Jose Mourinho was once a great manager but with every failed season and every failed job his glory years recede further into the distance behind us. His Manchester United spell has proven even worse than his Chelsea return: no Premier League title despite better players at his disposal. But at least this two and a half years, otherwise to the benefit of no-one, have made a few things clear.
Because everything that we suspected during Mourinho’s return to Chelsea was proven thumpingly true by this spell at United. All of the questions were answered: Mourinho cannot manage talented young players, cannot manage for more than two seasons, cannot manage the biggest clubs and cannot play good football, if he ever could. He is now a top manager only in the sense that he won things in the past. This era is beyond his understanding and out of his control.
None of this should have been a surprise. There was plenty of wilful delusion when Mourinho arrived at United, a hope that he would bring the glory days back to Old Trafford, by imposing the values that had proven so successful at Porto, Chelsea and Inter. But all of that optimism was backward-looking and anachronistic, hoping that Mourinho could win with old methods in a modern setting. And there was no reason, after his Chelsea return, to believe that he could.
Because football has changed. More than Mourinho and his supporters wanted to believe. Remember the generation of players that Mourinho had his success with. The generation of Deco, Ricardo Carvalho, John Terry, Didier Drogba, Walter Samuel, Esteban Cambiasso and the rest. All those giants of the Porto, Chelsea and Inter teams were robust, thick-skinned, powerful players happy to take the flak from Mourinho when they deserved it and to submit themselves to the team.
Modern players are different, and if there has been one single cause of Mourinho’s decline, and his inability to get anything out of this Manchester United squad, it is this. Players today react badly to being castigated in public and private, they do not like Mourinho’s old method of “confrontational leadership”, trying to hammer them just to spark a reaction. That was clear at Chelsea when very talented youngsters like Oscar and Eden Hazard stopped responding to his methods very quickly. And it has been even truer at United.
No matter how much Mourinho might claim otherwise, he has some of the most talented young players in Europe at his disposal. Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Luke Shaw, Jesse Lingard, Romelu Lukaku and Paul Pogba are players that every other coach in the world would love to have, to help to develop and improve them. And yet not one of those players has improved at all under Mourinho. He has gone out of his way to fall out with most of them in public, and so of course they have stopped playing for him on the pitch.
Clearly Mourinho has an issue with millennial footballers, he does not like or understand them, and nor do they much like him. No-one represents this better than Pogba, the ultimate millennial individualist, a one-man brand who feels slightly at odds with the more military virtues of the old generation. But he is still a brilliant player and him being sat on the bench, £89million of wasted talent, for Mourinho’s final defeat on Sunday afternoon tells much of the story.
This disconnect from modern players also meant a disconnect from the modern game. Just as Mourinho’s methods rested on the personality traits of the last generation of footballers, they were also rooted in the football of the early to mid 2000s: physical, organised, reactive and disciplined, with a specific plan for every game. It was what Jorge Valdano famously called “s*** hanging from a stick”, but it worked, as Mourinho won titles all over Europe and the Champions League for Porto and Inter.
But football is different now, because Pep Guardiola beat Mourinho to the Barcelona job in 2008 and has changed the game ever since. Top teams, with few exceptions, focus on attacking, possession, pressing, defending high up the pitch, all those Guardiola trademarks we see at so many top teams. And the next generation of players would far rather play this football than trying to stick to the rigid 2005 blueprint. Just contrast the body language of the United players, trying to follow Mourinho’s outdated old plans, compared to the players of City or Liverpool or Tottenham this season.
When Mourinho has come up against these more modern sides this year his players have looked as constricted and out-dated as if they were playing in Victorian leather boots, or having to use a 19th century stitched-up football. Just look at Spurs conquered Old Trafford at the start of the season. Or how City did not allow them to touch the ball in the second half of the derby. Or how Liverpool cut them into little pieces at Anfield on Sunday.
All three of those teams play modern football with modern managers, and their young players love it. Just think how good Pogba, Martial, Lingard and co would be playing for Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp or Mauricio Pochettino. But they have been stuck working for yesterday’s man for the last two-and-a-half years, a man who barely even looked invested in improving them as players. It has been a waste of time, money, and of the potential of the squad. The players have a right to expect Ed Woodward puts more thought and rigour into his next appointment.