Jose Mourinho got an early 55th birthday present in two stellar forms this week: Alexis Sanchez and a new, lucrative Manchester United contract. It is testament to the work that the Portuguese, United’s most successful manager in terms of win percentage, has put into the past eighteen months in trying to restore the club’s fortunes.
You can harp on about the supposed negative tactics, sombre persona on the touchline, stifling of players, gripes about spending power and so on all you like, it does not deter from the fact that Mourinho is guiding United to more familiar, steadier waters that they were so used to sailing before.
Here is my lowdown on what he is getting right at Old Trafford:
Mourinho inherited a club with a scrambled mindset over the recruitment of players. Louis Van Gaal, in particular, seemed hellbent on playing a game of transfer tombola, the likes of Matteo Darmian, Morgan Schneiderlin and Memphis Depay were all secured without necessarily possessing the identities of inherently ‘United’ players.
Mourinho, although admittedly generously backed, has at least identified a calibre and profile of player he can relate to, namely brawn, physically imposing, powerful and winners. The likes of Pogba, Ibrahimovic, Bailly, Matic and Sanchez fit that category like a glove on the hand.
The jumble sale approach has been replaced by methodical, clinical signings instigated by the power of the man at the helm. Mourinho has invariably secured the names delivered to Ed Woodward. Recruitment, in this day and age, is power and United can boast a sense of direction in this area thanks to Mourinho knowing exactly which players fit his mould.
Mourinho seldom harmonises with sentiment. It is not a word that is commonplace in his modus operandi. Cold, heartless, ruthless, however you want to butter it up, if Mourinho does not believe that your face fits in his vision then he makes that decision in the best interests of his club and that is what makes him the winner he is.
Take Wayne Rooney, for example. The club sold its soul to him when he questioned the club’s ambition, handing him an enormous contract and the captain’s armband. He broke the club’s all time scoring record with Mourinho in the hot seat but it was clear his powers were diminishing. Mourinho made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that Rooney would not be in as prominent a position as he held previously at the club. What separates good managers from great is their recognition of when change is needed, irrespective of how difficult the decision appears. It would not necessarily have sat easy with Mourinho to consign a history maker to the scrap heap but, for the greater good, it had to be done. He deserves credit for that.
Likewise Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who endured a rather Jekyll and Hyde spell at Old Trafford. He started this season as the main creative hub and set a new Premier League record, looking every inch like the playmaker wreaking havoc in the yellow of Dortmund. In a matter of months, that player was now a pale imitation and could no longer be trusted. Faced with another difficult decision, he used the Armenian as a bargaining tool and sweetener in the Sanchez deal, an undoubted upgrade with Premier League experience. Kudos, Jose.
His philosophy in the big games has been analysed from pillar to post during his tenure at United. Sure, a defensive outlook is hardly in keeping with the ideals some fans visualise when they play out the games in their heads, but Mourinho is not going to bow down to media scrutiny and uproar and turn into an all guns blazing, often naive Klopp just because he has ruffled some feathers. Having had the joy of possessing a season ticket for the whole of Van Gaal’s reign and the first year of Mourinho, I can unequivocally confirm that the football being served up this season is the most stylistically pleasing since United were at the height of their modern day hegemony.
Granted, Mourinho’s football sure appears comparable candyfloss to the marmite produced by Moyes and Van Gaal, but all the same change had to be implemented. United have developed this reputation for being flat-track bullies at times this season, but games of that nature were United’s bread and butter of old and they have, on the whole, rediscovered that knack.
Paul Pogba appears unplayable in the groove, albeit not in a crunch game, but his influence is growing. Anthony Martial is adding consistency on a more regular basis, to go with that limitless potential and spark. Marcus Rashford is heavily involved and consolidating the promising start he has made to life in red. Jesse Lingard, once dubbed the English Iniesta by Renee Meulensteen, has bloomed late and transformed his game multiple fold into the player few could have predicted. Luke Shaw is well on the road to redemption after countless failed attempts to win over his skeptical manager. Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia are having Indian summers and have had new leases of life under the boss. Eric Bailly’s return from injury is much awaited after a seamless debut campaign, while Phil Jones and Chris Smalling. formerly known as Beavis and Butthead, have been reliable at the back.
Mourinho has that effect, squeezing every last drop out of a player. He has, over time, grown to understand the core values of United, namely their unrelenting backing of their academy graduates. Mourinho handed a debut to Angel Gomes and, in doing so, broke the club’s youngest appearance maker record. He has blooded Scott McTominay, Axel Tuanzebe, Tim Fosu-Mensah and Joel Pereira and has extremely high hopes for them all.
Mourinho has simply dispelled fans’ fears that he would neglect youth, as history could testify to. He has maintained the club’s incredibly proud statistic of at least one youth player featuring in the match day squad, which he will be loathed to break. He has got a lovely blend of his own recruits and promoted from within and given youngsters their head, one of the most vital prerequisites of United.
Most importantly, United look the best placed as they have since Ferguson to mount repeated title challenges and even take on Europe’s elite. In isolated games, when a job has to be done, who better to have sat on the throne than Mourinho? The squad now has made significant strides since his arrival and you would be rather foolish to rule out more silverware to come.
Love him or loathe him, few could dispute that Mourinho is the right man for the job and exactly what United have longed for following three unremarkable years.
That win percentage does not lie. To paraphrase his song, something tells me we’re into something good.