A debate often undertaken by football fans is the managerial records of Jose Mourinho and Alex Ferguson. Which, naturally, has become starker now the former is Manchester United manager. The flash points of this debate are Ferguson’s more entertaining style, his longevity and the propensity to give youth players a chance. However, there is one characteristic where they can’t be separated, and that is the pursuit of control.
Ferguson has written two books since his retirement reflecting upon his career at Old Trafford. The constant theme running throughout is the critical need for control. Something Mourinho has sought throughout management. Many would argue for Mourinho to have the best possible chance of success at Manchester United, he should be granted the full level of control Ferguson was given. However, it seems Ed Woodward and the hierarchy at the club have this summer taken a step back, rather than a step forwards towards that scenario.
A potential reason for this is the increasingly popular ‘Mourinho’s third season’ theory. If you’re not familiar with it, the theory goes that Mourinho’s ability to get the best out of his players and gain success expires in and around the third season mark.
Mourinho contests this passionately, pointing out that in his third season at Porto he won the treble and proved victorious in both domestic cups during his third season in his initial stint at Chelsea. Nonetheless, he left those clubs almost immediately after those successes.
Subsequent to that, he left Inter Milan after two (highly successful) seasons, while his time at Real Madrid and Chelsea unravelled in the third season in quite similar fashions.
Control of the players bought, the money available to spend, fellow personnel at the club, insubordination, a breakdown of relationships with his players, power grabs and erratic behaviour in the media, all have characterised Mourinho’s career since 2006, at several different clubs, in several different countries.
Many of these issues can now be used to personify his current plight at Manchester United. This summer, Mourinho wanted at least five players, he only ended up with three. With just one, (Fred) considered a first team player; the other two, Diogo Dalot (a young full-back) and Lee Grant (a third choice goalkeeper), definitely fall into the category of ‘squad players’.
This was United’s business despite strong links with a myriad of centre-backs, their rumoured targets included Toby Alderweirld (whose no longer first choice at Spurs and who would of sold him if the money was right), Harry Maguire (expensive, but no unaffordable for a club of United’s resources, they failed to meet the price they knew would get the player) and Yerry Mina, the Colombian, who ended up joining Everton; who are not playing any European football and wouldn’t have been able to match United for wages. Almost certainly, he would have joined Manchester United if he had the choice.
It is fair to say that Manchester United, who bring in more revenue than any football club on the planet and who have given Mourinho £400 million to spend on players since his appointment, hold doubts over further spending.
Why is that the case? Many would find it baffling considering they finished trophy-less and 19 points behind Manchester City last season. It is, however, worth making a few points. Firstly, City set a new record of a 100 points, which isn’t likely to happen again. So it’s expected to be a fallacy that United and the chasing pack have to make up the same amount of points as last season.
Furthermore, United dropped points not often associated with title challengers. They lost away to all three promoted clubs and lost at home to West Brom when they were on the brink of relegation.
They also drew three straight games (Leicester, Burnley, and Southampton) at Christmas. Those are patterns title contenders don’t tend to have. Positive results in those games would have seen United gain 18 more points.
Furthermore, it is curious why United would want to buy another centre-half, with five in the squad already. Two of which were signed during Mourinho’s reign; Eric Bailly joined for £30 million just weeks following the Portuguese’s appointment, and last summer a similar figure was spent on Victor Lindelöf. Furthermore, they scored 39 goals less than Manchester City last season, but only conceded one more. It’s perhaps thought that the defence isn’t the issue.
Moreover, the primary reason seems to be Mourinho has lost some goodwill and some control within the club. The actions of the United hierarchy clearly point to not wanting to give Mourinho any more money to spend at this stage and are wary of his relationship with some of the players, notably falling out with Luke Shaw, Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial, a trio that cost the club in excess of £150 million in transfer fees.
Pogba’s comments following the opening day win over Leicester may illustrate that the club is standing by him and the players more than the manager – “If you’re not happy, you cannot give your best,” Pogba said. “There are things I cannot say otherwise I will get fined”. He added, “I still enjoying playing football but like I said when you are comfortable or confident and are good in the head, it’s going to be easier.” Although an apparent show of discontent, it also suggests a power-play, to be so public about his concerns, illustrates he feels in a position of supremacy over the manager.
Furthermore, the club has immediately knocked back any interest in other clubs purchasing Pogba. They also have over the last two summer windows refused to finance a new left back, and didn’t entertain selling Martial, while refusing to pay more than they wanted for Ivan Persic, who would have taken Martial place in the team and who Mourinho desperately wants.
Therefore, with the backdrop of his third season, and the history that entails, it seems United have opted for an all or bust approach. Mourinho is supposedly at his best when he has a siege mentality; when the odds are against him and his back is against the wall. If he flourishes this season, the club can happily continue with him as manager. If the opposite occurs, then United have already begun laying the groundwork to change their manager if necessary.
All of which means, this season represents Mourinho’s last chance to be a successful Manchester United manager.