Manchester United have won a lot of trophies. They are one of the biggest – if not the biggest – and richest – if not the richest – clubs in the world. They have a reputation for playing attractive, attacking football, and have spent approximately £660m on players since 2013/14 in order to reflect these three widely accepted facts.
But it hasn’t worked. Largely as a result of appointing two – and now possibly three – managers whose abilities or approach haven’t aligned with the justifiably high expectations installed at the club after 27 years of excellence under Alex Ferguson.
It was always going to be hard for United supporters to live in a post-Fergie world, but surely the least they would have hoped for would have been a team that tries to play assertive, imaginative football.
Few believed the glory of the Ferguson age would simply be carried on without interruption. But even fewer believed the club would enter a prolonged period (now approaching half a decade) of dour, uninspiring play and sporadic success in the less valued domestic and continental competitions.
And yet, they have.
Manchester United are better than this. Eventually, they will escape the malaise.
But is the way back to their previous standards to be found in Jose Mourinho, a coach who appears to exult in defensive, spoiling anti-football? A coach who once jabbed his finger into the eye of a counterpart?
A coach who, when his team is one-nil up at home against a side who are eight points behind the leaders in the Portuguese league – and bottom of their Champions League group having scored one goal in their three losses to that point – thanks to a flukey own-goal from an 18-year-old keeper, decides the best policy is to park the bus and hope to pinch one on the counter?
Is that the approach Alex Ferguson would have taken?
Or, more poignantly, perhaps: Is that the approach that would have been taken by the current managers of United’s closest rivals, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp? The answer to both of those questions is: No.
It won’t be lost on some United supporters that the two big-name coaches who are possibly the best qualified to uphold all of their club’s traditions are presently in charge of Manchester City and Liverpool.
At the moment, United’s season looks like it could go either of two ways.
Mourinho may end up delivering a Premier League to Old Trafford in 2017/18 – but will that be enough in the long-term, especially if it comes via the current brand of stultifying, passive football? For most clubs, apart from possibly Real Madrid or Barcelona, it would be. Not for Manchester United.
If Mourinho defends his way to a runners-up spot in the league – which looks a more likely scenario given City’s exceptional form – and a Champions League semi-final, will that have justified two seasons of Jose-ball?
One would think not.
Despite United’s title drought and their desperation to end it, there must surely be an awareness within the club and among its fans that this is not the way they’d like to do it. Many will not give even the slightest of f*cks in that regard, of course, but there will be those among the fanbase who don’t enjoy the thought of a decade of modern Bilardismo at Old Trafford. Even if it results in a title every other year.
Anyway, quite apart from any abstract notions of ‘tradition’ or ‘standards’, it’s clear that United have the resources to tread a brighter path than the one laid by Jose. The Portuguese is determined to develop an underdog mentality in Manchester – he doesn’t know any other way – but that doesn’t exactly sit well alongside the fact that he’s in control of a team worth as much as the defence budget of a medium-sized nation.
It’s all very well sitting back and defending, hoping to steal a goal and hold the lead.
But not when you’ve just bought a £90m striker. Not when you have Juan Mata, Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Anthony Martial in your side. Exactly how much money does Jose Mourinho need to have spent on a squad before he’s confident enough to adopt an attacking mentality?
Sadly, we will never know the answer to that question, because Mourinho never has been and never will be a coach who believes in attacking football. Which, perhaps, means that he never was and never will be the right man for Manchester United.