In a managerial career that has spanned 18 years, José Mourinho has earned a reputation for quick-fix solutions — he has won a major trophy in his first season at every club since 2003. These include both the UEFA Cup and Champions League titles in successive seasons at Porto, back-to-back league titles in his opening two years at Chelsea, and European triumph with Inter Milan in 2010 — having tasted Serie A success the year before.
Such success has often been facilitated by an expansive budget and control over transfers, an understanding of revolutionary tactical methods, and the freedom for the ‘Special One’ to implement his wide-ranging philosophy across a club. At Chelsea for example, his 2004-2006 side was defined by his defensively-minded, counter-attacking style of football — an approach that survived at the club long beyond his initial departure in September 2007.
The flipside of the Portuguese’s methods were a series of run-ins with individual players, criticism for negative styles of play, and consistent clashes with senior management. It’s by no means a revelation that Mourinho has never survived more than 3 years in one job — and a recurrent case of third season syndrome threatens to strike again at Manchester United.
It was the aforementioned appeal of a rapid turnaround that first alerted the Red Devils’ management to the 55-year old back in 2016. After inconsistent progress under Louis Van Gaal, United had looked to make an appointment that would return them to the very top of English and European football.
In a somewhat elementary first season, Mourinho achieved his goal of getting the side back into the Champions League. Consequently, however, the failure to effectively co-manage Domestic and European competition led to a 6th place finish in the league — disappointing when compared to summer spending of nearly £150 million.
Despite a UCL spot, and recruiting former Chelsea colleagues Nemanja Matic and Romelu Lukaku, Mourinho again failed to assert his influence in 2017-18. United racked up an impressive 81 points, only dampened by Manchester City’s record-breaking campaign. It was the failure in other competitions that dominated the season’s legacy – an FA Cup final defeat to rivals Chelsea, and an early exit to Sevilla in Europe. Mourinho came under intense scrutiny after the 2nd leg home defeat, vilified for a naïve and uncreative game, saw his smash and grab tactics used against him.
Such tactical confusion has become an alarming theme of Mourinho’s reign at Old Trafford and his typical defensive solidity has been jeopardised by uncertainty over his best back four. Compound this with his attempts to lay out a flat 4-3-3 which has isolated the effect of certain players such as Paul Pogba, creating noticeably sub-par performances for the player, and it is not looking good for the manager.
There also remains an enduring question regarding Mourinho’s style of play — has it simply lost its impact in the developing game? Surely the rise of the wings-back and counter-attacking football across the Premier League makes digging in for points a less effective method. With the likes of Liverpool, Manchester City, and Arsenal all injecting pace into their forward lines, some would say, the best way to approach games is a positive, attacking style, with emphasis on a high-press. Pep Guardiola has shown the virtue of this but it is vehemently anti-Mourinho.
Aside from questions of footballing philosophy, Mourinho is further unlikely to be comfortable at a club that has a figure of influence as great as Ed Woodward. United’s transfer strategy is questionable, to say the least – the side failed to recruit a much-needed centre-half this summer and the addition of Fred came in central midfield, an area that was by no means a priority. This erratic use of the market is grounded in issues of club structure and that, although not Mourinho’s fault directly, means he cannot exercise the control he feels he needs over his team’s recruitment policy.
Small-scale clashes are also causing Mourinho issues, his resistance to developing youth talent is out of place at a club which has a strong tradition in the field – Marcus Rashford’s treatment under the Portuguese has been strongly attacked in the fanbase. The legacy of Sir Alex is also important, a 20-year plus tradition of dominant, attacking gameplay has left an expectation among supporters that future Red Devils sides will follow the same pattern – such assumptions are difficult to dislodge.
The essence of the problem is not Mourinho, but rather the immense difficulty of bridging the gap between expectation for achievement and the controversy of his methods. His tactical consistency has remained one of his defining features, his ability to achieve results remain intact as ever. Commentary which suggests he has lost his touch as a manager is inaccurate – he simply cannot have his conditions for success fulfilled at United. He is faced by an overbearing Chief Executive and a demand for a footballing culture he does not appreciate and has never used at any of his 7 clubs. This is Mourinho’s impossible mission.