Second place in the Premier League, runners-up in the FA Cup: on the face of it, Manchester United went close to a hugely successful season. From a previous era, teams like Everton in 1985-86 and Leeds United in 1971-72, who both went similarly close, are recalled for glorious failure.
But that bittersweet denial of what used to be the ultimate achievement in English football is unlikely to be attached to this Manchester United. Instead, bitterness burns through the club’s fanbase.
Yes, United have improved under Jose Mourinho, but Manchester City have decamped to another galaxy, collecting 100 Premier League points and a record margin over their chasers. City under Pep Guardiola play the football that United fans, if they are honest rather than red-eyed, want to see their team play. Sure, City have spent billions, but United themselves possess the second-most expensive squad in English football history.
Does all that leave Mourinho under threat? Not particularly, judging by CEO Ed Woodward remarking last week in an investors’ conference call that “playing performance doesn’t really have a meaningful impact on what we can do on the commercial side of the business”.
Mourinho, having returned United to the Champions League, delivered the fillip to the bottom line that Woodward and his boardroom ilk hanker for, but at what cost? Who now, beyond smirking City fans, actually looks forward to watching Manchester United play?
“I don’t understand these words of entertaining,” said United’s manager to prelude Saturday’s FA Cup final, which was a near no-show, a performance as listless and aimless as exiting the Champions League at the hands of Sevilla was. That March evening was where the rot set into United’s season, and perhaps Mourinho’s reign as a whole. And he knew it, choosing to defend himself with his 12-minute “football heritage” rant; in his next pre-match press conference that attacked the club’s previous managers and recruitment policy.
It recalled Mourinho at his most vulnerable, the death slide of his second Chelsea regime, rather than the triumphalist kiss-offs with which he silenced those traitors who doubted him at Porto, Chelsea first time around, Inter Milan and when duking it out with Guardiola at Real Madrid.
If “football heritage” is a winning habit, as appeared to be the gist of that meandering soliloquy, then Mourinho has done little to change the club he was supposed to be rescuing.
Instead, the football is as charmless as it was under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, and not actually that much more successful; Van Gaal managed to win an FA Cup before being jettisoned for his former protege.
There was a period during his first season at Old Trafford when fans, to the tune of Goffin & King’s “I’m Into Something Good”, sang of how “Jose’s playing the way that United should”. That all seems rather quaint now. At Wembley, the song, made famous by Mancunian mop-tops Herman’s Hermits, was barely heard at all. When even the happy-clappy optimists are deserting the cause, then a manager has problems.
Ever the player of politics and polemics, Mourinho’s current strongest suit with fans lies in under-performing players who the zealots will accuse of not being fit to wear the shirt and will call to be swept out of the club. A “clear-out” has been a frequent demand in the five years since Sir Alex Ferguson retired.
And yet, who might Mourinho be clearing out? Alexis Sanchez and Paul Pogba, both huge disappointments, are the biggest signings of his reign. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, the latter responsible for the match-winning penalty, have been heavily criticised, but were playing instead of Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof, players who cost £60m between them, bought under his watch. He has already dispensed with Henrikh Mhkitaryan, another £30m player.
At Wembley, Mourinho, a prolific creator of his own myth, was reduced to sour complaints about lacking Marouane Fellaini as a bulwarking “plan B” for United’s assault. And meanwhile, a manager famed for the team spirit he engendered at Porto, Chelsea and Inter presides over visible malcontents.
Sanchez chose to commiserate alone after full-time, a satellite to the huddle of disappointed team-mates. Pogba fluttered eyelashes at PSG in the post-match mixed zone. Marcus Rashford, once a beacon of hope, the club’s brightest starlet, flopped when asked to play at centre-forward. Anthony Martial was given 17 minutes to make headway in the heavy traffic Chelsea had built up, and made precisely none.
Whereas Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino supply footballing visions that point to future success, Mourinho, with no recognisable playing style, can only point to results. United missing out on a “Double” with such a lack of style mounts little defence of him.