Jose Mourinho is one of the greatest managers to ever take residence on a sideline.
At Manchester United, Mourinho is struggling to accomplish something, frankly, he has never done before: maintain stability. More than simply winning the Premier League, Champions League or collecting noteworthy silverware, the Portuguese is tasked with returning the glory, glory to Manchester United.
What does that mean?
Man United is yearning for the dizzying revolving door of managers to stop long enough to create a lasting team capable of competing at the highest rung in both the Premier League and Europe.
With Mourinho, the club has found a manager with a resume that boasts winning but does not exactly have a history of stability.
Since taking his first job as a senior coach with Benfica in 2000, Mourinho managed seven teams and never stayed in his post longer than three years. Technically, he lasted until September of his fourth season at Chelsea in his first spell at the club, but he’s renowned for hitting his heights in his second year at a club — at least after he became a mercenary manager following that tearful locker room departure from Stamford Bridge in September of 2007.
Facing a Manchester derby this weekend when Man City can claim the title with a victory, Mourinho can’t necessarily stop the Citizens from winning the Premier League, but he must be acutely aware that a derby win for Guardiola would put the Spaniard at 87 points with six matches remaining — only eight points back of Chelsea’s 2004-05 record of 95 points. That was Mourinho’s Chelsea, mind you, in his first season in charge during his first spell at Stamford Bridge.
That was back when he was “the Special One.”
Now, he’d probably be better labeled as “the Sour One,” alluding to the attitude he often displays but more so the style of football he employs. His tactics always drew criticism over the years, but the results spoke for themselves. He beat Guardiola’s Barcelona in the Champions League semifinals in a season when the Catalans looked ready to complete back-to-back trebles.
Mourinho may not have been a success in every way at Real Madrid, but winning La Liga over Guardiola’s Barcelona in his second season seemingly sent his Spanish rival into a sabbatical and ended his tenure at Barcelona.
Mourinho didn’t last much longer in Spain, either, but the concept of his second-season prowess grew in myth because he won the league in his second campaign at Stamford Bridge after returning to the West London club. When he was younger and had more pepper in his salt and pepper hair, Mourinho landed Champions League titles at Porto and at Inter Milan in his second seasons.
So what now, with Mourinho in his second year at Old Trafford?
Manchester United is on pace to collect 84 points, which is only a step back from his 2014-15 title-winning Chelsea team, a side that tallied 87 points.
“In other leagues, we would be fighting for the title,” Mourinho said on Saturday.
Well, eliminated from the Champions League in embarrassing fashion against Sevilla and nearing the end of Mourinho’s second season, one has to wonder if this is as good as it gets.
An FA Cup semifinal defeat to Tottenham on April 21 would cap off a trophy-less campaign and the first season in which Mourinho did not collect a single trophy.. Even if he does win the FA Cup, Louis van Gaal got sacked so soon after winning the FA Cup that he could not even enjoy the spoils into the night of the victory.
Fully understanding of the fact that a match at Wembley against Tottenham is far from an advantage for the Red Devils, the 55-year-old ranted about “football heritage” and blew off the cloud of mystique that had been hovering over the club since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson.
In his rant, Mourinho explained that Manchester United has finished fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh, not in that order, in each of the past four seasons. Mourinho is correct about the Red Devils not currently being a side with the pedigree of a Premier League champion, but that hardly excuses the recent failure in Europe.
Mourinho conveniently left out that his first season in charge featured Paul Pobga joining on a world-record transfer fee after winning Serie A and reaching the Champions League final with Juventus. Also, Mourinho welcomed Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Eric Bailly for sums that would have set transfer records as recently as 2000.
Finally, Mourinho added a man that had won the league in every country he had previously ever taken the pitch: Zlatan Ibrahimovic. That United side finished sixth in England, though it did win the FA Cup and Europa League. Silverware helps clubs open their pocketbooks for managers, and United did just that.
Mourinho effectively bought a $100 million striker in the prime of his career in Romelu Lukaku, a Premier League title winner in Nemanja Matic and a highly rated defender in Victor Lindelof. None of those players came cheap, though the club managed to swap Mkhitaryan for Alexis Sanchez in January, which may yet prove to be a positive move.
Clearly, the points and position in the table suggest that the Red Devils are better now than they have been at any point since Mourinho took over, but should the bar be so low that he can casually step over it without breaking stride after spending the sums he did? Mourinho built a squad that should have advanced past the round of 16 in Europe and provided a sturdier challenge in the Premier League, right?
If he stays, Mourinho will be getting a pass.
It is true, of course, that Man City spent the most money in England over the summer of 2017, while Aymeric Laporte’s January arrival from Athletic Bilbao cost a fair bit of coin, too. Guardiola has built a title-winning side that could turn into a dynasty both domestically and in Europe.
Make no mistake, the Manchester clubs are in an arms race, with the other top-six Premier League clubs also trading and stockpiling arms, as evidenced by the eye-popping, record-smashing transfer market spending in January. City may have spent more than United in the past 12 months, but the difference between these two clubs on the pitch is far greater than the sums spent in the transfer market or the single position in the table.
The catch-22 for the Red Devils is that allowing Mourinho to continue would likely result in another year of spending big with no tranquilization of the tantrums or guarantee of trophies, while pushing the Portuguese manager out of the club would restart the revolving door of managers and instability — the antithesis of the Ferguson United era.
While the decision on Mourinho’s future and its ramifications hang over the final two months of the season, Saturday’s Manchester derby is about something far more short-term and egotistical— Mourinho doing all he can to stop Guardiola from breaking his Premier League points record. A free-flowing, attacking and entertaining match between the top two teams in the league should be a highlight of the season.
Only, this is Mourinho.
Tragically, one suspects another installment of boring, boring Man United begging for a draw, which would only make one wonder further why Mourinho is worth it.