KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY —- When the young, comparatively unknown Jose Mourinho won the old UEFA Cup with FC Porto in 2003 he was asked what he expected of stepping up into the Champions League the next season. Difficult, he replied, because Europe’s elite competition was “full of sharks.”
Very soon Mourinho, with Porto, Chelsea, Internazionale and Real Madrid, became one of those sharks. Now he has been eaten up himself by the biggest and richest shark of all, Manchester United.
Mourinho once styled himself as the ‘Special One.’ But not special enough or big enough to rescue United from their steady decline since the retirement of his hero, Sir Alex Ferguson, in 2014.
This was not all Mourinho’s fault. United are a club with deep-rooted, long term, structural problems. Ferguson’s managerial genius hid the weaknesses and generated complacency. Chief executive Ed Woodward is a business man not a football man; his expertise is signing worldwide sponsors not superstars.
The owning Glazer family, happy with record revenues, understood that the sponsor cash flow would run dry without matching success out on the pitch. That was why Mourinho was handed his own dream job back in the summer of 2016. But after immediate achievements in the Europa League and the League Cup, success has dried up.
Last season United managed ‘only’ runners-up spots in both the Premier League and the FA Cup.
This term United have made their worst start to a season since 1990. They are sixth, not only 19 points behind leaders Liverpool but 11 points adrift of the fourth place which would guarantee Champions League football and income next season.
United have won only once in six league matches, drawing during that sequence with struggling Southampton and Crystal Palace. The 29 goals conceded is their worst at this stage of a season for 56 years.
The 55-year-old’s own relationship with the owners, with Woodward and – most important – with his players, had broken beyond repair. This was why he had to go even if it costs £15m to pay up a contract to 2020 which club and manager agreed only last January.
Mourinho arrived in 2016 with a cv bearing two Champions League victories plus 15 other league titles and cups in his native Portugal, England, Italy and Spain. He was expected to enhance both United’s and his own trophy count. Also, he was charged with maintaining United’s philosophy of encouraging their own youngsters and reintroducing the tradition of entertaining football absent under Moyes and Van Gaal.
That demonstrated how badly Woodward and the Glazers had misjudged the man and his methods. Mourinho’s track record was in achieving success by ignoring both youngsters and attacking football. He was the exact opposite of the manager United needed.
Mourinho has proved himself a manager only for the short term. Both Chelsea spells ended with the sack midway through his third season. Same again now.
His demeanour this season had been increasingly grumpy. The club spent £364.3m on eight new players for him but he moaned, week after week, at the failure to strengthen defence. He criticised his players, publicly, for poor attitude and lack of commitment. These players included Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez, two of the world’s finest footballers.
Pogba, who cost a world record £89m from Juventus, was dropped by Mourinho for the last three Premier games including Sunday’s 3-1 defeat at Liverpool. Long before the end United’s own disillusioned fans were heading for the Anfield exits.
Lack of commitment was an ironic complaint from a man who never invested in a home of his own in Manchester. Instead Mourinho lived out of a suitcase at the five-star Lowry Hotel not far from Old Trafford, running up a £500,000 bill before checking out on Tuesday. By contrast Pep Guardiola lives in a city centre apartment.
Other negative comparisons with his old nemesis served only to underline Mourinho’s failure and failings in terms of man management, tactics and even the media which long ago ceased dancing to his beat.
League Cup comparison
Both arrived in Manchester at the same time. In two completed seasons Mourinho’s two early cups have been outshone by Guardiola’s enduring Premier League crown and initial League Cup. On Tuesday night, as Mourinho was heading out of Manchester for the last time, City were progressing into the semi-finals of the League Cup again; United had been knocked out two months ago by second division Derby.
Both clubs are in the second round of the Champions League. But, while City fans confidently expect to beat Schalke, United supporters hope at best for only a narrow defeat at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain.
Mourinho did not wait around at the Carrington training ground on Tuesday to say farewell to his players. Instead he remained in his office, clearing the desk ready for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The old Champions League-winning favourite has been appointed caretaker to the end of the season “while the club conducts a thorough recruitment process for a new, full-time manager.”
The ideal fit for the record 20-times champions is Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino, a coach who improves his players, encourages youngsters and plays attacking football. The one drawback: he has won nothing and United need a man for both today and tomorrow.
The new man also needs to be a shark . . . with very sharp teeth.