On Sunday Manchester United announced that Jose Mourinho’s 42 year-old assistant Rui Faria would depart the club at the end of the season to “spend much more quality time with my family before pursuing any new challenge in my professional life”. Seventeen years after the Portuguese pair began working together at União Leiria, having originally met at a seminar in Barcelona – where Mourinho was working for the Catalan club – they have parted for the first time after developing their personal and professional relationship at Porto, Chelsea, Inter, Real Madrid and Manchester United. Faria has recently been linked to Arsenal as Arsenal Wenger’s replacement, and whilst that rumour sounds like pie in the sky, it is reasonable to assume that having served in subservient coaching roles for nearly two decades he now feels the time is right to spread his wings and attempt to fly solo for the first time. Mourinho alluded to such a progression in his reaction to the news, stating that, “17 years and the kid is now a man. The intelligent student is now a football expert, ready for a successful career as a manager“.
There is no doubt that the breaking up of the highly successful partnership will require some adjustment for both men, even if Mourinho accepts that the time is right for his assistant to step up his career. The United manager alluded to the importance of their friendship, opining that, “I will miss my friend and that is the hardest thing for me“. This point can not be understated given the closeness of their relationship and with Mourinho living distant to his own family since moving to Manchester the transition may be personally difficult. Faria has been the complementary pit-bull sidekick in Jose’s grand Machiavellian plan since the latter took his first top job, immortalised as the woolly hat wearer in Munich. Both men now have the summer – after next weekend’s FA Cup final – to reflect and plan their next steps. For Faria that may include a search for a suitable managerial position, whilst for his mentor a decision over the need for a new right hand man will be have been carefully considered.
For Mourinho it will no doubt feel odd the first time he sits down to strategise with a new deputy, turns to his side for an opinion during the first pre-season game of the 2018/19 season and is met with a less familiar face or, if his initial observations are to be believed, no assistant at all. But for the Portuguese and his employer this unexpected news could be seen as providing a positive opportunity. This is a club that, since the departure of arguably the finest coach the world has ever seen, has gone stale, lost its edge. Recruitment in the final years of Sir Alex’s tenure was limited in scale and quality by the suffocating debt imposed by the Glazer ownership model and horrific recruitment under David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal compounded the problem. Mourinho has brought improvement in that area and results have to a degree followed, but United remain a club devoid of a footballing identity and overall direction. Two years into Jose’s reign two trophies are in the bag and a third could follow at Wembley, a return that is not to be sniffed at, but the football is clunky and tough to enjoy and the sort of fluency that will be needed to overcome Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City or to improve on a last sixteen humbling by Sevilla in the Champions League has been elusive. Something needs to change. Critics opine that such heights are perhaps now beyond the Portuguese, that his methods have become stale and he has failed to change as football has evolved, tactically and financially.
Perhaps it would be wise therefore if Mourinho referenced the man who created the modern United, both on the field and as an institution. Sir Alex was a great motivator of men and an identifier of talent, but was perhaps never the meticulous tactician that we often see in significant numbers in the most recent generation of coaches. However, he identified his own weaknesses and a need to continuously evolve, both on the pitch and the training field. He recognised the need for his own ideas to be challenged and updated, for it is often difficult to see outside ones own bubble. He sought to innovate by recruitment, replacing original assistant Archie Knox with the highly rated Brian Kidd, before subsequently employing Steve McClaren – who he had been told was the most modern deputy in the business – and the Portuguese Carlos Queiroz. It was the latter who implored him to explore more flexible systems, ultimately culminating in a second European Cup with a team far more dynamic than the fairly rigid 4-4-2 with classical width favoured in the 1990s. Fergie recognised the need to be intellectually challenged and once he had enough information and made a decision he would plot a course and his genius would make it work.
To look at Mourinho and his team now is to see a man whose pragmatism and drive will always take him so far. There are few men who you would back to win a one off game more. He remains an astute identifier of talent, but there are reasonable questions being asked about his ability at United to motivate and improve his players and to construct a consistently coherent attacking unit. A man who once exuded charisma, with a glint in his eye that betrayed both his devilment and brilliance, now looks tired and grouchy, perhaps damaged by the mutinous and political atmosphere at Real and a second sacking at Chelsea after a third season meltdown. Age may explain the change to a degree, but whilst Sir Alex certainly had a sharpness to his character and a wicked tongue, even in his final years at United the light in his eyes never dimmed. The passion remained. If Mourinho is the same he hides it well.
With Faria departing Mourinho has an opportunity. I would be foolish to suggest that it is a likely medium term outcome, for few successful manager’s change tack mid-career (which is perhaps why Sir Alex is the greatest of all), but the Portuguese has a chance to broaden his horizons and challenge his norms. Perhaps he will ultimately promote from within his own trusted circle, or even turn to the retiring Michael Carrick as Louis Van Gaal did with Ryan Giggs. The latter would be a surprise given the midfielder’s lack of coaching experience and probably undesirable given the likelihood of a highly subservient relationship, whilst the former would be a shame. The early indications are that the Portuguese does not intend to appoint an immediate replacement at all. After the 1-0 win over Watford which rounded off a steady but unspectacular second season at Old Trafford he suggested that there will be “no number two. I will reorganising my coaching staff in a way assistant manager doesn’t exist”. Instinctively such an approach feels regressive and perhaps in time he will reassess. Instead, Mourinho should perhaps take note of Fergie’s evolutionary course and seek out a new face, an assistant who will challenge him, not in a combative way, but to provide him with the more global ideas that can be excluded when a cozy and successful working relationship persists for an extended period.
Arsenal Wenger transitioned from one of the most innovative and successful coaches in the game to an idealist who fell behind as a result of his total autonomy at Arsenal and a failure to keep pace as English and European football evolved without him. With the margins so small at the highest level, even a slight loss of drive or a failure to keep with the times can drag the best coach in a generation back into the pack, or at the very least blunt his genius. Mourinho is losing a friend and trusted lieutenant in Rui Faria, for whom the time is right to step up his career, but the opportunity is there, now or at some point in the future, to import fresh ideas and a new personality to challenge the status quo as he and United search for the answer to Pep Guardiola’s excellence and largesse. His friend’s departure is a personal blow to Mourinho, but it may be an outcome that benefits both men and their employer if Jose is ultimately willing to select a successor to Faria who challenges his norms and aids in the evolution of this United squad into something that resembles a consistently coherent team.