Befuddlement on the faces of supporters was clearly evident, Tuesday night, as they watched Manchester United play something close to ‘really good’ football. It is easy to mock the assertion that fans have ‘suffered’ since the Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign ended, but the pain has been tangible in the stands, as a thick fog descends on the Theatre of Sleep.
Only Louis van Gaal has the answer as to why he left it until February to allow his team to play with verve and guile, but the previous 18 months have condemned his tenure for many. The Dutchman arrived in England with a huge ego and equally large trophy cabinet, but the 5-3 defeat to Leicester City last term fundamentally ruined his best laid plans. On that day, United played 45 minutes of the most breathtaking football they had in many seasons, as Angel Di Maria danced and scored a wonder goal. And with options such as Wayne Rooney, Radamel Falcao and Robin van Persie, a brave new dawn appeared to be breaking.
Van Gaal lost his bottle that day, as bottom-of-the-table but soon-to-be-Premier-League-champions — maybe — Leicester ripped through United’s defence with an unfashionable striker named Jamie Vardy. Fast forward 18 months and all eyes are now focused on Eastlands. Manchester City — a team that is still in all four major competitions — is willing to bin the club’s manager even if Manuel Pellegrini creates history with a quadruple of titles. United fans remember all too well how difficult winning a treble is, so if the Chilean can match or better that feat, he will rightfully take a seat at the table of legends.
Guardiola is coming
Pellegrini won’t be in the City job for long though, as the Blues will be coached by Pep Guardiola, fresh from his success at Bayern Munich. His Bundesliga holiday is over, and despite the German league being entertaining, it is less competitive than the second-tier Championship in England.
Guardiola arrives in the Premier League for several reasons: his friends all work at City; the club has lots of money; and the league’s new TV deal kicks in next season, giving English clubs unprecedented power in the financial stakes. Also, City’s owners want to dominate world football, and have put their money on the table.
"This is modern sport, where billionaires can fund their dreams and vicariously live through the joy of football. Yet, as the Eastlands club makes its intentions for the next three years clear, (football fans hate the word ‘project’, but that’s what it is in today’s context,) United’s strategy is as clear as mud."
Van Gaal has one foot in retirement, eyeing the flight schedules to Portugal so he can set off to his paradise villa with Mrs Van Gaal, and the club is treading water like a disaster victim stuck out in the North Sea, desperately waiting for the coastguard. In real terms, United wants to employ Ryan Giggs as the next coach. Executive Chief Accountant Ed Woodward wants the dream of the World’s Greatest Club™ to continue like an upgraded version of Liverpool’s Boot Room, with Fergie playing the Godhead as United dominate the financial markets and European football in tandem.
It is pure mythology and blue-sky (no pun intended) thinking. The strategy behind the scenes is completely skewed. Yes, United has splashed out a small fortune on new players, but any objective assessment of the club’s spend, which is just £33.6 net in 2015 compared to City’s £124.5 million, offers a truer picture.
Van Gaal’s failure
Van Gaal’s team proved against Stoke that it has the capacity to up its game tenfold, but the manager’s caution is reflective of the Board’s abject failure. It is a group planning for a future where the club threatens to become the New York Yankees of football. The Yankees are no longer the dominant force in baseball, winning one World Series in 16 years, but the brand is splashed on hats across the globe as merchandise sales take over from the value of winning trophies. United stands at this crossroads, but there’s a chance the Glazers could attain a full house – if the family really wants it.
As sports club owners the Glazers have taken the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from heroes to zeroes, winning the NFL Super Bowl in 2002, but dragging the franchise down to new levels of toxicity.
The American football team has won only 12 games in three years, losing 36 in return. It is a record United fans should sit up and note, because the Glazers’ decisions have ruined a team in a sport they are most knowledgable about. The family’s depth of English football acumen is weak in comparison.
There is one coach who has the skill set and motivation to keep United in the mix, and he is currently unemployed and looking for a challenge. José Mourinho is himself a brand, much like United, but not one that all wish to to be associated with. United fans salivated and showed their teeth as he ran down Old Trafford’s touchline as Porto’s upstart coach in 2004, filling the stadium with hatred and rage — the exact reaction he wanted.
After Mourinho’s first spell at Chelsea, he went to Inter Milan and made a very average Italian team into the champions of Europe. However, he did it with a brand of anti-football no one wanted, although in Serie A it is acceptable to sacrifice stylistic principles over substance.
At Real Madrid, the Special One was given unprecedented control of football matters by president Florentino Perez, but the coach’s damaging relationship with the Spanish press left him little choice but to abscond back into the arms of Roman Abramovich — who was always going to sack him when the first opportunity arose, just to prove that he was right the first time.
Chelsea has spectacularly capitulated since the summer, but it must be noted Mourinho IS the reigning champion of England. He is not a bad coach, but he is not the most predictable human being in the world. When Mourinho gouged Barcelona assistant coach Tito Vilanova’s eye in 2011 — a horrendous moment described by journalist Paul Hayward as “a Shakespearian act of desperation by a manager now working outside the laws and spirit of the game” — Mourinho slipped down the hierarchy of coaching greats.
Destiny has now pulled Mourinho and United together, magnetised by the motivation to prove that each is both valid in the modern game. Hated he might once have been, but United supporters are well schooled in the art of forgiveness. After all, Eric Cantona once jumped into the crowd to attack a Crystal Palace fan. He returned a hero.
Abramovich was all too pleased to lose Mourinho once results went south, and this time the relationship at Stamford Bridge was always going to end in tears. But United can offer the Portuguese coach a genuine chance of salvation, and the opportunity to prove his former Russian employer wrong, as he once did at Inter.
"The sacrifice for United fans will be stylistic, but the football of the past 18 months has been consistently vapid and insidious. Mourinho’s teams have played some of the least exciting football in living memory, but they have also been serial achievers and comprehensive winners."
These two elements are what United craves, as fifth position looks like an annual battle for the club at present and in the future. Mourinho will take United back to the top-four with ease, and the 10-point gap between the club and the top of the league will vanish as if it never existed.
If the Glazer family wants to see the football club achieve glory in the next two to three years, they will need to change the manager in the summer. Mourinho has many miles left on the clock at the age of 53, and has eight league championships to his name, including three European trophies.
Meanwhile, Giggs is a playing legend, but as coach he would be sat at the poker table with no hand to speak of, playing bluff as he tries to emulate the iconic manager who made him a great. It’s the wrong time; this time United needs a coach with a bomb-proof jacket, overt tactical knowledge, and a thick skin.
Over at Eastlands Guardiola will take City to the next level – and the club has already overtaken United in football terms. Do fans really care who has the biggest kit deal and the most fans in China, Australia and the United States? A union between United and Mourinho will make the club valid in the sporting arena once again. It’s the only thing that matters.
And if it all goes wrong? At least United placed themselves with the best opportunity to succeed, just as City have done with Guardiola’s appointment. Mourinho could rebuild United into a genuine world force and halt Guardiola’s procession to dominance that is already taken for granted by fans and the press before the Spaniard even steps a foot on English soil.