After two-and-a-half bad and boring seasons at Manchester United, the club announced today in some euphemistic language that manager José Mourinho has been tossed out on his ass. This decision to get rid of Mourinho is both overdue and yet still surprising, which says so much about the ruinous state of what was once one of the best and still is one of the biggest clubs in the world.
United got the doors blown off them on Sunday by an ascendant Liverpool team, and that embarrassing loss against their biggest rivals, combined with the fact that the result put the Red Devils an even more humiliating 19 points behind the league leaders who’d just spanked them, made today a fitting time to have the manager, as they put it so gently in their statement, “leave the club.” It’s still a little shocking to see that the club went ahead and fired him, though. In an odd sort of way, it’s a surprise to see United hold themselves to a standard any higher than where they currently find themselves, hopelessly out of contention for the title and with only the faintest of prospects of qualifying for the Champions League. Like it or not, this is simply who Manchester United are in the disastrous post-Alex Ferguson era.
There is of course more than enough blame for the sorry state of the club generally and the shittiness of Mourinho’s stint in charge specifically to go around. Mourinho is himself at fault, naturally, for what has become his trademark inability to foster a strong and, most importantly, enduring relationship with his players. The Independent’s report on the firing states that “over 90 per cent of the dressing room had turned against the Portuguese,” which is arguably an improvement on the seemingly even more universal squad revolt that got Mourinho axed from Chelsea almost three years ago to the day.
Intimately related to the fracturing of the player-manager relationships is likely Mourinho’s curiously indefinite, reactive, and ineffective playing style. The best Mourinho teams knew exactly how they wanted to play, handed out clearly defined roles to every player, and played a style of soccer that, while not always the most aesthetically pleasing, was ruthlessly effective against a wide range of opponents; United under his leadership have been none of those things, and that had to wear on the players, who are motivated by little more than their desire to win and to get better. Paul Pogba might find Mourinho personally grating, but if Mourinho had built around him a coherent, functional system that played to his biggest star’s and the star’s cohorts’ strengths, we’re sure Pogba would’ve been more than willing to overlook some interpersonal awkwardness in order to play his best.
However, for as bad as Mourinho himself was at United, most of the blame for the club’s persistent failure rests with the behind-the-scenes leadership. It’s been five years since Sir Alex stepped down, and it’s hard to think of a single decision, big or small, the club has gotten right since. Every managerial hire has been bad. Almost every cent of the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions of pounds the club has spent on players has been spent either poorly or without vision. A club that was once at the very top of the world, one that had gotten so obscenely rich that it was almost literally too big to fail, is now comfortably the fifth- or sixth-best team in England, and looks more likely to relive Liverpool’s recent desert-wandering history than to once again happen upon their own promised land. Mourinho is but a symptom of a much deeper sickness, and until United cure their systemic ailments, they’ll never be as healthy as they deserve to be.
Mourinho’s options going forward appear pretty limited, but not terrible. This seems pretty certain to be the Portuguese coach’s final job in the Premier League. That’s a shame, because the man is a veritable EPL legend. With his massive ego, though, and his second consecutive ignominious midseason exit, it’s as hard to imagine another of the big English clubs taking a chance on him as it is to envision him accepting a job at West Ham or Wolverhampton or Everton or the like. There’s still always Italy, however, and we could see a number of well-known teams over there rolling the dice with him. Plus, Mourinho remains well-regarded by Real Madrid’s president, and that team is currently in desperate need of a new coach. Though it looks bad right now, Mourinho should be back on the big stage sooner or later, even if the game’s cutting edge, as it appears to have done, has to a large extent passed him by.
For United, the future is much murkier. The club has yet to name an interim manager, and reports say that their preferred choice to guide the team for the rest of the season is French legend and former Red Devil himself, Laurent Blanc. Other reports make clear that United’s dream hire for the next full-time gig is Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino. The Blanc stuff is fine and sensible, but the Pochettino thing is ridiculous in exactly the way Man United have become ridiculous.
Why on earth would Pochettino risk his considerable reputation by joining the most reputation-wrecking club in the world? United might have once, not that long ago, been one of the two or three most coveted jobs in the world, but not anymore. Now there are at least a half-dozen clubs any right-thinking manager would prioritize over the cursed United gig—and Tottenham are one of them.
United’s pursuit of Pochettino fits the same pattern of way too much of United’s thinking over the past few years: the delusional chase for a someone almost certainly outside their grasp in hopes that this person can serve as a cure-all for the deep rot the club’s decision-makers behave as if they are oblivious to. There’s not a single good reason why Pochettino should want to become Manchester United’s next manager, especially not when he could snap his fingers and get the Real Madrid or Barcelona job tomorrow if he wanted to. But regardless of who is in charge of United next season, unless the board starts making some serious changes to the way it conducts its business, United’s future will look more like the present than the past.