Manchester United sacked Mourinho on Tuesday morning before training began. Club legend Ole Gunnar Solskjær has been named caretaker manager for the rest of the season, whereupon the club will appoint a permanent manager – maybe Mauricio Pochettino of Tottenham, ex-Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane, or Mourinho’s BFF Antonio Conte. Or maybe someone else. Who knows?
Whoever it is will have a huge undertaking ahead of him. Sitting firmly in sixth place and having been comprehensively outplayed by Liverpool the previous weekend (and by every other top team United have faced this season), this team will struggle to finish in the Top Four (if that’s even attainable now). While some players might have a new lease on life (like Paul Pogba. Anthony Martial, Luke Shaw, three players Mourinho had feuded with who behaved like Christmas had come early on Tuesday), others might have seen their United careers come to an end (Nemanja Matic – one of Mourinho’s only loyalists left).
The mess off the field might be even worse. The club seems to have finally realized that having a bean counter instead of a football mind in charge of player transfers was inefficient and counter-productive, instead deciding to hire a director of football for the first time in its history. Whether that really changes things for the better, or merely creates more bureaucracy and tension with whoever ultimately takes the managerial job, remains to be seen. Throw in rumors that the Glazers might sell to one of the most controversial (and that’s putting it lightly) men in the world, and it could usher in even more instability at a club that was once renowned for the opposite.
As for Mourinho, it’s easy to look at his time in charge as one giant mistake. United knowingly made a Faustian bargain with a manager ill-suited for the club’s culture and style of play for the sake of trophies and wins. Even though he delivered two major trophies (double what Louis van Gaal and David Moyes managed, combined) and the club’s highest point total since Ferguson, he leaves without that coveted fourth league title. His reputation has also taken a severe hit – in a recent ESPN poll of the best managers in Europe, Mourinho didn’t even crack the top ten, something that would have been unthinkable a year ago. Worse, it was hard to argue that he had been snubbed. Not when compared to innovative tacticians like Pep Guardiola, Juergen Klopp and Pochettino.
But his hiring wasn’t a mistake. He was, really, the only logical choice after van Gaal was sacked. Arguably the biggest mistake Manchester United made was not hiring him sooner.
It was the spring of 2013 and the still-Special One was practically begging for the job. Sir Alex Ferguson was about to retire and Mourinho desperately wanted to take over, having cultivated United officials, power brokers and supporters for years. He gave exclusive interviews to MUTV as an opposing manager and even went out of his way to compliment United after his Real Madrid team knocked them out of the Champions League in 2013, saying that United had deserved to win even though his Real had clearly been superior. Worn down by Real Madrid’s toxic culture of locker-room politics, media intrigue, and the siege mentality he had personally fostered, Mourinho saw Manchester United as his ideal destination.
And it’s hard not to see why. Coming off its 20th league title, United had the kind of strong veteran defenders that Mourinho loves (with little prompting, he recently talked up Nemanja Vidic, the long-retired defender who had been skipper for that 2013 season, and even compared him favorably to Nemanja Matic). The team also had proven match-winners like Robin van Persie, Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney (three players Mourinho had long admired) and a budding world class keeper in David de Gea. The midfield was weak, but Mourinho had always had a knack for finding good midfielders on the transfer market. In the 2013-14 season at Chelsea, for instance, he brought in Willian, Matic, Andre Schürrle and Mo Salah during the two transfer windows. Any of those four would have walked into United’s starting XI. With the Premiership in a state of decline at the time, Mourinho probably would have won one, maybe two titles with that United team. Heck, if Leicester could win a championship by playing counter-attacking football, it’s not hard to see Mourinho winning multiple titles with Ferguson’s players.
Of course, none of that happened. Mourinho was famously snubbed for David Moyes and, together with his Real Madrid experienced ending badly, seemed to lose the joy he once had for managing. Throw in his second stint at Chelsea ending amidst the usual recriminations and bitterness, and it’s not hard to imagine how Mourinho’s love for football (or at least the day-to-day managerial duties of a big club) may have waned.
For instance, at United, his longtime dream job, Mourinho looked like someone who didn’t even want to be there. The man who could effortlessly charm reporters and club employees, cut a distant and disinterested figure during his uneven two-and-a-half tenure at Old Trafford. Perhaps it’s fitting that he never even bothered to move out of the Lowry Hotel until yesterday.
There were some moments where the old Mourinho roared to life, like when Conte tried to take him on or when his team pulled off a comeback for the ages against Juventus last month. There were also his remonstrations towards reporters and Chelsea supporters that he had won three Premiership trophies.
“Just to finish, do you know what was the result? This [holding three fingers up]. 3-0, 3-0,” he said after Tottenham beat United at Old Trafford in August. “Do you know what this is? 3-0. But it also means three Premierships and I won more Premierships alone than the other 19 managers together. Three for me and two for them. Two! So respect man, respect, respect, respect!”
Maybe he knew that the Premier League had passed him by, so he was intent on maintaining his brand as a winner and re-living past glories. After all, a manager with his credentials will still have suitors, be they Real Madrid, Inter Milan, or the Portuguese national team. They’ll be hoping that they get the Special One – not this hollow imitation that leaves Old Trafford stuck on three Premiership titles.