Instead of a title challenge, the club is hanging its hopes of Champions League qualification on winning the Europa League next week. It’s good to be in with a shot to lift a trophy, especially a European one that the club has never won, but it is unedifying that United’s chances of returning to the European élite rest on this one match.
"The club is hanging all hopes on winning the Europa League. It’s good to lift a trophy, but unedifying that United’s hopes of returning to the élite rest on one match."
José season at United has been a riddle. Mourinho became the first manager in United history to win a major trophy in his début season and could very well end up with two should his side best a youthful Ajax outfit in the Europa League final.
In terms of silverware there has been tangible success, but it’s impossible to ignore the downsides. United’s infuriating unbeaten run was characterised by the inability to kill off games, while Mourinho’s treatment of some players, and the overly cautious performances against competing rivals, have not impressed. Even if United emerges victorious in Stockholm, year one under José can only be classed as a “qualified success.”
But what can we expect in year two? There’s a certain belief that Mourinho can turn things around, and that even though his side has underperformed this season, the next one should be better. This isn’t just blind faith either. After all, the club recruited very well last summer, suggesting an effective transfer strategy is now in place. Then there’s that trophy and the momentum it brings, together with the argument that José’s team only truly takes shape in his second season.
That’s the optimistic view, but what if things don’t turn out the way the fans and the club hope? There is certainly room for the scenario that next season could also be damp a squib. The temptation might be to bid adieu to José and start again, but that approach has already been tried twice, with the club ditching David Moyes for Louis van Gaal, and then dumping the Dutchman for Mourinho. It is not exactly a method to foster continuity.
As the saying goes “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” But if the club is fooled a third time there are few avenues left for blame. If it came to pushing Mourinho out then it would be a tacit admission that the ‘managerial model’ that United currently employs is faulty. If a so-called ‘super coach’ can’t thrive in that environment, then nobody can.
United’s lack of sporting structure beyond José continues to be an Achilles heel, and even though the club recruited John Murtough as head of football development, it appears from the outside at least, that there’s no robust approach to tackling matters directly relating to football.
In the absence of any meaningful restructure, the remaining option is to hand the keys over to Mourinho and let him shape United for the next four or five years. Alone. It may not be a popular suggestion – and could ultimately prove to be a fruitless endeavor – but the alternative is chopping and changing managers in a permanent cycle of transition.
The general refrain about Mourinho’s season is that it “is not his team.” If that’s the case then one can take the argument a step further by suggesting that the club itself is not José’s either. With no sporting director or director of football in place, it’s incumbent on Mourinho to model the club to his specifications – and not just the first team. That doesn’t happen in the space of a year; it takes time with Mourinho central to establishing continuity throughout the club.
If anything it harks back to years gone by, when the game wasn’t so hyper-commercialized and managers were afforded time. Yet football has grown and for this model to work, in this environment, short-term success needs to take a backseat in the hope that the long-term gains will be worth the pain.
In Mourinho, United has a manager who has already delivered immediate success in the form of the EFL Cup and potentially the Europa League. The real question remains whether he can successfully develop a long-term, Premier League winning strategy. His history suggests that United and Mourinho might be heading into uncharted waters should the Portuguese see out his contract and beyond.
There’s little alternative for either party. The club cannot afford the instability of changing track even if Mourinho’s second season disappoints. There’s nothing to suggest that Ed Woodard is looking to make a change in United’s sporting structure, so maybe the only reasonable course of action is to retain Mourinho on a longer term basis.
Financially, the club is on a sound footing – despite gross debts above £500 million – and can compete in the transfer market, while the name “Manchester United” holds a significant pull worldwide. There is a certain buffer to invest in Mourinho’s vision. The Old Trafford hierarchy cannot pull the plug on his tenure unless they are willing to take a serious look at how the club is structured. Even then a new system would need time to take root.
As it stands the league campaign can’t end soon enough, while there’s still the Europa League final to look forward to. As for José, whether United fans like it or not, there are Juans to the left of us, Jones’ to the right, here we are, stuck in the middle with Mou…
Probably for a fair few years to come.