If he weren’t such a hemorrhoidal asshole, you could be inclined to feel somewhat sorry for José Mourinho.
Here he is at a club that by some metrics is the biggest one in the world, with expectations that often far outstrip their actual talent. He’s in charge of a club that has spent something like a trillion dollars on players in recent years, and yet would still need to shell out even more to put together a team that could actually challenge for titles. He’s entering a make-or-break season in his infamously troubled third year in charge, armed with a squad that was probably always going to start slow after many of their key players went deep in the World Cup.
All of which is to say there are a lot of factors outside of Mourinho’s control working against him and Manchester United this season, and were it just about any manager on earth other than Mourinho attempting to steady this dangerously listing ship, you’d probably feel bad for the guy. Luckily, it is the eminently hatable Mourinho struggling at the helm, throwing all his weight into a wheel that won’t budge while a torrent of rain pelts his face and waves lick at the gunwales as he shouts for all who can hear about how it’s not really his crew that should bear all the blame for the current predicament, and anyway the ship was hardly seaworthy in the first place. So instead of feeling bad for a guy like that we can laugh and laugh at all these misfortunes in which he is deeply complicit.
It’s still extremely early in the season, but Manchester United haven’t looked very good. Like, not at all. They were probably fortunate to eke out a 2-1 win against Leicester City in the first match of the season, and they were deservedly crushed this weekend by the less-than-terrifying likes of Brighton and Hove Albion in a 3-2 loss. These meek results coming off an odd season in which United’s results were much more impressive than their actual play, and in the midst of a typically tetchy late-career Mourinho stint entering its dreaded third year, means United had better get things back on track quickly or else the situation could go from bad to worse in no time at all.
United do have a fundamental talent problem, but that’s not their biggest issue. It is true that both of the Premier League’s true title contenders—Manchester City and Liverpool—have considerably better starting XIs, and the depth of City’s squad blows United’s out of the water. But while it would be hard to imagine how anyone could win the league with a roster that coughs up starting lineups that include the likes of Juan Mata and Ashley Young and Luke Shaw, a team with Romelu Lukaku and Paul Pogba and Alexis Sánchez shouldn’t find it so hard to best teams like Leicester and Brighton.
This is the probably the biggest strike against Mourinho’s Manchester tenure. The fact that he still hasn’t been able to create a fully reliable attacking structure to get the most out of the still formidable talents at his disposal is why, in spite of his justified frustrations at not being given the funds to sign a new starter-quality wide attacker in this summer’s transfer window, the shortcomings of his team are still on him. Even if comparing United’s results to City’s isn’t quite fair in light of City’s drastically stronger roster, a team that has spent so much for so long, managed by one of the greatest coaches in the sport’s history, should never look so consistently unimpressive against inferior opposition as United too often do.
Just take the case of Pogba. If there’s anyone at the club you should feel sorry for, he has to be the best candidate. He should be in contention to win the Ballon d’Or this season. After relative “down”—emphasis on the scare quotes—years on the part of decade-long BdO hogs, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, and coming off a World Cup victory in which he was one of the star performers, an internationally famous and near-infinitely talented player like Pogba should, in a rational world, be polishing his Ballon d’Or resumé at club level with wins and performances and highlights worthy of his stature in the game. Instead, he’s floundering in a team that can be run off the pitch by a club whose name sounds like the first two picks in the Western Hockey League Bantam Draft, a team that enjoys less possession of the ball in a match against Leicester, in a role where he gets to play fewer passes than Wilfred frickin’ Ndidi, and for a manager who uses the crowning achievement in the French midfielder’s life as an opportunity to take shots at him. If I were Pogba and I saw what Kevin De Bruyne—a lesser player than Pogba along just about every vector there is—was allowed to do across town for Pep Guardiola, I’d die a little inside.
While I was dying those tiny inner deaths as Pogba watching KDB, I’d be looking at the Trafford Training Center’s front door, scheming ceaselessly on how I could get finagle myself an exit and go play for a club that would allow me the freedom to be my best self. And that seems like exactly what the real Pogba is doing. Those rumors that his agent had been whispering sweet nothings into Barcelona’s ear about Pogba’s desire to flee England seemed believable on their face, and they were only strengthened when Pogba made those “There are things that I cannot say otherwise I will get fined,” comments about his happiness in Manchester last week. Pogba must’ve known full well when he returned Manchester United that it would be a challenge to get the club back to where it was in its heyday, but he probably didn’t imagine the climb to the top would take this long and be this joyless. Pogba is a great, great player who has even played really well in the constraining role Mourinho has asked of him, but it would be perfectly natural of him to see the kind of success he is already capable of with his World Cup win and want not to waste any more time playing in a team and a tactical set-up that doesn’t allow him to reach those heights.
In the end, if things are as they appear and Mourinho isn’t quite the right manager to lead the rebuilding project Manchester United’s club hierarchy envisions for itself—which is different from saying Mourinho isn’t the right man for United full stop, since there’s no reason why a United squad built to the specifications Mourinho requires to orchestrate his preferred style of play couldn’t have succeeded; it’s just that the evidence shows the board doesn’t seem interested in forming that kind of team—then Mourinho might still be the right manager to end this ill-fitting relationship quickly so that all parties can move on. Mourinho is still pretty clearly a good manager, even if he’s no longer up there at the very top the way he used to be. However, if there’s one thing he remains better at than any other coach in the world, it’s in aggravating players, management, and fans so stridently that the people in charge of his club can’t help but can his ass sooner than many would’ve thought.
It seems much more likely that Manchester United fire Mourinho midseason than that he sticks around the entire year and wins the title. The sooner United do sack him and move on to someone perhaps better equipped to take the kind of team the board wants to build to the top, the sooner they’ll get there. So not only should Mourinho’s haters be rooting for a quick and fiery explosion to conclude his time in Manchester, but United fans themselves wouldn’t be all that crazy to pull for that outcome as well. Mourinho might not be the hero Manchester need, but he is the one we all deserve.