If not Jose Mourinho, then what next for Manchester United?
If not Jose Mourinho, then what next for Manchester United? It's the question that the club’s executive class, led by Ed Woodward, must answer before they can be confident in a decision to cut the cord. And it is nowhere near as simple as just appointing a new manager.
Until the axe finally falls, a psychodrama will be played out. Mourinho’s powers as a football manager may have dwindled but his abilities as a troublemaker have not. During last Saturday’s 3-2 comeback victory over Newcastle, a sizeable section of the Old Trafford crowd sang the name of the manager whose demise had been prematurely announced in that morning’s Daily Mirror.
Mourinho is an unlikely warrior of the light and true defender of the faith, but then again, Woodward is acting as a frontman for the Glazer family. To the continuing disgust of many supporters, United is a cash cow being milked by the Glazers. Over £1 billion has left the club’s coffers as a leveraged buyout is serviced, and satchels are filled by dividends paid into personal accounts.
Improper football men
Where Sir Alex Ferguson’s successes once insulated the Glazers, his retirement in 2013 started costing them serious money. A total of £774.53m on transfers has been spent since then, while Alexis Sanchez’s free transfer in January helped push the club’s wage bill to almost £300m – the second-highest in football behind Barcelona.
“Playing performance doesn’t really have a meaningful impact on what we can do on the commercial size of the business,” said Woodward in May, ahead of a summer in which Mourinho the chequebook manager demanded more to spend, only for Toby Alderweireld and Harry Maguire to stay at Tottenham and Leicester.
Fault lines became public and the schism appears almost certain to result in the manager’s departure.
The accusation made by Woodward’s critics is that United’s decision-makers don’t include anyone with enough interest in what happens on the football field. Sir Bobby Charlton is now in his 80s, while Ferguson is taking things easy as he recovers from serious illness.
“They’re not qualified,” said Gary Neville during the televised rant that reacted to rumours of Mourinho’s departure as Woodward’s ears burned. “Put people in there who are qualified.”
Bring them back?
Neville and the Class of ’92 cabal for which he acts as frontman would seem ideal to fulfil the role that experienced football men like Uli Hoeness and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge perform alongside the money men at Bayern Munich. And yet only Nicky Butt, head of coaching for the youth academy, remains working within the club.
Relations between that group and Woodward are not warm, with Neville et al’s Hotel Football looming over the Old Trafford forecourt after being built against the Glazers’ wishes.
But even if that group with their long-held United connections do not become part of the structure, there seems to be a realisation that the club’s structure requires change. Last month, the club’s search for a director of football became public and a series of continental executives have been linked; Giuseppe Marotta, set to depart Juventus in the near future, was a leading name in the frame.
United’s greatest successes came under autocrats in Matt Busby and Ferguson, but one man being in sole power for a generation is no formula for success to be sustained. It took until 1986, 15 years after Busby’s retirement, for Ferguson to be found, and 26 years of waiting for a league title. The period in between was just as turbulent as the fractious reigns of David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and now Mourinho have transpired.
Where Chelsea could sack Mourinho and find almost instant success under Antonio Conte, United’s structure and decision-making is too cumbersome to adapt so quickly. Chelsea are a different beast, used to a permanent state of revolution under Roman Abramovich, a club that has learned to thrive within the turbulence. United post-Ferguson has proved too fragile to deal with such strains.
In the frame
The list of candidates to succeed Mourinho is not extensive, and nor is it bulletproof or even realistic; the club’s problems have reduced its cachet and attractiveness.
Zinedine Zidane is the type of big name that Woodward favours, the original ‘galactico' himself, but his ability to manage a mediocre squad rather than that at Real Madrid would quickly be called into question. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are not Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane, while Real Madrid, when Zidane succeeded Carlo Ancelotti, was a club where the memory of lording it over the rest was nowhere near as distant as it has become at United.
Mauricio Pochettino fits the mould of gifted young manager that United always used to plump for. His record with budding players appears to make him ideal to develop the likes of Anthony Martial, Luke Shaw and Marcus Rashford, but extracting him from Tottenham might be the most difficult deal of Woodward’s life. Daniel Levy will be lying in wait should a United approach become a possibility.
Both of those are managers players have enjoyed playing for. By contrast, Mourinho’s strong-arm toxic masculinity has been a poor fit for the squad he has worked with, itself an uncomfortable amalgam compiled by four separate managers. The time when a Roy Keane or Bryan Robson figure could come in and frighten team-mates has long gone.
Footballers of the type that United sign are cottage industries in themselves. The advice they receive is not confined to the dressing room; there are agents to speak to, social media accounts to service, sponsors to keep happy. Directors of football do some of their best work in sifting through those extra layers; another reason for such an appointment being a step in the right direction.
Though many United fans’ preferred solution would be unseating the Glazers before Mourinho’s future is even discussed – with an Arabian prince or Far Eastern magnate coming to the rescue – it is highly unlikely. Their best hope is the current ownership embracing modernity and calling some proper expertise in.