The Coming Crossroads
“The only thing I can say is that I’m still a coach with ambitions, and desire to do new things,” José Mourinho said on TF1’s Telefoot show. “And I don’t believe… no, I’m sure I won’t end my career here.” “Here” being Manchester United. There may be a whole number of reasons the United manager spoke about his career path. Perhaps he was trying to divert attention from the drab scoreless draw against Liverpool; maybe he was giving Ed Woodward a little nudge during contract negotiations, or it could simply be that “Mourinho is gonna Mourinho”.
Even though Mourinho attempted to dismiss speculation about his position and a new contract prior to United’s Champions League encounter with Benfica this week, his media machine successfully relayed the mischievous message. Mourinho’s go-to-journalist, Duncan Castles, published an article in the Daily Record detailing the United manager’s apparent misgivings about how the club is run. Highlights include a belief that the club is an “unnecessarily bureaucratic and inefficient organisation” that hesitates over implementing recruitment decisions and seems unwilling to match the spending of key rivals.
It’s a stark contrast to Mourinho’s interview with ESPN where he said he’d be ready to stay at the club for 15-years. Mourinho’s history says something else, of course. For José to stay in one place for five years would be unprecedented, let alone 15. It is not unreasonable to predict that he will depart Old Trafford eventually. Is the club ready for it?
"Even though Mourinho attempted to dismiss speculation about his position, his media machine successfully relayed the mischievous message. "
The statement that the club is “unnecessarily bureaucratic and inefficient” may be a swipe at the hierarchy, but at the same time it should be a point of concern from a more general point of view. Granted, Mourinho has only been at United for about a year and a half, but as previously noted Woodward and company has made only limited attempts to strengthen United’s sporting infrastructure.
With respect to the youth set-up there has been a tangible effort to revamp and reinvigorate United’s Academy. In addition. The club has actively sought to modernize the scouting network to ensure that the world’s top talent is not missed, but there still is a glaring vacancy: a sporting director.
With Mourinho at the helm the odds of United for the role are pretty slim and the likelihood of the club appointing one after his departure doesn’t look too high either. It leaves the question of who United might appoint should Mourinho leave.
Ever since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, the club has struggled to find a sense of continuity. David Moyes was an unmitigated disaster, Louis van Gaal’s philosophy was at odds with the Old Trafford faithful, while Mourinho’s pragmatism can grate, even though it has already delivered trophies. Three different coaches, three different outlooks, three separate periods of transition. In fact, the shortlist of possible Mourinho replacements, delivers a set of names that are illustrious, but with very different football visions.
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Mauricio Pochettino, who could be on PSG’s radar should the Parisians require a new head coach, has been impressive at Tottenham Hotspur. He has forged an entertaining team, as well as integrating youth team players, but is yet to win a major trophy. Additionally, his preference for a high pressing game is not what the players at Old Trafford employ so, inevitably, there will be a period of transition should he be chosen to succeed Mourinho.
There are questions about other options too. Joachim Löw is ostensibly an international manager, so there would be questions about whether he would be able to deal with the stresses of club management. Would Luis Enrique be the right fit at United, and is Diego Simeone’s attritional brand right for United? Would Tuchel be able to get his message across to the players quickly? Former United player Laurent Blanc has been away from the game for over a year, but it is unclear whether is style is assertive enough?
In short, every potential successor has a preferred method of seeing their team play that would necessitate a period of transition. Additionally, each would have the added responsibilities of being a manager rather than a head coach, which could further complicate matters. There is a discernible gap in the current sporting structure that is crying out to be filled for a sense of continuity to be truly established at Old Trafford.
United’s celebrated history can boast two magnificent dynasties, that of Sir Matt Busby and of Ferguson, but it is less clear that, in the modern game, there is an opportunity for the club to establish a third. More pertinently, few top managers now set roots at any club for a prolonged period of time.
"Regardless of whether Mourinho leaves next summer, or is around for another 15-years, Woodward will need to address United’s “bureaucratic and inefficient” mechanisms."
The traditional managerial model is outmoded and perhaps it is now incumbent on the Old Trafford hierarchy to build a sporting structure that can account for a more frequent managerial turnover. It is the modern European way. Sure, a director of football wouldn’t be a cure all, but it would allow for a greater sense of continuity.
In fact, Woodward is still United’s de facto sporting director and despite learning on the job he has limited experience of football administration. This is in addition to his commercial responsibilities. In other words, the scope of his job is too wide-ranging and the knock-on effect is the very real possibility of semi-permanent transition, rather than evolution.
Yet, United’s executive vice-chairman has demonstrated the ability to update the infrastructure at Old Trafford, with the revamp of the Academy and scouting network happening under his watch. Regardless of whether Mourinho leaves next summer, or is around for another 15-years, Woodward will at some stage need to address United’s “unnecessarily bureaucratic and inefficient” mechanisms.