprints per minute, absolutely incredible.” It’s difficult to imagine such effusive praise for one of his own players, reinforcing the idea that he shared fractious relationships with several first-team figures.
And things came to a head this season. His frosty exchange of opinion with Paul Pogba, captured by Sky Sports’ cameras, portrayed a man at odds with his squad, while there have been growing reports that Alexis Sanchez, Lukaku and Antonio Valencia have fallen foul of Mourinho’s uncompromising nature.
He has had differences with Luke Shaw, Eric Bailly and Anthony Martial too. For United, there was too much conflict.
By the end, confidence in Mourinho’s abilities had been shattered. United have regressed under his watch to the point at which they can look over their shoulder to find Wolves just a point behind and Everton, West Ham and Watford just a point further back.
— RedArmyBet (@RedArmy_Bet) December 18, 2018
Six points adrift of fifth-placed Arsenal, United are barely clinging to their place in the top six and, in this instance, the table does not lie: they are inferior to those above them. Pep Guardiola has transformed Manchester City into arguably the most formidable team in Europe, Liverpool have clearly progressed under Jurgen Klopp while Chelsea and Arsenal have shown signs of rebirth under respective new managers Maurizio Sarri and Unai Emery.
Then there is Mauricio Pochettino – for many the ideal candidate to succeed Mourinho – who has built an impressive squad at Tottenham and kept in touch with City and Liverpool this season despite a barren summer transfer window and persistent questions about Spurs’ much-delayed new stadium.
While the other teams dreamed big, United slipped into a downward spiral under Mourinho, a trajectory from which he could not escape and it’s difficult to imagine him being given a job of this magnitude again.
Ultimately, the majority of fans will feel as though it’s the right decision. Mourinho’s presence had come to resemble a dark cloud over Old Trafford and, while there is intense scrutiny on the board to get it right next time, United can look to the future.
Mourinho’s sacking does not solve everything at United but it is unquestionably a step in the right direction, a step away from the angst and indignation of their season to this point and step towards the radical, top-to-bottom reboot they so desperately need, one which can harness a talented but disaffected squad and, at some point, re-establish Manchester United Football Club as a Premier League.
* Odds subject to change
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by Tom Bodell