José Mourinho at Manchester United: Thirty months of playing with fire

After two and a half seasons of juggling the tightrope at Manchester United, José Mourinho has left. It was probably about time.

Jose Mourinho

José Mourinho is a good-looking man. Sharp facial features, salt and pepper hair, and a minimalist grayscale wardrobe perfectly come together for the moniker of Portuguese George Clooney. When he strode into Carrington Training Complex sometime at the end of May 2016, dressed in a sleek black suit over a white shirt and black tie, he looked every part of a modern-day Manchester United manager, and the immaculately fitted Armani was, in truth, merely a highly visible ornament on everything that made José so…attractive.

Mourinho had travelled and succeeded across the continent, and he was now here to take England’s most prestigious club back to its glorious heights, from a state of hope to opulence.  Two years of mediocrity, in the world of 7-second, self-destructing video clips, seemed too long, and it was time for United to move out of old-fashioned concepts like continuity and marrying efficiency with aesthetics. Pragmatism and immediate success were what José guaranteed; pragmatism and immediate success were what Manchester United wanted and needed.

José spoke little in his first press conference, just smiling through it with a gleam in his eyes, looking completely in awe of a giant club. The echoes, however, couldn’t have been louder. Mourinho is one of those very few figures in football whose every step makes a loud rumble, his eyes more used to camera flashes than the moon. When he came to Manchester United, it seemed like everything had fallen into place just to make this happen. The club had managed to arrest a dangerous slide; the only man who seemed capable of carrying such heavyweights upwards was now in position, ready to fly. After a long time, Manchester United found themselves as underdogs in the fight for England’s elite, and Mourinho’s CV with underdogs had been colossal.

José is amazingly well read, and it wouldn’t have taken him too long to see the poetry in Manchester City hiring Pep Guardiola the very same summer. And he looked prepared, every bit of it. Underneath the smooth, suave, soft-spoken man waxing lyrical about Bobby Charlton, Alex Ferguson and Matt Busby, there was this manager who did not believe much in romance, and was well aware of the magnitude of his assignment and the cold-blooded execution it needed.

You remember the day José Mourinho joined Manchester United, because it looked like the club had finally found the keys to restart the rocketship. But like with every rocketship, there was limited oxygen to survive on.

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When Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba joined José at the Carrington gates that summer, the media, television pundits and ex-footballers-turned-panelists swiftly marked the following Premier League season down as a two-horse race. Manchester United finished sixth that season, nine points behind City and twenty four behind champions Chelsea, who had a new manager of their own.

At clubs the size of Manchester United, the Europa League is disdainfully looked at today as the shady back alley, which if you can navigate through without slipping, will open up a way into the eight lane highway of the Champions League. Barring the brief euphoria of landing the one trophy that had eluded them so far – for most parts because they had been too good for so long – and winning major silverware, it was a slightly bland aftertaste to a much-hyped, slow-cooked dish.

Manchester United, the corporation, were prepared to wait some more, but with one raised eyebrow. Elated and jubilant as Pogba, Mkhitaryan, Ibrahimovic and Mourinho looked while parading the Europa League trophy, the clock was ticking, as it does at an elite club with decision makers who care for process, continuity and patience as much as sharks care for the technique of your golf swing.

The clock was ticking when United’s sparkling, four-goals-every-match start to his second season soon led to a vein of form where they couldn’t buy a proper display with all the money in the world. Well before Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool morphed into Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, Mourinho’s United met them at Anfield at their most vulnerable – it was the same week where Tottenham had shipped four past Lovren and co. – and refused to attack, conjuring up a mere six total shots throughout the match.

The clock was ticking when United couldn’t go past Sevilla in the Champions League, or when newly promoted Huddersfield thrashed them at home, and definitely when they finished an eye-watering 19 points behind Manchester City. The football was turning more insipid by the minute, and this time, there was no silverware to paper it over with.

José Mourinho, who in the last decade and a half, had never not won the domestic title in or by his second season at a club, was suddenly into his dreaded third, well past the ozone layer of comfort. His two previous third-season implosions had come at Chelsea and Real Madrid, where his relationship with the board and his core group of players had grown incredibly acidic. At United, he looked for cushion and found Ed Woodward and the Glazers, a group of people who managed to burn bridges with the nicest and most honest of men in David Moyes and Louis van Gaal. The public enigma called José Mourinho stood no chance, with or without the new contract this January.

The fall out with Pogba this season was the last straw in a losing cause. With every match, every goal conceded, every press conference, the board’s patience noticeably grew thin, and it quickly became a question of when, and not if. Mourinho fought for air, like you would expect any drowning man to, except he was fighting the right battle at the wrong time.

The clock ticked louder and heavier when Paul Pogba attempted a Cruyff-turn in the middle of the pitch against Wolverhampton at home, lost the ball, and refused to track back and intercept a move which was the equaliser in a 1-1 draw. Failed first touches, poor game awareness, and schoolboy defending errors formed the subliminal leitmotif for José’s coda at Manchester United.

José Mourinho has made a career out of getting average and above average players to raise their technical ceiling through grit and perseverance, eventually leading them to triumph over the more naturally gifted; and a glorious career it has certainly been. However, attempting his old methods, the ones that fetched him results from Lampard, Materazzi and Ricardo Carvalho, at a Manchester United squad brimming with multi-millionaire, PR-machinery-driven superstars, was the mistake that betrayed his otherwise deep understanding of human psychology.

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When José Mourinho turned up at the press conference in the wake of United’s 3-1 loss at Anfield, he didn’t look smooth or suave. The beard was undone, his face was bloated, and there were wrinkles beneath his eyes. His choice of clothing was still minimal and dark, but he didn’t look like the superstar manager of Chelsea 2004, Inter 2010, or even Manchester United 2016 anymore.

As we grow older, as our reflexes become slower, our eyesight dims and as our instincts no longer see us through muck, we start our process of cheating time. After an age, we live to escape death. The past few months, José Mourinho was fighting simply to survive, and for once, the United board has taken the right decision in ending his and their club’s misery.

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Sarthak Dev

Computer engineer, pianist and writer; not necessarily in that order. Can kill for a good football story.