Jose Mourinho: A Philosophical Shift At Manchester United

There is a passage in Diego Torres’ controversial account of Jose Mourinho’s time as Real Madrid manager, The Special One: The Dark Side of Jose Mourinho, when former Barcelona sporting director Ferran Soriano (who now works at Manchester City) is asked to elaborate on why the club appointed Pep Guardiola as manager ahead of Mourinho in the summer of 2008.

Soriano predictably cites Guardiola’s deep affiliation with Barcelona fans as having been chief among the board’s considerations, and he also notes that the Catalan had proven during his season in charge of “Barcelona B” that he understood how to implement a game plan that fit with the club’s stylistic traditions.

Still, Mourinho had already won two Portuguese leagues, two Premier Leagues, and a Champions League by the time Frank Rijkaard was sacked at the Camp Nou. He was clearly the more proven candidate, so why didn’t Barca appoint him?

“Mourinho”, Soriano said, “is a winner, but in order to win he guarantees a level of tension that becomes a problem. It’s a problem he chooses… It’s positive tension, but we didn’t want it. Mourinho has generated this tension at Chelsea, at Inter, at Madrid, everywhere. It’s his management style”.

Soriano was hardly the first critic to offer this perspective, but the fact that a football administrator of his experience and repute openly cited Mourinho’s tendency towards conflict as justification for opposing his appointment to one of the biggest jobs in world football is revealing in regard to how the 52-year-old is viewed by prominent figures within the game.

In promoting Pep, the Barcelona board essentially made the decision that, for all of his success, Mourinho is more trouble than he is worth. The Portuguese coach’s characteristic mistrust of young players, short-term recruitment strategy, innate tactical conservativism, and active cultivation of tension as a means of motivating his dressing room meant that he was deemed an inappropriate fit at the Camp Nou.

The fact that Barca went on to win three Champions Leagues, five La Liga titles, and three Copa del Reys over the last seven years means that their decision has been more than justified. It is notable that since he left Inter Milan in 2010, Mourinho has only managed two major tournament victories: La Liga in 2012 at Real Madrid and the Premier League with Chelsea in May.

By resisting the lure of short-term success in the interests of maintaining a stable club infrastructure, a united dressing room, a coherent and consistent transfer strategy, and a flow of high-quality youth academy products into the first-team, Barcelona have enjoyed one of the most successful spells in its 116-year history.

The decision makers at Manchester United would do well to reflect on Soriano’s words before making any move to capitalize on Mourinho’s sacking from Chelsea last week by appointing him as manager in place of Louis van Gaal. While it is conceivable that “The Special One” could revive United’s fortunes in the short-term, it has been clear throughout Mourinho’s career that he is incapable of maintaining success at any club for longer than three seasons. Any improvement that Mourinho might catalyze in Manchester, therefore, would serve only to mask the far more serious institutional failings which linger at Old Trafford as a consequence of the club’s sole reliance on the footballing vision of one man for the guts of the last 30 years.

It is a testament to Sir Alex Ferguson’s unique gifts as a manager that his success encompassed both the pre- and post-Premier League eras. However, the fact that United were continually successful with a pre-Premier League recruitment and youth-development infrastructure until the point of Ferguson’s retirement in 2013 means that the club never modernized in the manner that its main domestic and European competitors have done over the last two decades.

In order to rival clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich in the long-term, Manchester United have to cultivate a robust internal administrative structure which allows managers to come and go without the club reshaping its entire footballing identity in the interests of the man sitting in the dugout.

To recruit Mourinho and fund his restructuring of the playing and coaching staff just 18 months after the appointment of Van Gaal would be for United to lapse back into the old Ferguson-era reliance on the unique brilliance of one man. Such a strategy is clearly not sustainable owing to the fact that 26-year trophy-laden dynasties such as that which the Scot succeeded in instituting in Manchester are historical anomalies.

The United board members would do well to follow Barcelona in staying true to the club’s tradition by resisting the lure of Mourinho. While Van Gaal may well not be the man best placed to restore the Red Devils to their former glory in the long-term, he has at least brought the club back into the Premier League’s top-four while blooding young players in the first-team and conducting himself with dignity on and off the pitch.

Mourinho would inevitably destabilize United at a time when the club is undergoing its most profound period of institutional transformation since the 1970s and the success which followed Van Gaal at Barcelona (2002-03) and Bayern Munich (2009-11) in recent years suggests that he is very well qualified to lay the foundations for future success at Old Trafford.

There are managers far better suited to Manchester United than Jose Mourinho, and if Pep Guardiola is already committed to taking over at Manchester City, then the Glazer family would do well to look at Ajax boss Frank de Boer, Tottenham coach Mauricio Pochettino, or Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone as potential replacements for Van Gaal. All of these coaches possess clear tactical visions, the ability to improve young players, and a proven track record of sustained success.

Manchester United crave stability now more than at any time over the last 40 years. Jose Mourinho is not the man best placed to deliver it.

[Photo by Steve Welsh/Getty Images]