The story goes that Jose Mourinho, having been called a little earlier than usual to Manchester United’s Carrington training ground for a meeting with Ed Woodward, believed he would be discussing the club’s plans for January.
Instead, he was told January would come too late to salvage his job.
Mourinho had already ramped up the rhetoric in anticipation of the midseason transfer window opening. He’d been denied the signings he wanted, namely a centre back, in the summer and all signs pointed to another public campaign by the Portuguese to force the hand of Woodward, to force him into opening the cheque book.
Woodward’s position, as it turned out, hadn’t changed much from the summer. £400 million-worth of talent was signed for Mourinho to work with, and yet that still wasn’t enough. The sight of Paul Pogba, an £89 million signing, on the bench and Fred, a £52 million signing, not even in the squad for the defeat to Liverpool may well have sealed Mourinho’s fate at Old Trafford.
Indeed, Mourinho, perpetually irked at what he didn’t have, never made the most of what he did possess. It’s only now, with the Portuguese gone, that Man Utd are starting to realise their own strength, demonstrated by the back-to-back wins over Cardiff City and Huddersfield Town which saw the back of the net bulge no fewer than eight times.
United are finally getting the players they paid for.
Pogba, the most electric of footballing lightning rods, at least resembles the player that convinced Man Utd to part with a world record transfer fee two-and-a-half years ago. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has liberated the Frenchman, who has notched two goals and three assists in his two appearances post-Mourinho. He has become the attacking hub around which United are built. That’s how it was always meant to be.
Victor Lindelof was signed as a ball-playing centre back, but Mourinho rarely gave the Swede the freedom to bring possession out from the defensive line. Now, under Solskjaer, Lindelof has that freedom and it has eased some of the pressure on United’s centre midfielders to start attacking moves.
Fred is one of those central midfielders who has already benefitted from the change in management. The Brazilian was United’s marquee summer signing and yet Mourinho showed nothing to suggest that he had a role in mind for him. Solskjaer at least recognises what Fred can bring, handing him a start against Huddersfield on Boxing Day, using the Brazilian to drive the team forward.
Then there’s Anthony Martial. He was one of the players Man Utd feared could leave simply to get away from Mourinho, with David De Gea and Pogba also reported to be considering their future around the time of the Portuguese’s sacking. Martial missed out against Huddersfield through illness, but he was unplayable against Cardiff.
The 23-year-old has the ability to be considered one of the Premier League’s best alongside the likes of Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Mohamed Salah. Martial was restricted by both Mourinho and Louis Van Gaal before him, but now, under Solskjaer, he appears unshackled. The second half of the season could prove to be a watershed in the Frenchman’s career.
Solskjaer, and whoever comes in as Mourinho’s permanent successor in the summer, has a lot to untangle if he is to get United back on the straight and narrow. The situation they currently find themselves in is the result of many failings and shortcomings. No one appointment, not even if it’s Mauricio Pochettino, will address this.
But at least United are now starting to reap the benefits of all the millions they have spent in recent transfer windows. It’s at this time of year that presents are unwrapped. For the first time, it feels like Man Utd have taken the paper off some of their players.