As the dust settles on Manchester United’s failure to capture the Europa League title against a more resolute and determined Villarreal team, the question has again been raised about where this once mighty club are heading?
Is Jose Mourinho’s first term in charge of Manchester United a pass or a fail? No disrespect to the prestige of the League Cup, but the verdict depends wholly on Thursday’s Europa League showdown with Ajax.
Having given up on a top-four finish, Mourinho is banking on Europa triumph to qualify for next season’s Champions League. Victory may well paper over the cracks of a faltering campaign, but fans are right to be unimpressed.
United have registered 15 draws in the Premier League ‒ the most in the division ‒ with one round remaining. The Old Trafford faithful may have been spoiled by years of swashbuckling dominance under Alex Ferguson, but they’re hardly demanding achievements beyond their station.
As of 2017, United has the highest revenue of any club in football. More than Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Chelsea or whoever else you care to mention.
Blaming injuries, scheduling or referees doesn’t wash when you’re working with a blank cheque. There’s no such thing as bad luck at a club with United’s resources ‒ only bad management.
A squad that boasts the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, and Juan Mata should be able to dominate opponents, at least occasionally. Instead, the season has been a dirge, with Mourinho’s charges somehow less than the sum of their parts.
United have notched four or more goals only once in the league. Compare that to their rivals Spurs (9), Liverpool (7), Chelsea, Man City, and Arsenal (all 5). Even Everton have done it four times.
In the meantime, the Portuguese has alienated many by throwing players under the bus, most notably Luke Shaw. Managers can earn patience if it’s clear they’re building towards something. So too if they seem like a good egg. However, on-field impotence paired with Mourinho’s sourness off it have left the club desperately short of feel good factor.
At a glance, there’s no denying Mourinho’s CV. He’s won titles in Portugal, England, Italy and Spain. He also has two Champions League medals from his stints at Porto and Inter.
But there’s a distinct pattern to his career. Two seasons at Porto. Three at Chelsea. Two at Inter. Three at Real Madrid. Two-and-a-half back at Chelsea. Many of these exits are listed as being ‘by mutual consent’ which, for those playing at home, is a euphemism for ‘acrimony’. Whatever his method, it appears to have diminishing returns.
With Sunday’s clash against Crystal Palace the curtain call ahead of Ajax, the concern is that Mourinho has no regard for momentum ‒ not to mention the goodwill of fans. Both are major oversights for a manager of his experience.
United’s recent league form reads: five games, zero wins, three draws (Southampton, Swansea, Man City), two losses (Arsenal, Tottenham), and a whopping two goals scored.
Mourinho admitted this week that the team to face Crystal Palace will essentially be a sacrificial lambs XI. When asked if there was anything to be gained from the match, he said “No, the only positive is to save my players for Wednesday.”
“For the kids it will be a big occasion. But I think the best debut for a young player is in the middle of an experienced structure where he can be supported. To play so many kids at the same time, honestly I don’t think it’s good.”
Throughout the press conference, Mourinho acted like every word he was obliged to utter was an unbearable imposition. He’s always been reluctant to promote youth players, unless as a last resort or to spite defiant first-teamers.
Arrogance has always been a handicap for forward planning. This is a man who’s taken a route entirely of his own choosing, dropping excuses along the way like breadcrumbs should he need to explain his way out.
Football management is often a catchment for curmudgeons, but Mourinho’s unique brand of smug-sour has become particularly grating. The mask slipped during his shambolic final season with Chelsea, and it remains askew. His commitment to sucking the joy out of football means I will always find his failures hilarious.
When things kick off in Stockholm on Thursday, I doubt I’ll be the only neutral cheering on Ajax.