The three years since Alex Ferguson stepped down as Manchester United manager could hardly have gone worse. An elegant transition was always unlikely given the breadth of the Scotsman’s 26 year empire, but nevertheless the club has truly floundered in the vacuum - building and dismantling in the kind of dazed frenzy that suggests nobody quite worked out how to re-map the boardroom flow chart once Ferguson faded into the background.
It was perhaps with a mixture of exhaustion and relief, then, when another great auteur offered to sculpt and control the direction of the club. It is still unclear how much power Mourinho has been granted, but reports indicating that one of the few remaining relics of the Ferguson era is not being offered a senior role would suggest it is absolute.
Ryan Giggs was supposed to be the natural heir, the shiny emblem of Fergie football and solitary link that anchored the US owners to the Old Trafford fan base. His departure would symbolise both the complete abandonment of the last three years of planning and, pertinently, the club’s willingness to hand over the keys to a man famed for a short-termism that shuns the concept of legacy.
A seismic shift in strategy was, of course, desperately needed. By the end, Louis van Gaal’s school-masterly approach and the slow, hypnotic rhythm of his pass-and-don’t-move football had lulled Old Trafford to sleep. It was a curious two years under the Dutchman, whose obsession with the ideal had led to a sort of meticulously crafted stalemate, chin-scratching and philosophising so deeply that his hand-crafted marble chess pieces hardly moved at all.
Mourinho is the precise opposite, a man who has dedicated his career to dispelling the mythology of tiki-taka – founded (in part) by LVG himself at Ajax in the ‘90s. He is the ultimate pragmatist, a coach with little concern for an aesthetic action that does not facilitate cold hard statistical superiority. An instant upswing in results probably awaits for United fans but, more troublingly, this Machiavellian streak has caused a violent surge-and-collapse trajectory at each of his last four clubs; in 17 years of post-Mourinho football at Chelsea, Inter, and Real Madrid, only one league title – Chelsea in 2009/10 – has been won.
It is no surprise, then, that Mourinho is unwilling to offer Giggs a role as assistant despite the years of sculpting that preceded his appointment. Granted, Giggs has reportedly been offered a rather unflattering development position, but according to The Times Mourinho expects “unswerving loyalty” from his staff and sees the Welshman as a threat.
Where United see an heir, Mourinho sees a rival
There is something poignant here that betrays Mourinho’s egotism in his pursuit of total control; where the United board nurture an heir, their new manager sees only a rival. Where others see the opportunity to build a lasting empire and create continuity, Mourinho sees a challenger. And instead of nurturing an environment that looks to sustain success for the club as a whole, Mourinho spots a personal threat - and seeks to eliminate it.
That Mourinho is already working frantically to re-decorate Old Trafford with his own peculiarly alluring brand of war paint is unsurprising, but what should cause alarm is that he appears to have already been given free rein to insulate himself – and begin a new cut-throat regime that unflinchingly shuns such a powerful marker of the Manchester United legacy. As a statement of intent, nothing could greater symbolise that United is now Mourinho’s club than the dismissal of a man who has spent 26 years revelling in the Ferguson dynasty, whose fuzzy chest and swinging shirt powerfully embody the United fans’ perception of what it means to play for their club with passion and attacking verve.
The United board has long been fractured, but Giggs’s future has – until now – been one of the few undisputed areas of the post-Fergie vision, and so their apparent lack of veto over Mourinho’s mooted decision suggests one thing: they’ve ceded control to the Special One, willing to take the risk of medium-term collapse in exchange for short-term success.
Finally the Happy One
This could be grossly unfair. We are not privy to the roundtable meetings, and it is not impossible that a new Mourinho – calmer, wiser, and with a long-term vision for the club –unveiled himself to the board. After all, this is the job Mourinho has wanted ever since Ferguson’s retirement; his return to Stamford Bridge was always the second choice, his triumphant “Happy One” press conference an acceptance speech stolen and repackaged with a subtle name change. His desire to stay for a decade at a single club is well documented, and thus dismissing the biggest threat to his job does not necessarily portend another three year cycle of conquer and collapse.
But it does still rid the club of its biggest remaining legend, and thus should be treated with cautious scepticism. Perhaps three years ago a grateful Mourinho would have accepted the post on United’s terms, but the power balance has shifted dramatically since then; United needed Mourinho, and seem to have reluctantly yielded unprecedented power in exchange for his promise of success.
Historically, Mourinho tenures have been a sort of asset-stripping, a draining of resources for the immediate reward of shiny trophies, and whilst clubs are not destroyed by his management they are at least depleted – and spend several years stumbling around with a dazed headache, attempting to recollect their identity from amongst the debris of the passing storm.
Manchester United will not necessarily go through this process, Mourinho will not necessarily leave after a few short years, and Giggs will not necessarily spend too long away from home. But whatever you make of Mourinho and the United’s chances of success, Giggs’s imminent departure makes one thing certain: Mourinho is completely rebuilding the club in his own image - and the United board are letting him. Only time will tell if it is a gamble worth taking.