The José Mourinho Era at Manchester United officially kicked off today as the Portuguese manager was finally unveiled for the job he’s not-so-secretly pined after for years and we’ve all known he would get for months. Judging by the track suit he slipped into for the photo op on Old Trafford’s pitch, and the narrowly lidded gaze he cast into the cameras—a look teetering dangerously between “fuck me” and “I’m gonna fuck you up” eyes—Mourinho made it clear that he has come to Manchester for two things only: to kick ass and win trophies.
The introductory press conference was not the jubilant, back-slapping affair we’ve come to expect from Mourinho’s first days in front of the media. He was not The Special One or The Happy One. If anything, he was The Determined One. “It’s difficult to find the right words to describe this club,” he responded to a question about what being Manchester United boss means to him. “I don’t like ‘the Dream Job.’ This is reality. I know the expectation. At the same time I know the legacy. I know what’s behind me. It is a job everyone wants and not many have the chance to have. And I have it.”
And what is “the expectation” for this job? That’s been a problem the club and fans have had a hell of a time wrestling with during the post-Sir Alex years. Should they still expect to be the biggest and best club in England, one of the three most prominent clubs the world over, able to court players in that same rarified air to form a superteam that regularly challenges for every available title? Or are they the Europa League outfit that must attempt to cobble together a squad of sub-elite talents capable of pushing for but not always snagging one of those coveted Champions League spots? The reality is one thing; perception, another.
Mourinho is of the belief that only by striving to be the very best can Man U regain their throne as the Kings of England, and he took some pretty conspicuous shots at his predecessor in the process of expressing this belief in today’s presser. On what he considers realistic expectations for the season:
“It depends on the way you want to face it. I was never very good playing with words and hiding behind words and hiding behind philosophies.
“I was never good with that. I never tried to be. I was almost much more aggressive in my approach with the risks that can bring.
“It would be easy, honest and pragmatic from my side to focus on the last three years and focus on the fact that we don’t qualify for the Champions League and so on.
“It would be pragmatic to say let’s work and try to get back to the top four and do well in Europa League. I’m not good on that — I don’t want to be, I want to be more aggressive. And to be more aggressive is to say we want to win.”
“Hiding behind philosophies” sounds a lot like a rebuke of Louis Van Gaal’s comportment when he was in the United boss’s chair. The Dutchman continually justified what were the perceived shortcomings of his United teams by explaining that he was trying to implement his philosophy of play, and that only after he successfully drilled into the players’ minds how he wanted them moving and passing and thinking could the team take the next step from Champions League qualification hopefuls to true league title contenders.
Mourinho doesn’t want to fall back on the easy (and arguably rational) pragmatism that might argue that a team that has finished seventh, fourth, and fifth in the Premier League over the past three seasons shouldn’t necessarily expect silverware the following season. He wants everyone in and around the club to demand of the team nothing short of winning and winning big. True to the nature of his often unspectacular but successful and pragmatic playing style, he made clear his belief that winning soccer is beautiful soccer:
“I can anticipate that any of you that come with a question about the style of play and what is before is the result ... I can imagine one of those questions is around the corner.
“I can anticipate by saying you can win a short competition, a couple of matches without playing well. But you can’t win competitions by not playing well. What is playing well? To score more than your opponent; to make your fans proud because you win.”
Wins are, after all, the alpha and omega of his managerial philosophy.
When asked about whether he feels the need to prove himself in this league after the debacle he oversaw at Chelsea last season, Mourinho couldn’t help but take another thinly veiled shot at a rival, this time in the direction of his favorite target, Arsenal’s Arsène Wenger:
“Some managers — the last time they won a title was 10 years ago. Some of them — never. The last time I won a title was a year ago. So if I have a lot to prove, imagine the others.
“The reality is it was never important for me. I play against myself. I have to prove not to the others but to myself — that’s my nature. I would never be able to work without success.”
The stars have aligned for Mourinho. His dream has become a reality, he has been hired to be the savior of one of the greatest, most storied clubs in the sport, and he’s armed with the money and motivation to make it happen.
The club’s moves have been smart. They got some much-needed forward help with the addition of one of the best strikers in the world, Zlatan Ibrahimović. They signed a young, promising and proven defender, Eric Bailly, to beef up their back line. To create the goals they had so much trouble crafting last season, they’re reportedly on the precipice of bringing in one of the best playmakers in the game, the soon-to-be-former Borussia Dortmund attacking midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan. With one more piece probably one the way in the form of a central midfielder, and surprisingly not-laughable rumors that they might be one of the possible destinations for Paul Pogba to land whenever he decides to leave Juventus, the team really does appear to be climbing back up the mountain, with the summit closer than its been in years.
But then, everything also looked perfectly set up for Mourinho when he took his last “Dream Job.” His return to Chelsea, where he claimed he wanted to stay for a long time to achieve a lasting legacy his itinerant career had thus far precluded, was marked by savvy transfer deals backed by a trusting and rich owner, and even resulted in quick success. Succeeding at the Chelsea job was probably an easier task than the challenge that lies before him at United, and we all know how that ended.
Regardless, it doesn’t seem like Mourinho has changed much between his firing midway through last season and now. He’s still as confident in himself as ever, still as prone to petty digs at opposing managers, still as staunch a believer in the power of victory to bring him the validation he seeks. Only now, he’s possibly more resolute in his convictions and dedication than ever. Whether this goes one way or the other, it will be fascinating to watch.